The prevailing theme in The Garden Party and Other Stories is the examination of life and its particularities. Each of the stories focuses on a specific moment in time in the lives of the characters. The stories’ narratives encompass an examination of those lives concentrating on the opinions, emotions, dreams, fears, and especially the innermost anxieties of the main characters. Mansfield was not interested in a grand or spanning picture of life. Instead she focused on the trivialities, the small moments that linger in the minds of her characters and acted as epiphanies, making way for character transformations and new beginnings. Mansfield was particularly interested in how women view the world and featured several female protagonists, a unique point of view for her time period.
A minor theme in comparison to life, death is the catalyst by which change occurs in a number of key stories within the overall work. Mr. Scott’s death in "The Garden Party" awakens in Laura Sheridan, the main character, a dislike of her family’s elitism. Ma Parker in "Life of Ma Parker" suffers the loss of her favorite grandson, Lennie, and yearns to grieve for all of the tragedies she has endured in her difficult life. The death of their father in "Daughters of the Late Colonel" forces Josephine and Constantia Pinner to revaluate their circumstances and to embrace their new found freedom but they find that even in death their father’s opinions still hold them captive. Yet his death has set in motion changes they so desperately desire, as does the death of Fenlla’s mother in "The Voyage."
Marriage in all of its guises is examined by the author through the eyes of both men and women before, during, and sometimes after the union ends. Often portrayed in a negative light, marriage in Mansfield’s stories is less about love or companionship and more about control and power over one’s spouse. Mr. Hammond in "The Stranger" does just this and is taken aback when he fails to keep his wife all to himself. Linda Burnell of "At the Bay" struggles to find equality in her marriage and although she resents having to cater to her husband’s needs, she and her husband are one of the only couples within the collection that seem equally smitten with one another and somewhat happy in their marriage. Unlike Linda Burnell, Annie Proctor of "Mr. and Mrs. Dove" rejects Reggie’s proposal because she believes they would not have a good marriage because they are incompatible. Similarly in "Marriage a la Mode," William finds that he no longer has a place in his wife, Isabel’s, life and takes matters into his own hands and writes her a letter indicating his intention to separate or divorce. The narrative of "Marriage a la Mode" ends with Isabel’s indecisiveness toward her husband’s letter, a perfect cumulative example of the ambivalence towards marriage in the overall text.
Several of the main characters exist in a distorted reality, preferring the fantasy lives they have created for themselves to the truth of their circumstances. For example: Constantia Pinner of "The Daughters of the Late Colonel" retreats to her imagination whenever she is distressed, and consequently finds it difficult to face her changing reality after her father’s death. Beryl Fairchild of At the Bay similarly indulges in romantic fantasies to her discredit when she is tricked into believing her daydreams have come true in the form of the predatory Mr. Harry Kember. Of all of the characters within Mansfield’s collected works, Miss Brill’s has the most distressing distorted reality. Miss Brill, in a self-titled story, is a lonely yet naively innocent older woman who is so deeply disillusioned that she allows her imagination to overpower her commonsense and she truly believes that the fantasy world she has created for herself is momentarily real. The crushing realization that her fantasy world is false results in the literal boxing up of her imagination and presumably her own self worth.
All of the main characters at some point in their narratives express some type of regret or disappointment toward another character, their circumstances, or within themselves. Regrets in behavior define Stanley Burnell’s actions in "At the Bay," after he is rude to his wife. Regrets toward their circumstances are instrumental to the plots of "The Voyage" and "The Singing Lessons" as the main characters struggle to come to terms with major life changes. Disappointment fuels Leila’s thoughts after the allure of dancing is ruined by the discourteous comments of another in "Her First Ball." Laura Sheridan is equally disappointed with her family’s elitist behavior in "The Garden Party." In "Life of Ma Parker" and "Miss Brill" the plots are filled with moments of deep regret and the bitterest of disappointments. Mansfield’s ability to capture moments of such bittersweet melancholy is a testament to her skillful mastery of her craft and genre.
The contrasting theme of duty toward one’s family or career vs. fear of those same responsibilities is a prevalent theme in many of the stories in this collection. Characters such as Mr. Neave of "An Ideal Family" and Stanley Burnell of "At the Bay" feel a sense of accomplishment and pride in the work they do. Their duties toward the livelihood of their families motivate them to work harder. It is this same sense of duty that instills in them the need to seek higher standards both at home and at work. In doing so they are often disappointed by those who do not share their work ethic. Mr. Neave finds it very difficult to leave his company to his son because he knows Harold is not bound by any sense of duty and fears he will ruin the family business. Likewise, Stanley and his wife, Linda, look down upon Jonathan Trout who rebels against his duty to his family using his frustrated feelings of inadequacy as a crutch against trying and failing to pursue his own interests.
The women in Mansfield’s stories also feel duty to varying degrees. Some like Isabel of "Marriage a la Mode" rebel against it while others like the Pinner sisters of "The Daughters of the Late Colonel" are so stifled by a sense of duty to home and family that they find it difficult to separate themselves from it, even if it means an improvement in their quality of life.
Mansfield’s work often focused on the changing assumptions concerning gender roles in the home at the turn of the twentieth century. She wrote using both the male and female perspective and by doing so was able to illuminate the differences and similarities between the sexes. As a result Mansfield chose to show that both genders feel equally unappreciated and vexed by the other. For example: Stanley and Linda Burnell of "At the Bay" both feel unappreciated in the roles they play within the home and in their own marriage. Linda is especially resentful of her role as wife and mother and rebels against her duties when she can. Similarly Stanley feels neglected by his wife and yearns for her attention, lashing out when he does not receive it. Yet she and Stanley are able to forgo their differences in the rare moments when they are alone. In "Marriage a la Mode" Isabel prefers the company of her new friends over that of her husband, William, and is irritated by his presence in their home. The narration is sympathetic to William, who loves his wife but ultimately writes her a letter alluding their impending separation. William’s passive response to his wife’s overpowering personality is interesting in the context of the time period as is her lack of response. More traditional views of gender for the early twentieth-century are examined in "The Singing Lesson" and "The Daughters of the Late Colonel" both of which feature women who struggle to find a place in society outside of marriage.
To her credit, Mansfield did not marginalize her female characters. She chose to write from a feminine perspective in many of her short stories through a variety of view points in an attempt to create fuller and more realistic female characters who were representative of their time period. By doing so she created richly realistic characters more in tune with the changing worldviews, including the role of gender in post WWI society.
The Garden Party Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Garden Party is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
This collection of stories epitomizes Mansfield's insight into the world's simple things.... the small details we don't generally pay attention to. Opinion is divided as to whether the stories are too open ended or more purposeful in the way they...