What is unusual about the stream-of-consciousness technique employed by Mansfield in "Miss Brill?"
Stream-of-consciousness is a Modernist literary technique that provides insight into the mind of a character; the reader gains access to thoughts in a manner that seeks to replicate the unedited and loosely structured flow of perception. Mansfield clearly does not employ extremities of experimentation, but she does take the reader into Miss Brill’s head so that everything that occurs is seen through the character's limited and singular perspective. What makes Mansfield’s employment of the technique here unusual is the use of irony in the reader's ultimate understanding of Miss Brill: a variety of literary techniques are employed externally to the character’s thought process in order to convey an interpretation of her that is directly at odds with the image she has of herself.
Though neither the word “lonely” nor its any of its most commonly used synonyms ever appears in the story, there is a pervasive sense that Miss Brill is a lonely woman. How is this sense of loneliness conveyed?
The lack of a first name obstructs a personalized connection, and the repeated reference to her as "Miss Brill" confers a detached formality to the character. In addition, even though the reader gains access into her thoughts, those thoughts never make mention of family members or any intimate friendships. The fact that she spends Sundays in the park creating personal little narratives out of her observations of others indicates a very deep-seated sort of loneliness, as does the revelation that she reads the newspaper to a sick old man four days a week. She also seems to live alone, is not in her home country, and is so unsure of herself that a few mean words from people she doesn't even know shatter her.
What is tragically ironic about Miss Brill’s observational skills?
Miss Brill seems to have finely tuned her talent for observing the behavior of others for the purpose of creating imaginary narratives playing out for an audience of one. Her attention to detail is striking, such as noticing that the woman who used to have blonde hair now has hair the color of her ermine hat and that the ermine hat is of shabby quality. Not only is she keenly aware of obvious physical details like the new coat on the conductor of the band, she is also attuned to more subtle abstractions like the fact that the band is playing more confidently. The tragic irony of this level of attention to details normally associated with writers or detectives is her utter inability to notice how others observe her. The story climaxes with a revelation about the sad and pathetic picture she is for others, indicating that in this one important area, Miss Brill’s observational skills have failed her miserably.
Miss Brill’s fur coat is obviously the most important symbol in the story, but it is just one of many different references to clothing. What is the symbolic significance of clothing in the story?
Clothing is always an indicator of social class, but in the 1920s more so than today, clothing also hinted at a person’s standing in the eyes of others. The current state of Miss Brill’s fox becomes fodder for the cruel description of her current status in the eyes of others and contrasts sharply with the nostalgic blindness that she herself possesses toward the item. Likewise, the shabby quality of the ermine hat worn by the former blonde is for Miss Brill a window into the woman’s current social standing. Elsewhere, a man in a velvet coat is described as “fine” and, naturally, the “beautifully dressed” boy and girl are portrayed in Miss Brill’s interior theater as sitting at the top of the social standing hierarchy. Mansfield doesn't think that clothing is always an accurate indicator of character or quality, however; the ermine toque is a prostitute, not just a sad woman, and the young couple are callous and cruel.