The whole of Crescents Bay was hidden under a white sea mist, the beach barely distinguishable from the waters beyond. The sun had not yet risen but over the horizon a flock of sheep came into view. A shepherd and his companion, Wag the dog, led them. The shepherd was a tall older gentleman with a yellow walking stick and a pipe.
He whistled as Wag corralled the bleating heard onto a sandy road and toward a gigantic gum tree near Mrs. Stubb’s show. Squinting his eyes against the rising sun, the shepherd marveled at how quickly the mist on the sea receded each morning. “[The] leaping, glittering sea was so bright it made one’s eyes ache to look at it” (6).
The Burnell’s cat, Florrie, appeared. She spotted Wag and gave a disgruntled shiver. He ignored her but thought her a silly young thing. A bird flew above the shepherd’s head, past the fisherman’s hut and the little house owned by the milkmaid, Leila, and her Gran. The sheep began to stray but Wag rounded them up again and led them toward Daylight Cove. The shepherd trailed after and out of sight.
Moments later the back door of a nearby bungalow opened and Stanley Burnell appeared. He ran to the sea and dived in. It was his usual custom each morning, to be the fist in the water.
A voice called out to him and Stanley was very displeased to see the head of Jonathan Trout bobbing in the water nearby. He had beaten Stanley into the water. Annoyed that Jonathan refused to stick to his own part of the sea, Stanly struck out, swimming as far away as he could. Jonathan kept up with him and began to tell Stanley about a strange dream he had had the night before. “What was the matter with the man? This mania for conversation irritated Stanley beyond words” (8).
Stanley interrupted Jonathan and said he was on a tight schedule that morning and didn’t have time to talk. Unperturbed, Jonathan glided away. Stanley left the water and returned to the beach and his bungalow feeling he had been cheated out of his morning bathe.
Jonathan stayed it the water and watched Stanley leave. Overall he was fond of the other man but thought Stanley often overdid things, making everything into a job. Jonathan preferred an uncomplicated existence. He floated on his back, letting the waves take him to shore.
Once on the beach Jonathan began to shiver, his body ached all over. He had stayed too long in the water and felt his bathe had been ruined too.
Beryl Fairchild was alone in the living room when her brother -in-law, Stanley Burnell sat down at the table and announced that he had twenty-five minutes before his coach arrived to take him into town for work. Beryl poured his tea but forgot to add sugar. Stanley looked up at his sister-in-law skeptically and asked for sugar. Instead of putting it in his tea as she normally would, Beryl pushed the sugar bowl toward him. Perplexed by her behavior, Stanley asked if there was anything wrong. Beryl said there wasn’t.
Her mother, Mrs. Fairfield, came in carrying Stanley’s youngest child, a baby boy. Stanley’s three little girls, Isabel, Kezia, and Lottie followed her. They carried the porridge tray and set it down carefully on the table. Mrs. Fairfield reported that the baby had only woken up once in the night and declared that today was a perfect day. The sea sounded through the open windows, the sun shone on the table and everything sparkled and glistened. Mrs. Fairfield felt deeply contented.
Stanley interrupted her thoughts by asking for a slice of bread. Then Beryl scolded Kezia for playing with her food and Stanley couldn’t find his walking stick and blamed everyone but himself for losing it. Even Alice, the maid, came out of the kitchen to look for it and Stanley accused her of using it to poke the fire. Still searching Stanley made his way into his bedroom where his wife, Linda, was lying down. He told her the children had taken his stick. Upset by Linda’s vague response and lack of interest, he did not say goodbye to her as punishment for not paying attention to him.
Beryl called out to him that the coach had arrived, and Stanley went to meet it. As he boarded he thought of the heartlessness of woman and how they took it for granted that men would provide for them but they didn’t have the decency to keep his walking stick from disappearing. Beryl called out a farewell to him and out of politeness Stanley returned the gesture. He caught Beryl’s little skip of joy as she ran into the house.
Back at the bungalow, Beryl announce with glee “He’s gone!” and the house came to life with renewed feminine energy. “Oh, the relief, the difference it made to have the man out of the house. Their voices changed as they called to one another; they sounded warm and loving… There was no man to disturb them; the whole perfect day was theirs” (11). Alice, caught up in the moment, pretended the teapot she was washing was a man and cheerfully drowned him in the sink.
Little Lottie called out to her older sisters, Isabel and Kezia, and asked them to wait for her. Lottie always had trouble climbing over the stile on their way to the beach. Kezia kindly went back and helped Lottie over. The three sisters stood at the top of a sand hill and discussed who they should play with today.
The Samuel Josephs were an unruly bunch of young boys and girls who were looked after by a servant who made up games to keep them occupied. The servant wore a whistle around her neck and used it to call the Samuel Josephs together or to start or stop a game. Their playtime was always fiercely competitive and the only game the three Burnell sisters had ever played with them Kezia had won. Her prize had been an old rusted boot hook. Since then the Burnells no longer associated with the Samuel Josephs, finding their prizes and manners lacking.
Thankfully the sisters spotted their cousins, Jonathan Trout’s sons, Pip and Rags, on the other side of the beach. They made their way toward them and saw that Pip was digging in the sand for treasure and Rags was pouring water onto the sand to keep it moist for his brother. Pip proudly showed the girls a boot he discovered while Rags dutifully ran back forth between his brother and the sea with his water bucket.
Perhaps sensing his cousins were less than impressed with the boot, Pip took from his pocket a large green stone and held it out to them, making them promise they would never tell anyone that he had it. The beautiful stone was in fact an emerald, or, as Pip called it, a “nemeral.” It seemed to dance in Pip’s hand.
It was understood among the residents of Crescent Bay that the beaches at eleven o’clock belonged to the women and children. First the women undressed and put on bathing dresses and then the children were unbuttoned and let loose. The beach was strewn with piles of clothes and hats. Mrs. Fairfield gathered her grandchildren and watched as her grandsons, Pip and Rags, whipped off their shirts and ran into the sea. Her little granddaughters were not as brave. Isabel and Kezia swam out carefully toward the boys but little Lottie remained on the beach and sat by the edge of the water. She made vague gestures with her hands as if she expected the sea to take her away at anytime but whenever there was a large wave she would scamper up the beach, away from the water.
Beryl arrived and asked her mother to hold her jewelry while she bathed. She said she was going to bathe with Mrs. Harry Kember and ignored her mother’s disapproving look. She made her way to a different section of the beach and soon saw her friend lounging on the rocks and smoking. Mrs. Harry Kember was the only woman in Crescent Bay who smoked and was very unpopular among the other women as a result.
She was a strange looking woman with a narrow hands and feet, her face was thin and always looked exhausted. Mrs. Harry Kember spent her days lying in the sun and playing cards but it was her lack of vanity and her tendencies to act more like a man than a woman that really set the women of Crescent Bay against her. Beryl thought herself the exception but when Mrs. Harry Kember undressed before her even Beryl could not excuse the state of the other woman’s underclothes.
Then there was Mr. Harry Kember himself, who was so handsome his face looked painted on. No one understood their marriage. She was almost ten years older than him and childless. Mr. Harry Kember was a quiet fellow that did not get on well with other men. Rumor had it that he was unfaithful to his wife and perhaps that was why he ignored her strange behavior and sloppy housekeeping. Their marriage was a mystery to everyone else but Beryl suspected there was more to them than the obvious. Crescent Bay; however, had long ago determined that one day Mr. Harry Kember would murder his wife and they would find her lifeless body still with a cigarette in her mouth.
Mrs. Harry Kember was very much alive today and was just telling Beryl what a beauty she had become. Beryl began the complicated process of taking off her clothes while at the same time putting on her bathing dress. Mrs. Harry Kember simply dropped her outerwear without a hint of self-consciousness and encouraged Beryl to do the same. Feeling devilish, Beryl took off her clothes in from of Mrs. Harry Kember and put on her bathing dress. “Really, it’s a sin for you to wear clothes, my dear. Somebody’s got to tell you some day” (17), Mrs. Harry Kember said, complementing Beryl’s beauty.
They walked together into the warm water and Beryl stretched her arms out luxuriously, allowing the waves to lift her up. Mrs. Harry Kember swam beside her all the while encouraging her not settle for just one man, to have a good time while she was young. Beryl felt sinful listening to such talk but also very curious. Mrs. Harry Kember swam closer and for one horrible moment Beryl thought the other woman with her black bathing cap, looked like a disturbing caricature of her husband, Mr. Harry Kember.
Linda Burnell lounged in a steamer chair under the manuka tree in the front yard of the bungalow. She sat and contemplated the life of the flowers that fell from the tree. She thought of how beautifully intricate they were and how easy it was to disregard them as simply something that should be kept off the lawn. “Who takes the trouble - or the joy- to make all these things that are wasted….” (18). She thought it uncanny.
On the lawn beside her, situated between two pillows, was the baby. He was asleep and Linda had the bungalow all to herself. She wished she had time to look and truly appreciate each flower but she knew Life would come along and interrupt her day. It always did and there was no escape.
Years before she was married she remembered sitting on the veranda with her father. They had been very close. He always said they would run away one day, just the two of them but then Stanley Burnell walked by, slowly and solemnly, his ginger hair aglow. Her father teased her and called Stanley her beau. At the time Linda couldn’t have imagined being married especially to someone like Stanley Burnell but married they were. She loved him, most of the time.
She didn’t love the Stanley everyone else saw. Her Stanley was timid, he said is prayers in earnest and believed in others with his whole heart and was never disloyal but she so rarely saw her Stanley anymore. She only had glimpses of him every so often. Usually he was in the thick of whatever daily drama was taking place and she spent all of her time calming him down, listening to his side of the story, and rescuing him from himself. “And what was left of her was spent in the dread of having children” (19).
It was her greatest grudge against life. She knew it was a woman’s lot to birth children, to carry them for months and then bring them whole into the world but afterward she found that she did not love her children in the way that she should. The burden of too many births had weakened her and she had nothing left to give the girls. Thankfully her mother had taken the boy and as far as Linda was concerned, she could have him.
Linda was so indifferent about the new baby -- she had hardly ever held him in her arms. Glancing down she was surprised to see the boy was awake. His dark-blue eyes were fixed on her and he suddenly smiled, his dimples showing. His happy smile called out to his mother for love, and she found herself returning the smile. She sat down on the grass beside him.
She said that she didn’t like babies and if he knew what she was thinking about him he would stop smiling but the boy only turned his head and squinted his eyes. Linda was astonished by the baby’s confidence, his demand of her love that she felt something inside of her shift, making room, and a tear slide down her face. “Hello my funny” (20) she said but the boy had already forgotten about his mother. His eyes were fixated on the tree’s falling flowers, and he shot his hand out to grab one.
The sun warmed the beach as the day wore on. Only the sand hoppers moved. The rock pools rippled in the ocean breeze, a smaller world unknown to man. The scent of seaweed was strong under the hot lazy sun.
The blinds were drawn over the windows of the bungalow. Kezia and her grandmother were taking their afternoon siesta. Her grandmother’s room was a small with shabby furniture. Kezia lay on the bed in her underclothes and was watching her grandmother knit in a chair on the other side of the room.
Kezia asked her grandmother why she was staring at the wall. Her grandmother hesitated, winding the wool around her fingers before answering that she was thinking of her son, William. Kezia knew him as the uncle from Australia that she had never met. Grandmother said he went there to work in the mines but got sunstroke and died.
Kezia asked her grandmother if she was sad and Mrs. Fairfield took a moment to consider the question. It had happened so long ago but she carried her love for her son still as women are meant to do but time had helped to heal that wound. She told Kezia, no, she was not sad.
Kezia asked why Uncle William died? He wasn’t old. Her grandmother said that everyone dies eventually. Kezia was upset and said she would not die. Her grandmother said again that everyone dies and they have no choice in the matter. To this Kezia grew deeply upset and forbad her grandmother from dying, ever. “You couldn’t leave me. You couldn’t not be there… Promise me you won’t ever do it, grandma” (23). The old woman was silent.
Kezia cried out to her “say never” but still her grandmother would not speak. So Kezia climbed onto her grandmothers’ lap and tickled and kissed the old woman until she promised not to die. They hugged and laughed and soon forgot their melancholy.
The backdoor of the Burnell’s slammed shut and a flamboyantly dressed Alice walked down the path and away from the bungalow. Beryl watched Alice leave and thought the maid was on her way to meet some local man. She thought they’d have a hard time of hiding a pregnancy on Alice, especially dressed like that.
Alice was not meeting in a man. Mrs. Stubbs had invited her to tea; she had taken a liking to the maid. Alice wore a white cotton dress dotted with red spots, white shoes, and gloves. She completed the ensemble with a frayed umbrella. No one was on the road to greet her and she felt very silly walking alone. Alice thought someone must be watching her but she didn’t want to turn around to check.
Mrs. Stubb’s shop was perched on a hill up the road. Bathing outfits hung on the veranda near a box of mismatched sandshoes. A very old sign in the window display read:
“LOST! HANSOME GOLE BROOCH
ON OR NEAR BEACH
REWARD OFFERED” (24).
Alice opened the door to the shop and a bell sounded as she entered. Mrs. Stubbs appeared and the two women went to the parlor and Alice tried to remember her manners. Tea was laid out and their conversation turned to a set of new photographs that Mrs. Stubbs had acquired. Alice thought they captured the essence of life but only said they were pretty when asked. Mrs. Stubbs was a collector of photographs; behind her were various images of a waterfalls, a Grecian pillar, and a white snowcapped mountain.
Mrs. Stubbs said she was going to have the photos enlarged just as her husband would have done had he still be alive. He had died of dropsy years before. Mrs. Stubbs had a life-like bust made of her husband. Alice said he had a pleasant face and Mrs. Stubbs agreed but said although she loved her husband, she preferred her freedom.
Alice had a sudden urge to return to her kitchen at the bungalow.
A small company of animals gathered in the Burnell’s washhouse to play cards. There was a bull, a rooster, a sheep, and a bee. The washhouse was set apart form the bungalow and the animals (who were really the Burnell and Trout cousins) could make as much noise as they wanted without being interrupted. Pip was the bull, Isabel the rooster, Rags the sheep, Kezia the bee who had won her argument that bees were indeed animals because they made noise. The animals bellowed, clucked, bleated, and buzzed in preparation for their game.
Lottie had the habit of forgetting what animal she was part way through their games and Kezia suggested she be a donkey because “hee-haw” was easy to say. Lottie was content with the choice and Pip explained the card game to her, which involved each of the players putting down a card at the same time. If two or more players put down matching cards the first to cry out their animals sound won the round.
Pip was getting irritated with Lottie who was confused by the rules. Her bottom lip quivered and the other children rushed to comfort her before Lottie grew truly upset and would run away and be found sometime later crying in a corner with her dress pulled up over her head. To pacify her, Pip gave Lottie the first card off the top of the deck and Rags gave her a corner of his handkerchief, its other half was occupied by a starfish he was trying to tame.
Pip handed out all of the cards and the game began. The bull charged the table in his excitement; the rooster flapped her wings and crowed while the bee buzzed. At one point Rags and Lottie put down two Kings at the same time but poor little Lottie forgot what animal she was and Rags won the hand. Later Kezia and Lottie put down the same cards and the other children silently pointed this out to Lottie until she cried out “hee-haw!”
Just then Pip thought he heard a knocking on the door and told the other children to be quiet. They sat still, listening and for the first time noticed they that night was coming on. Suddenly scared the children gathered close together and were worried a spider might fall on them from the ceiling. “Why doesn’t someone come and get us,” (29) cried Isabel; then Lottie screamed and they all jumped. A face appeared in the window. Tumbling over one another they raced out the door and into Uncle Jonathan who had come to take the boys home with him.
Jonathan Trout had meant to take his sons home earlier in the day, but he had stopped to talk to his sister-in-law, Linda Burnell, who was in the garden. They had known each other a long time and Linda was no longer impressed with Jonathan’s poetic introductions but still thought him handsome.
He dropped to one knee in greeting and kissed her fingertips. She was used to this behavior and they settled in for a long conversation, she on a hammock and he on the grass. Linda asked if he was going back to work on Monday to which Jonathan replied that the cage door would shut on him at the end of the weekend and there was no chance of escape. Linda thought it must be awful to be trapped in an office for so many hours and yet she felt one could adapt to the situation but not Jonathan.
Jonathan had a wandering spirit and although he very ambitious and talented, he would rather spend his time reading poetry than working as a clerk and had never amounted to anything. Stanley made more money than he did and Linda wondered what was the matter with him? He was gifted but nothing ever came of it. She thought of him leading their church choir and of his hungry eyes that never seemed to rest and yet he made no effort to be anything more than what he was.
Jonathan said it was ridiculous to have to spend one’s life sitting on someone else’s stool, working on someone else’s ledger nine to five for years. “It is a queer use to make of one’s…one and only life, isn’t it?” (31) and yet he felt like an insect who had wandered into a room from the outside of its own accord and spent the rest of its life banging against the window panes but never going through the open door and back out into the unexplored garden. He felt he was a prisoner in his own life and asked Linda why he didn’t attempt to escape?
Answering his own question, Jonathan said, “for some reason… it’s not allowed, it’s forbidden…” (32) to quit his job and take off somewhere, out to sea perhaps. His two boys were his responsibility to provide for, but he could move up country and try his luck; but then, his voice faded and the light behind his eyes was gone. He had no stamina for such adventures anymore. “Would you hear the story. How it unfolds itself…” (32).
The sun had set as broad beams of light covered the sky and Linda thought of Jehovah the jealous God who would one day return to earth and there would be no time left for explanations. The sea was silent and in the diminishing light of the sun the sky rested above them.
Linda suddenly noticed how old Jonathan was looking these days and as if to prove this point he showed her how his hair was going gray. She saw him for the first time as he truly was, not gallant or resolute at all but like a weed.
Jonathan stooped down and kissed her before setting off to find “those heirs to my fame and fortune…and he was gone” (33).
Two gold patches of light shone on the Burnell’s veranda where Florrie, the cat, sat with her paws together and tail curled under. She was content. “Thank goodness, the long day is over” (33) she said.
A coach rumbled by, stopping at the front gate. Stanley got out and ran toward Linda who was still in the garden. He took her in his arms and lifted her chin, asking for forgiveness, but Linda had no idea what she was to forgive him for. Slightly exasperated with his wife, Stanley explained he deeply regretted not having said goodbye to her this morning and had been in agony all day because of it.
She smiled up at him and tugged at a pair of new gloves that he had bought himself earlier in the day. He said they were cheap pair but he had seen another man wearing them and bought himself a pair.
He asked if she thought it was wrong of him to buy himself and she said “on the con-trary, darling” (34). Linda put them on and playfully modeled them for him. Stanley wanted to tell her he had been thinking of her when he bought them but he swallowed his words and ushered her inside the bungalow.
Beryl thought the world a different place at night. It was getting late and yet she felt more alive with each passing hour. With every breath she thought she were “waking up into a new, wonderful, far more thrilling and exciting world than the daylight one” (34) as if she and the night were conspirators sharing a secret.
Even her room felt more alive and she found she enjoyed it more at nighttime. During the day it was a transitional place where she went when she needed to change clothes or powder her nose but at night it was dear to her and everything in it belonged to her.
For a moment Beryl thought she saw a vision of herself and man in her room holding one another and kissing. She rushed to the window seat and sat down with her elbows on the sill, gazing outward.
The moon shone so brightly that the flowers were illuminated as if it were day. The tress, the leaves, even the sad little bushes were all apart of her nightly conspiracy. Beryl felt suddenly sad looking at the bushes that reached skyward but would never be trees.
“It is true when you are by yourself and you think about life, it is always sad” (35) as if all of the excitement of the day has waned and only silence remains. Then a voice would sound and call Beryl’s name as if for the first time, crying for her to let it in. She was lonely, always surrounded by family but truly alone. She wanted to belong to someone else, to find the Beryl that no one else knew or could understand. She wanted to become the Beryl she always suspected she was, a lover. “Save me my love. Save me!” (35.)
The thought of Mrs. Harry Kember came to mind and her suggestion that Beryl enjoy herself with men while she was young. Even if she wanted to Beryl was at the mercy of her family’s whims and societal norms. She felt she was such a “nobody” but was fascinated by Mrs. Harry Kember’s suggestions. She wished her “somebody” would come soon to save her but a little voice deep inside of Beryl doubted this would ever happen.
She refused to listen to the little voice: others may be left behind, but not her. Then she imagined the women of Crescent Bay speaking of her in years to come, saying she was still pretty, that there was still time for her to marry. Her heart sank.
Then she saw a man walking nearby. He left the road and made his way through the Burnell garden and straight toward her. Beryl thought he couldn’t be a burglar because he was smoking and strolling toward her in a leisurely way.
It was Mr. Harry Kember. He invited her out for a walk. Beryl hesitated; it was late. Mr. Harry Kember insisted, saying there was no one else around. Something stirred within Beryl -- she wanted to go with him.
“Don’t be frightened,” (36) he said as she lowered herself out the window. The world was different now, the moonlight shone, the shadows like bars as Mr. Harry Kember took her hand in his. Now she was truly afraid.
He tugged her hand gently but she struggled against him. “His terrifying smile froze her with horror” (36) and he led her out the garden gate and drew her to him.
Beryl slipped out of his embrace and told him he was vile. “Then why did you come?” (37) He asked; nobody answered.
A small cloud obscured the moon for a moment. The sea was troubled and then the cloud passed and it gave a mummer as if it woke from a bad dream. Then all was still.
“At the Bay” was fist published in the literary magazine the London Mercury in January 1922. It was later incorporated into The Garden Party and Other Stories in the same year and is the longest of Mansfield’s work within the collection. The story is set in fictional Crescent Bay, a seaside community in the late nineteenth, early twentieth century in New Zealand. Traditionally structured, “At the Bay” is separated by chapter and arranged chronologically, a departure for Mansfield who preferred unconventional modes of storytelling. The structure of the story is bookended by the temperament of the sea, a reoccurring motif in the text reflecting the ebb and flow of the character’s moods and emotions as the story unfolds. The exact timeframe, despite its length, is a single day in the life of the characters of Crescent Bay, specifically of the eclectic Burnell family.
In order to capture the various points of views of her characters, Mansfield experimented with narration by transitioning from one character perspective to another regardless of age or gender. The result is a seamless collaboration of various viewpoints on a range of themes and topics such as the changing role of gender in the home, the perception of marriage, and the theme of duty and responsibility toward one’s family and the resulting sacrifice of self. The narrative reflects the daily interactions of the main characters and how the banality of one moment can significantly alter or influence a lifetime.
Like her contemporaries, Mansfield was particularly adept at capturing a sense of realism in her work. Her characterizations of Stanley and Linda Burnell, Beryl Fairchild, and an assortment of other minor characters is masterful. She simultaneously creates sympathy toward all of the character’s circumstances by placing equal value on the importance of perspective, both male and female. By doing so she is able to equally examine gender stereotypes by offering opposing viewpoints from characters that go against the grain. Mansfield does not shy away from difficult topics such as Linda Burnell’s distaste for motherhood, Jonathan Trout’s fear of responsibilities despite family obligations, and Beryl Fairchild’s sexual awakening. Ever the modernist, Mansfield’s choice to write from the perspective of both genders is stylistic yet uncommon for the time period.
In-depth character analysis is important in the understanding of “At the Bay”; however, for the sake of brevity only three of the main characters (Stanley Burnell, Linda Burnell, and Beryl Fairchild) will be discussed in relation to their role in fulfilling the story’s core themes which are: the examination of marriage; the role of gender in the home; and one’s duty and responsibility to family. For all other character analysis please see the separate character section of this study guide.
Stanley Burnell, the family patriarch, is pedantic and orderly, completing even the most mundane tasks with diligence and propriety. Overcompensating for his insecurities, Stanley tends to react badly to small grievances and has little patience with interruptions to his schedule. As a result the women of his household, including his wife Linda, cater to his needs but tend to begrudge his presence in the home. Sensing their displeasure with him, Stanley in turn resents having to go to work to financially support not only his wife and children but his mother-in-law and sister-in-law as well. Seeking attention and affection, Stanley turns to Linda for comfort and is often rebuffed. Taking this to heart he punishes Linda by not saying goodbye, a childish reaction, before going to the office.. He spends the rest of the day regretting this decision and comes home and promptly apologizes to his wife who he obviously adores. In fact, of the many married couples in Mansfield’s collected works, Stanley and Linda are one of the few who seem genuinely in love with one another.
Although his relationship with Linda is not necessarily a marriage of equals, Stanley seems to defer to his wife’s wishes and leaves the care of their children in her domain, or rather looks the other way as she allows others to raise their children. He wants and desires Linda’s sole attention and as a result has developed a detached attitude toward his children who seem none the worse for lack of parental interest. Yet despite appearances, Stanley takes his familial responsibilities very seriously and successfully provides a good life for his wife and children. His foil, Jonathan Trout, abhors confirmatory and makes little effort to advance his career for the sake of his family. Instead of making the best of his circumstances, as Stanley has done, as society demands, Jonathan remains a prisoner of his own imagination. Stanley, in the meantime, may not be as poetic or as interesting a character as Jonathan but as Linda points out, he is stable and consistent in his ability to financially support their family and that is far more attractive to her than semantics. Despite his faults, Stanley is devoted to Linda and to their home and family, working through his inner issues as best as he can, assured of his love for his wife and his devotion to doing his utmost for himself and his family.
Linda Burnell, on the other hand, does not take to her maternal duties with equal gusto as her husband does to his financial obligations. Like Stanley she sometimes resents her place in the home but unlike her husband she does not often rally to the occasion after a day of reflection. Linda believes it is a woman’s lot in life to take care of her husband’s needs before her own and bear his children. She feels physically and emotionally drained from the constraints of pregnancy and agony of childbirth. Linda resents motherhood and leaves the care of her children in the hands of others. She has recently given birth to a baby boy and feels little attachment to him, having only held him a few times in his short life. Contemporary readers may quickly associate Linda’s behavior to detachment issues or even to medical conditions such as postpartum depression but Mansfield’s characterization of Linda’s apparent dislike of her children is more of a social commentary on the ills of motherhood in the early twentieth century than on pinpointing a diagnosis. Linda, like the beautiful flowers littering the lawn around her, feels as if a part of her has been wasted and underappreciated. What would her life had been like had she been a man, able to take off and do as she pleased just as her father once promised her? Yet, social constraints tether her to a life of domesticity just as they chain her brother-in-law, Jonathan Trout, from pursuing his poetic dreams.
Mansfield’s descriptive use of internal monologue from Linda’s point of view allows the reader an in-depth look at the innermost thoughts of a woman at the turn of the century who has no outlet in which to express her conflicting emotions, especially concerning her resentment toward her role in the home. Linda feels that if given the opportunity she would be able to go to work and make a living and does not understand her brother-in-law, Jonathan Trout’s, distaste of it. She admires her husband’s ability to do so and is proud of his accomplishments but feels slighted that she has no identity outside of the home. Instead she is only seen as a wife and mother and is expected to act accordingly and yet she struggles to do so. For example, her dismissiveness toward Stanley when he asks after the state of his walking stick is more a reflection of his inability to see his wife’s inner distress than it is her lack of interest toward her husband’s needs. Linda feels that most of her day is spent catering toward Stanley’s wants and desires and not her own. She dutifully listens to him, reassures him of his decisions, and tucks away his fears so that he is able to go out the next day to work and provide for their family. Linda is weary of her role and yet she loves Stanley, her Stanley that no one else sees. When he comes to apologize to her about having not said goodbye earlier in the day it is as if all of Linda’s grievances drop away at the sight of her Stanley. She openly flirts with him, provocatively playing with his gloves and allows herself to be led back into the bungalow with him, presumably for sex. She allows herself to be pulled into a cycle of unresolved emotional issues but she, like Stanley, feels compelled to do what is right by her family no matter her own personal injustices. Linda may resent her station in life but she has no desire to escape it. Mansfield is careful to include a brief moment of clarity on the lawn of the bungalow when Linda bonds with her new son, opening her heart to him and allowing herself to love him. Why Mansfield does this is very debatable, perhaps it would have been too reprehensible to have a female character reject her children entirely or perhaps Mansfield may simply have wanted to establish a semblance of hope in the reader that Linda may reconcile with her children.
Like her sister, Beryl Fairchild, feels trapped within her own circumstances but for entirely different reasons. Beryl is the unmarried daughter of Mrs. Fairchild. She feels her place in the Burnell household is unsecured. She is at the mercy of her family and she knows this arrangement is temporary pending her eventual/hopeful marriage. Beryl’s age is unknown but it is assumed to be much older than Linda’s children and past adolescence. She has obviously entered adulthood and seems to be somewhere in-between sixteen and her early twenties. Beryl feels more comfortable in an all-female environment and rejoices when Stanley leaves the house for the day. Having little interaction with other men, she does not have a realistic view of marriage and male to female relationships outside of the romantic fantasies she has concocted late at night. Beryl wants to be desired, to be a lover not just a mother and wife. Her youthful dream world is innocent if not slightly provocative as she imagines a shadowy lover kissing her in her bedroom. Yet Beryl feels duty bound to her family responsibilities and her own reputation in addition to a desire to adhere to social norms. Despite her unconventional friendship with Mrs. Harry Kember, Beryl recognizes her friend’s status as an outsider in the community because of her unkempt appearance and unfeminine demeanor and yet Beryl is drawn to the other woman’s tenacity and rebellious nature. She considers Mrs. Harry Kember’s suggestion that Beryl have multiple lovers before settling for marriage but like her bedroom fantasies, this suggestion seems unattainable until Mr. Harry Kember appears at her window. Mansfield inserts a brief but descriptive piece of foreshadowing when Beryl thinks Mrs. Harry Kember looks like a disturbing caricature of her husband while swimming in her black bathing cap. The scene is brief but poignant, instilling in both the reader and Beryl a sense of wariness toward the Kembers, which unfortunately goes unheeded when Beryl accepts Mr. Harry Kember’s invitation.
Mansfield, known for her ambiguous endings, allows for a more ominous conclusion to “At the Bay” when Beryl follows Mr. Harry Kember out of the house and away from safety. Described as a lady’s man, Mr. Harry Kember, is a noted adulterer and yet he and his wife seem to have a good relationship. No one, not even Beryl, understands the intricacies of their marriage, a foil to Linda and Stanley’s more banal relationship, but Mansfield hints at one peculiar aspect of their arrangement when Mrs. Harry Kember suggests Beryl undress in front of her and praises the young girl’s body. It is not coincidence that her husband finds his way to Beryl’s window that night. The use of the disturbing bathing cap imagery suggests that Mrs. Harry Kember sent her husband to Beryl on purpose. Beryl calls Mr. Harry Kember “vile” and his intentions do seem sinister but Mansfield does not elaborate. Does he physically rape Beryl or coerce her into a sexual act? We cannot know; but it is apparent the pointedly handsome Mr. Harry Kember and his depraved intentions have dealt that Beryl’s distorted fantasies a deathblow. He does question her as to why she came out at all but she does not answer. Interestingly, Mansfield added the passage about the dark cloud covering the moon and the momentarily unruliness of the sea to the 1922 American addition of “At the Bay,” perhaps published by Knopf in an attempt to give closure to the story. Instead there are only more questions. Yet the sea motif neatly bookends the story and suggests the coming of a new day and the continuation of the lives of the characters.