There is a faint chill in the air, and Miss Brill is glad she wore her fur to the Jardins Publiques. She had taken it out that afternoon, shaken out the moth powder, and rubbed life into its little eyes. Its nose, though, is not quite as firm as it used to be. Miss Brill thinks a little black sealing wax might help, but she is glad that this little rogue is here by her left ear. There is a little tingling in her arms and hands from walking, and a bit of something not quite sad in her breathing.
More people are out today than last Sunday and the band seems louder and gayer. It is the beginning of the Season and it seems like the conductor even has a new coat.
Two people share Miss Brill’s “special” seat: an old man and an old woman. They do not speak today, which disappoints Miss Brill because she likes listening politely (but subtly) to others’ conversations. Last Sunday there had been an Englishman and his wife. The whole time the woman talked about how she needed spectacles but she knew they’d break. The man listened politely as the woman complained that the spectacles would just slide down her nose.
The old couple today sits “still as statues.” At least the rest of the crowd is interesting—the couples and groups, the little children running about. A little boy staggers near her and flops down, and his mother comes to help him. Other people sit on benches and chairs. They seem funny somehow to Miss Brill, as they are “odd, silent, nearly all old” and seem to have emerged from “dark little rooms or even—even cupboards!”
The band plays. Two young women in red and two soldiers in blue laugh and pair off. Two peasant women walk by leading donkeys, a serious nun hurries by, a beautiful woman passes and a little boy hands her flowers which she’d dropped, but she cruelly tosses them back to the ground.
Two people stand before Miss Brill now: a woman in an ermine toque and a dignified gentleman. The woman’s toque and everything else on her are the same yellowish color as the shabby ermine. She tells the man she is glad they met today and begins to tell him all the things she has done. He listens quietly, blows a puff of smoke in her face, and walks off. Alone, the woman smiles brightly still, but Miss Brill thinks the band seems to sense her disappointment and plays a beat of “the brute! The brute!” The woman sees someone else and heads towards them.
The band plays more gayly than ever and the old couple finally walks away, the hobbling old man almost getting tripped by four girls walking abreast. This whole panorama fascinates Miss Brill, and she realizes it is just like a play. The sky seems painted, the little dog a “theatre” dog, and every single one of them is on a stage. Even Miss Brill knows she has a part, and certainly someone would know if she was not there every Sunday.
Now that she has realized this—that she leaves her house at the same time every Sunday to come to this same place like she’s acting in a play—she understands why she has been reluctant to tell her English pupils about her routine. It is also a delightful thought that the old invalid man to whom she reads the newspaper four days a week would thrill to know that an actress is reading to him.
The band starts up again after a short rest. The air is chilly though it is sunny. Miss Brill imagines that any second the young voices will start singing, then the old, and then she will sing and everyone on the benches will join in. Her eyes fill with tears and she smiles at the company, knowing that they all understand.
A well-dressed young couple whom Miss Brill believes are clearly in love come and sit in the seat where the older couple departed from. The boy tries to whisper seductive things in the girl’s ear but she protests, saying that she cannot do it here. The boy gestures to Miss Brill, “the stupid old thing at the end here,” and scoffs that he doesn’t know why she comes here at all. The girl laughs that her fur is like “a fried whiting.”
Usually on her way home from the park, Miss Brill buys a slice of honey cake at the bakery as her Sunday treat. It is always best when there is a little almond inside. Today, though, she skips it and heads upstairs. She sits on her eiderdown for a long time. She takes her fur off and quickly puts it away in the box it came from. Once the lid is on, though, it seems like she hears something crying.
“Miss Brill” is a short story in which nothing really happens, but in which readers can discern much about Modernist concerns with perception and subjectivity, potent but tenuous imagery, and contemporary loneliness and isolation. Mansfield chooses to narrate in the third-person omniscient perspective, but there is an increasingly clear divide between the author and the character. Readers come to see that what Miss Brill observes and thinks are more complicated than what they may initially seem, and what the detached narrator presents. Ultimately, as critic Julia Gunsteren writes, “the narrator first elevates the character to the pinnacle of comfortable delusion, by means of fantasies, dreams or distorted visions and then throws him/her into deep despair.”
We first meet Miss Brill as she is getting ready to go out to the public gardens. She is readying her fur, which she has chosen because there is a “faint chill” in the air. The fur has clearly seen better days, but she lovingly makes it presentable and even personifies it as a “little rogue.” She walks to the gardens and observes a variety of things, such as it being the beginning of the Season so the crowd seems bigger and the band seems louder. She feels a tiny twinge of validation when she thinks the band will play a little “flutey” bit and “a little chain of bright drops” and it does; this is perhaps one of the first subtle hints that she interprets things around her in her own way. She then begins to do what she tells us she does best—“she had become really quite expert…at listening as though she didn’t listen, at sitting on other people’s lives just for a minute while they talked around her.” At this point, her hopes that the old couple will speak and her remembrance of the English couple last Sunday do not seem too problematic, though she is clearly eavesdropping and seems to be inordinately focused on everyone’s clothing: “a dreadful Panama hat,” “button boots.” She extends her attention to the larger scene, watching children, a nun, peasant women, and more. Her comment about some of the Sunday people—“there was something funny about nearly all of them. They were odd, silent, nearly all old, and from the way they stared they looked as though they’d just come from dark little rooms or even—even cupboards”—strikes the reader, for does not Miss Brill herself seem old? Did she not come from an empty room? Is she not sitting here in silence? Miss Brill continues to sit and watch, and the reader has a firsthand glimpse at how her thoughts flit from person to person, acknowledge the music for a moment, and then go back to the people she sees. Though she clearly prides herself on her keen powers of observation, the reader begins to see the problems with her opinion of herself. She does not notice that the woman with the ermine toque is obviously a prostitute, trying to secure clients among the male parkgoers. She focuses again on clothing, ruminating on how “everything, her hair, her face, even her eyes, was the same colour as the shabby ermine.” Because she has so grossly misinterpreted what the woman was doing and who she is, she engages in misplaced sympathy, and even imagines that the band is playing a tune just for the disappointed woman.
When this “hierarchy of unrealities,” as critic Peter Thorpe deems it, really begins to become problematic is when Miss Brill tells herself that the scene “was like a play. It was exactly like a play,” that “they were all on the stage. They were not only the audience, not only looking on; they were acting. Even she had a part and came every Sunday.” Miss Brill decides she is an actress and that everyone at the park would miss her if she was not there, like if one of the characters did not step on stage when they were supposed to. She evokes the lonely occupation she has four days a week—reading the newspaper to an old, invalid man—and imagines him realizing in delight she is an “actress.” Thorpe analyzes this complex irony further, explaining that “Miss Brill is not an actress in two senses: she is literally not an actress, and she is ultimately not an actress in the drama of her mind, for the remarks of the young couple deprive her of her part.” However, Thorpe says that in two other senses she is one: “To the people who frequent the park, she probably appears a bit hammy…she must indeed be a curious sight. We can be pretty sure she is being watched as much as she is watching. Miss Brill is also an actress in the sense that she performs before the audience of herself.”
It is the appearance of the young couple that completely topples Miss Brill from her fantasy. First, she makes multiple assumptions about them, assuming “they were in love” and that they had “just arrived from his father’s yacht.” This leads her to call them “the hero and the heroine, of course.” The fact that they are “beautifully dressed” is a main reason why Miss Brill elevates them in her mind. It is clear that Miss Brill is very attentive to clothing; critic Miriam B. Mandel identifies the fact that “as Miss Brill catalogues what she sees, she reduces and dehumanizes it…Faces are not described; Miss Brill prefers to see people in terms of single items of clothing.” Regardless of the couple’s nice clothing, they are snarky and cruel, and, ironically, just as observant as Miss Brill. Because Miss Brill’s fictive universe is so much more powerful than her real one, which is evidently very lonely and isolated (she’s an Englishwoman in France, she has no discernible family or friends, and she spends four days a week reading to a sickly old man), the comments from the couple utterly shatter her.
Miss Brill’s return to the real is quick and devastating. Since her life seems to be comprised of small rituals, skipping the baker’s is a consequential action. Of even more symbolic consequence is her taking off her fur and putting it back into the box, an act which concludes with her thinking she hears “something” crying. Thorpe notes that the fur has “virtually a one-to-one correspondence to all that Miss Brill aspires to, for it is male, it is adventuresome, and it provides some sort of sensual, if not sexual, satisfaction…the fur is a substitute for the society, the love, sympathy, and understanding which are absent from Miss Brill’s life.” The fur can also be seen as Miss Brill. It is shabby and old, it comes from a dark box, it goes out in the world only to be mocked. The “something” crying is not the fur, of course, but Miss Brill in her identification with the piece.