The literary gentleman opened the door of his flat to Ma Parker, his housekeeper. He asked after her beloved grandson, Lennie. Ma Parker replied, “We buried ‘im yesterday, sir” (85). Shocked, the gentleman offered his condolences and asked after the success of the funeral. Ma Parker did not elaborate and walked past him to the kitchen with a bag that held her cleaning supplies. The literary gentleman felt very sorry for her and watched her for a moment before returning to his breakfast.
In the kitchen Ma Parker took off her outerwear and put on her apron. She painfully took off her boots, a task she was all too accustomed to when…
“Gran!” Lennie cried as he jumped into her lap. Ma Parker held her grandson close and teased him when he asked for a penny. She asked what he would give her in return for the money, and he replied, “I ain’t got nothing” (86).
The memory faded and Ma Parker began the arduous task of cleaning up the kitchen of the literary gentleman who did not believe in tidying up after himself. “You simply dirty everything you’ve got, get a hag in once a week to clean up, and the thing’s done” (86).
Despite the number of breadcrumbs and cigarette ends on the floor, Ma Parker felt sorry for the literary gentleman because he had no one to look after him. As she cleaned, Ma Parker thought back on her own hard. “I’ve had my share” (86) of misfortune, she admitted. Even her neighbors said so but she wasn’t one to complain. Lennie’s death; however, was different compared to the other losses she had faced over the years.
At sixteen she left the town of Stratford, England and went to London to work as a kitchen maid in the home of a well-to-do family. Their cook was cruel to her and kept her locked in the cellar when she wasn’t working and threw her letters from home into the fire. On at least two occasions Ma Parker was sent to the hospital, presumably from the physical and/or emotional abuse she suffered at the hands of the cook.
After that family sold their house and moved away, taking the cook with them, she Ma Parker worked for a doctor for a short time before she was married to her husband, a baker. The literary gentleman, whenever he showed an interest in her life, asked if she enjoyed being the wife of a baker, assuming her family had an array of delicious baked goods to enjoy at all times. Ma Parker replied that she was hardly ever in the shop with her husband as she was too busy taking care of their thirteen children, seven of whom died. “If it wasn’t the ‘ospital it was the infirmary, you might say!” (87).
The six children that remained were all very young when Ma Parker’s husband died of consumption. The doctor said there was too much flour in his lungs and although Ma Parker could never be sure, she thought she saw white powder escape her dear husband’s mouth as he lay dying. She raised her children on her own and kept “herself to herself” (88). Her husband’s sister came to help her but fell down the stairs and was injured. For long five years Ma Parker took care of her sister-in-law and had had a difficult time of it. Then her daughter Maudie “went wrong and took her sister Alice with her” (88). Two of her boys left England and emigrated elsewhere. Jim, another son, joined the army and went to India. Ethel, her youngest daughter, married young and was widowed. She was the mother of Lennie, and lived with Ma Parker.
Lennie had been ill from birth and was small of stature and unable to gain weight. Ethel would read advertisements from the newspaper that promised to help children like Lennie and Ma Parker dutifully bought each new remedy but to no avail. Lennie remained small, pale, and was often mistaken for a girl. He had light blonde hair and a freckle in the shape of a diamond on his nose. Ma Parker loved him with a fierce passion and called him “Gran’s boy.” She was so taken with this thought that she could almost hear Lennie calling to her.
Instead she heard the steps of the literary gentleman who came brusquely into the kitchen. He reminded her to always inform him if she planned to throw anything away and asked if she had disposed of a teaspoon of cocoa that he had left in a tin last week. She said that she hadn’t. The literary gentleman’s tone was curt and he left the house pleased that he had shown the old woman who had the upper hand in their arrangement. Ma Parker said nothing and moved on to clean the bedroom.
Tucking in the literary gentleman’s bed sheets, Ma Parker’s resolve began to crumble. She questioned why a child like Lennie had to suffer so. Why had he been burdened with such a hard life? It wasn’t fair. Neither of them should have lived such difficult lives and now she would have to endure the loss of Lennie as well. No matter what she and Ethel did for Lennie he continued to decline, a lump formed in his lungs and every breath became a struggle. On his deathbed Lennie stared accusingly at his grandmother, as if he thought it was her fault that he was dying and she shrank away from her touch.
The memory of Lennie’s painful death was too much to bear for Ma Parker. She gathered her cleaning supplies and rushed out of the gentleman’s house and into the street. She needed to cry but had nowhere to go. She could not return to the gentleman’s house nor could she sit in the park for fear that one of her neighbors or a police officer would see her. She could not go home to cry because she knew that it would upset Ethel. Ma Parker had never cried in all of the long years of her life, during all of her troubles she had not felt the need to cry but now that Lennie was gone she could no longer hold back her tears.
However, there was nowhere for her to go. Ma Parker had kept herself to herself for too long. Alone with her thoughts, it began to rain.
“Life of Ma Parker” was first published in the literary magazine Sphere on February 26, 1921 and was later incorporated into The Garden Party and Other Tales. Set in London, England at the turn of the twentieth century, Mansfield begins "Life of Ma Parker" with the opening of a door. Beginning the story “mid-action,” or in medias res, is a classic trait of modernism. This device was often employed by Mansfield to immediately engage the reader’s attention by providing minimal yet poignant details of the story’s plot and forgoing the more traditional introductions of character backgrounds and examinations of setting.
The opening of the door quickly establishes the literary gentleman’s flat or apartment as the primary setting of the story. London, England is the broader setting for the text as is the unnamed upper middle-class area of the city where the literary gentleman lives. Ma Parker’s home is not mentioned in detail but the reader assumes it is located in a different part of the same city, mostly likely in a working class neighborhood. The physical setting of the story is secondary to Ma Parker’s inner thoughts or internal monologue as her physical reality is intruded upon by recollections of the past.
A commonly used literary device in modernistic literature is the internal monologue. The reader is aware that Ma Parker is cleaning the home of the literary gentleman but the action of cleaning rarely takes place. Instead the reader is only exposed to the inner thoughts of the protagonist as she goes about the task at hand. The use of internal monologues is another key example of Mansfield’s experimentations in modernism and although not unusual from her contemporaries from a styptic point of view, her use of a prominent female protagonists sets her narrative style slightly apart.
The narration of the text is also unusual still for the time period as the point of view quickly shifts from the male perspective to the female. The narration begins when the literary gentleman opens the door to Ma Parker, his own internal monologue struggles between wanting to offer words of comfort to his housekeeper in her time of need and yet he lacks the ability to do so in a friendly manner. The point of view then seamlessly shifts from the literary gentleman (male) to Ma Parker (female) as she enters the flat and then the kitchen. The shift in perspective emphasizes Mansfield’s preference for the female perspective and her hope for more realistic female protagonists in literature.
Note the emphasis on gender roles, a recurring theme in the text. Mansfield’s ambiguous name choices for the main characters, “Ma” and “gentleman” indicate the importance of their gender in the context of their characterization. Their interactions also illustrate the inequality between the upper and lower classes in England during this time and the gender stereotypes although Mansfield takes a different approach by portrays the literary gentleman as a lazy, entitled bachelor who takes pleasure in admonishing women like Ma Parker who he feels is below his station. Referring to her as a “hag” he takes advantage of her need for employment and more or less destroys the house each week only to pay Ma Parker to clean it up again. The fact that Mansfield only refers to him as the “literary gentleman” only serves to drive a stronger wedge between the two main characters as Ma Parker is revealed to be illiterate. Likewise, Ma Parker’s gender stereotypical portrayal exists only in her role as a “mother figure” in name as in practice. She feels sorry for the literary gentleman because he does not have anyone to clean up after him. A product of her own social domesticity and a fear of being out of work prompts Ma Parker keeps house for the gentleman despite his unsatisfactory behavior toward her. Her fortitude is admirable and the literary gentleman’s behavior to her is all the more wretched because of it.
As a character Ma Parker exemplifies a working class woman in the early twentieth century London. She was subservient, kept to herself, did her work, and did not complain. Like many of her station Ma Parker had lived a difficult life and was hardened by it. A survivor, she obviously felt it was necessary to hide her feelings in order to carry on. Her breaking point, when it arrives later in the story, is made all the more tragic because she has failed to secure a safe place for herself in the world where she can truly let her mask fall away and finally grieve for all that she has lost, especially Lennie.
Delving deeper into her characterization, there is a pattern of emotional regression dating back to her first job as a servant in London when she was locked up and possible physically and emotionally abused by the cook of the household. A survivor, Ma Parker trudged onward and endured not only the death of her husband but seven of her children. Now she had to provide for a family of six, most of her children were still young and she had to take care of her husband’s sister whose good intentions of coming to help Ma Parker in her time of need turned into another mouth to feed. Yet, Ma Parker carried on. Marginalized in society as her status as a single mother, a working woman, and of a low class, Ma Parker did the best she could; yet her family was attacked again, not by disease this time but from aftereffects of a life of poverty. In the text, two of her daughters “went wrong,” meaning they turned to prostitution. Her sons either emigrated elsewhere as so many other young men of limited means did during this time period or joined the army and again left Ma Parker behind. Only Ethel, her youngest daughter remained and of course Lennie.
Lennie’s death, to Ma Parker, is very different than all of the other tragedies she has endured for one simple reason. Ma Parker has had enough death and sadness in her life and she has begun to question why she has had to live such a hard life. Why has Lennie, such an angelic child, been made to suffer? What purpose does it serve? The reader assumes Ma Parker is questioning the workings of a higher power but Mansfield does not make this known in the text. It is more important from a modernist perspective to realize the implications of Ma Parker’s questions. She is no longer the docile domestic worker who trudges to and fro from one literary gentleman to the next, barely able to support herself or her kin. Instead Ma Parker’s questions open a floodgate of emotion and she can no longer hold back her tears and leaves the flat before finishing her job. Imagine the implications should the literary gentleman return? She might be fired, future jobs might be in jeopardy because she could not control her emotions and Mansfield, as Ma Parker runs out onto the street in search of a place to finally grieve tell us plainly, there is nowhere for this character to go. She fears the police will take her in if they see her crying in the streets or in the park. She cannot go back home because she does not want to upset Ethel, who has never seen her cry before and so she is lost. The rain that falls around Ma Parker as she stands in the street, wanting to cry but unable to, symbolizes her inner turmoil and the enormity of her emotions. The ambiguous ending, a trademark of Mansfield’s, leaves much to be desired and the fate of Ma Parker remains unknown. Like Lennie who had “nothing” more to give, the story ends as abruptly as it began.