Katherine Mansfield’s short stories fall squarely into the Modernist category, a term given to art, literature, and music produced in the late 19th century to mid-20th century. We will delve further into the characteristics of Modernism (primarily in literature) in order to shed light on the style and message of “Miss Brill.”
In actuality, Modernism isn’t that easy to define in terms of period or style. Some scholars focus on the beginning of Modernism with Walt Whitman, or with Marx and Nietzsche, while most date its heyday to the immediate post-WWI period. The University of Oxford’s Rebecca Beasley says that it “is a term that says more about the twentieth and twenty-first century’s desire to categories and prioritise certain kinds of writing, than about the literature itself. It’s a kind of advertising ploy, reinforcing values that influential poets and critics have wanted to associate with their own work and work they admired.”
Regardless, there are few clear stylistic tendencies within the work of writers such as T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, and others. Beasley notes “a preoccupation with the city, rather than the country, a focus on the interior life of characters and speakers, and…an interest in experimenting with new ways of using language and literary forms.” Poets employed free verse, breaking away from stodgier, traditional structures. Novels featured a stream-of-consciousness style and complex, sometimes obfuscating forms of narration. Stories were less linear and instead were often fragmented, especially after WWI when society itself seemed fractured. Heavy doses of allusions and metaphors came into play; this is referred to as “intertextuality.”
Modernists wanted to ultimately break with tradition, pushing back against older, more traditional religious, political, and social perspectives. They were less likely to believe in any absolute truth. Their connections with institutions and authority were more tenuous, and they championed the individual. Sexuality was more explicit, with Freud’s theories occupying a central role. The cultures of so-called “primitive” peoples were inspirations as well, though they tended to be viewed in very reductive ways.
The Norton Anthology of English Literature provides an excellent overview of its importance: “In the post-World War II period, modernism became the institutionally approved norm against which later poetic movements, from the “Movement” of Philip Larkin to avant-garde Language Poetry, reacted. Nonetheless, the influence of modernism, both on those artists who have repudiated it and on those who have followed its direction, was pervasive. Joyce, Eliot, Virginia Woolf, and other modernists provided compositional strategies still central to literature. Writers as diverse as W.H. Auden, Samuel Beckett, Derek Walcott, and Salman Rushdie have all, in one way or another, continued to extend the discoveries of the modernist experiment—adapting modernist techniques to new political climates marked by the Cold War and its aftermath, as well as to the very different histories of formerly colonized nations. Like the early twentieth-century avant-garde in European art and music, meanwhile, literary modernism has continued to shape a sense of art as a form of cultural revolution that must break with established history, constantly pushing out the boundaries of artistic practice.”