One of the defining characteristics of the short stories of Katherine Mansfield's is the consistent manner in which she is able take one small detail of a person’s life and endow it with a universality of meaning. “Miss Brill” is hardly the only example of Mansfield’s short fiction in which a simple item of the most prosaic utility is transformed through language into an icon suggestive not only of that person’s place within the social hierarchy, but also that person’s psychological position within that hierarchy. In the particular case “Miss Brill” that simple item that tells the reader everything about the character associated with it is an aging fox fur.
Along with the iconic item that provides insight into the character, Mansfield’s stories are also defined by a sense of ironic alienation from the routine world in which it takes places. That world is a replication the real one, of course, and it may be easy to assume that characters inhabiting that world who are detached form it either by choice or circumstance like Miss Brill can be interpreted as fictional doppelgangers of the author. That would be the easy way out, however. When reading the story of this particular outing of Miss Brill all decked out in her beloved and precious fur, it behooves the reader to identify with her just as a glimpse into the alienation of other character can often provide insight in one’s sense of ironic detachment.
Mansfield’s technical strategy is to write in a way that forces the reader to identify strongly with her narrators and protagonists and this extends to a tone that is just shy of being an example of gossip. Part of the subversive power of “Miss Brill” in particular is the sly way that Mansfield subtly draws the reader into identifying with the main character so that when the other characters start talking trash about it, the pain she feels is transformed into the personal. The sensitive and intuitive reader will feel genuinely taken aback by the cruelty directed toward her by the young lovers who ultimately are the cause of her moment of epiphany which brings the tale to its wistful conclusion.
The malice is concentrated by the cruel young lovers in the symbol of that fox fur as the item defining Miss Brill. That fake fur becomes one of many symbols providing individual insight into a character that expands to become a universal symbol of the disintegration of the soul. By the time Miss Brill arrives back home and removes the fur within an emotional vortex that is the complete opposite of that which swirled around her just before leaving her home, the fur has taken on the consequence of being the agency of her disintegration. Except that Mansfield has one more trick up her sleeve. The revelation of the fur as the symbol of Miss Brill’s psychological disintegration simultaneously becomes the object capable of revealing that yet another of Mansfield’s alienated characters is not technically capable of disintegration because she was never a fully integrated human being to begin with.