“They could not have had a more perfect day for a garden party if they had ordered it “ (38). Warm, windless, without a cloud in the sky, the Sheridan’s garden party was expected to be a great success.
Still at breakfast, Laura, Meg, Jose Sheridan and their mother sat discussing arrangements for the party. Mrs. Sheridan declared she was not going to make a single decision, an unfortunate announcement as the workmen had just arrived at the front gate to put up the marquee. Meg could not go outside to speak to them because her hair was wet. Jose was not dressed. Laura was nominated and she practically flew out of the house in anticipation. She loved to arrange things and felt she was better at it than everyone else.
With a piece of buttered toast in her hand, Laura met the workmen in the garden. Suddenly shy and aware of how young she must look to the burly men she affected her mother’s high voice and asked if they would set up the marquee on the tennis court where the band would be playing. She immediately regretted her words when one of the workmen sarcastically asked after the band. Embarrassed, Laura said it was a small band but another of the workmen smiled and his easy and friendly nature put her at ease. She took a bite of her toast.
The workmen decided the marquee would look best under the karakas trees and without any invitation from Laura they set out. Only one of the workmen remained behind, a tall man, he bend down and pinched a sprig of lavender from the garden and smelled it. Laura doubted any of the men she knew, the ones she danced with or had over for Sunday dinner, would have stopped what they were doing to enjoy the scent of lavender. She thought she would get on much better with the workmen than she would men of her own social class.
Someone from the house yelled to Laura that she had a telephone call. Laura ran up the path onto the veranda and into the house. There she met her father and brother, Laurie, getting ready to go to the office. She gave her brother a quick hug and then answered her call. It was her friend, Kitty Maitland. Only Laura’s end of the conversation was heard and she asked Kitty to come to lunch to eat leftovers of whatever Cook had made for the garden party. Mrs. Sheridan yelled down to Laura and told her to tell Kitty to wear the same hat she wore last Sunday. Laura repeated her mother’s words and said goodbye to Kitty.
Returning the phone to its receiver, Laura sighed loudly and contently and listened to the beautiful silence of the house. Then all at once the house came to life, noise sounded from another room, the piano was being moved, the doorbell rang and Sadie, the maid, answered it. The florist had arrived with trays of pink lilies. At first Laura assumed there had been a mistake in the sheer number of flowers that the florist had brought but Mrs. Sheridan assured her the order was correct. She had passed by the florist the other day and ordered extra lilies for the party as a treat for herself.
Meanwhile in the drawing room, Meg, Jose, and Han, their servant, had finally succeeded in moving the piano. Jose asked Hans to fetch her mother and Laura while she positioned herself at the piano. Jose hoped someone would ask her to sing at the party and wanted to practice. She sang a melancholy tune about life being weary and love that changes. When she was finished she declared herself in good voice and no one contradicted her.
Just then Sadie came in and asked Mrs. Sheridan for the little flags she had made for the sandwich trays to identify what they were made of so that Cook could start preparing for the party. After some confusion as to where Mrs. Sheridan had left the flags, Laura brought them to the kitchen and she and Jose marveled over the fifteen different types of sandwiches Cook had prepared.
A deliveryman came into the kitchen while the girls were still there and brought in a tray of delicious cream puffs. While Laura and Jose ate two of the fluffy pastries they overheard the deliveryman telling Sadie and Cook about the terrible death of man who lived down the lane. His horse had reared up while he was out riding and he had fallen, hit his head and died.
Everyone took the news in stride; they knew the man, Mr. Scott, and he and his impoverished wife and children lived very close by. Their home was a bit of an eyesore to the Sheridans. Their lawn littered with cabbages, chickens, and old cans. They lived only a street apart from one another but were from two different worlds.
Although she did not know the Scott family well, if at all, Laura was deeply upset by the news. She told Jose they had to call the party off. Jose told her that she was being stupid and that no one would expect them to cancel the garden party just because Mr. Scott died. Laura tried to appeal to her mother but Mrs. Sheridan was of the same mind as Jose. To distract her daughter, Mrs. Sheridan put a new black velvet hat with a yellow daisy trim on Laura’s head but it was no use. Laura stomped off into her own room and shut the door.
She looked at herself in the mirror and she saw that the black velvet hat was gorgeous and she looked beautiful in it; but she was still confused. She wanted to enjoy the party but she social obligation to help the Scotts but how? “You’re being very absurd, Laura…people like that don’t expect scarifies from us” (47) her mother had said but Laura pictured the body of Mr. Scott being carried into his home while his wife and children looked on. The idea seemed so unreal, as if she were reading about in the newspaper, that Laura decided to worry about it later. There was nothing that she could do now anyway and the party would soon start.
After lunch the guests started to arrive including her friend Kitty Maitland. Laurie came home soon after and Laura ran to him to tell him about the accident but he complimented her hat and she forgot all about the Scotts for the reminder of the party. Guests came in droves, couples strolled the garden path, the band played, flowers were admired, sandwiches eaten and then it was all over. The Sheridans were left alone again, at last.
In the empty marquee Mr. Sheridan sat with his wife and children, eating another sandwich and telling them about Mr. Scott’s accident all over again. Mrs. Sheridan thought it was very tactless of her husband but then she had the brilliant idea of sending a basket of leftover food from the party to the Scotts. She told Laura to make up a large basket and bring it down to the family.
Laura protested at first. She thought it would be rude to bring leftovers to the grieving Scotts but her mother insisted they would be very appreciative for any help at the moment. Mrs. Sheridan wanted to send lilies as well but decided against it at the last moment.
Laura set out down the lane and away from her own home and into the impoverished area of town where the Scott’s lived. It was hard to imagine anyone living there at all but men bustled past and children played in doorways, all of them seemed to be staring at her and Laura felt a deep sense of shame for daring to wear her expensive lace dress and new hat amid such poverty.
A crowd had gathered outside of the Scott house and as Laura approached the group parted to let her in. Startled by their behavior and feeling very out of place, Laura hoped to leave the basket on the doorstep and run home but a woman came to the door and ushered her inside.
It was Mrs. Scott’s sister. She showed Laura into the kitchen were Mrs. Scott sat crying before the fire, her face red and swollen. She seemed confused as to why Laura was there with the basket in her beautiful lace dress. Laura put the basket down and turned to leave but Mrs. Scott’s sister insisted she see the body and before Laura could protest she was in the back bedroom.
Mr. Scott seemed somehow more handsome in death than he had been in life. Laura was almost envious of the look contentment on his face, as if garden parties, baskets, and all of life’s particularities were behind him. While the band had played and they had all laughed and socialized at the party, this man laid like “a marvel,” she thought, just a road away. He seemed so happy and yet the situation was so grave that Laura felt she had to say something. “Forgive my hat” (51) she mumbled and ran out the door.
She met Laurie coming down the lane and took his arm, pressing herself against him. Laurie was surprised to see her crying. Laura said, “Isn’t life…” but could not finish her thought. She repeated, “Isn’t life…” again; Laurie nodded and answered, “Isn’t it, darling?” (51).
“The Garden Party,” written by Katherine Mansfield, was published in the literary magazine the Weekly Westminster Gazette in February 1922 in an effort to promote the author’s larger short story collection The Garden Party and Other Stories published by Constable and Co., which prominently featured the titled story. In fact, “The Garden Party” is considered one of Mansfield’s best-known works, perhaps because of its autobiographical undertones.
The early twentieth century setting for the story is loosely based upon Mansfield’s childhood home in Wellington, New Zealand. The Sheridans, like the Beauchamps (Mansfield’s surname) were an upper middle class family with three daughters and a son. Laura Sheridan is a parody of Mansfield as a young adult during her years as an idealistic if not naïve socialite before she left Wellington go to England for college. The Sheridan siblings are named in mocking tribute to the beloved characters of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women published in 1880. The March sisters are named Meg, Jo (Josephine), Beth, and Amy. Laurie is a good friend of the March family and later marries Amy. The Sherdian siblings are similarly named Meg, Jose, Laura, and Laurie. Note the symmetry in name and demeanor of Laura and her brother, Laurie. Like her literary counterpart, Jo March, Laura Sheridan questions her place in the world and especially within her family.
In “The Garden Party,” Mansfield, a modernist, experimented with the use of third person narration from Laura’s point of view, allowing the reader simultaneous insight into the protagonist’s thoughts while observing her actions. Noted for her frequent use of internal monologue, a literary device that expresses the thoughts of a character, Mansfield allows for an in-depth observation of Laura’s perspective as her story unfolds. Mrs. Sheridan and Jose’s points of view briefly interrupt Laura’s dominant perspective but are used by Mansfield to emphasize the story’s ambiance rather than offer counter-perspectives to Laura’s viewpoint. Mansfield’s preference for the female perspective was unique for her time period as is the lack of structure in “The Garden Party.” The story is told over the course of a few hours with no set beginning or traditional character introductions. Instead Mansfield begins her story in medias res or in the middle, allowing the character’s histories to unfold as the story progresses. Specializing in realism, Mansfield, like her contemporaries, preferred to focus the core of her plot on a single moment in time, illustrating how small events, such as a garden parties, can influence a character’s perspective with life alternating results. Laura Sheridan’s worldview is similarly shaken by the death of her neighbor, Mr. Scott, which causes her to revaluate her thoughts on class relations in response to her family’s stance on the subject.
As a character Laura Sheridan is endearingly naive. Pampered and petted, she is accustomed to the privileges and comforts associated with the upper middle class and yet she is eager to prove how pragmatic she can be. In comparison to her siblings (who make only brief appearances in the text) Laura is a capable organizer and budding socialite who tends to favor the simpler pleasures of life unlike her mother who is noted for her extravagances. Laura is sympathetic toward the emotions of others and is naturally concerned about the world around her, especially concerning the plight of the lower class. Despite her compassion, Laura’s ignorance in talking to the workmen illustrates how truly naïve she is about how she and her family are perceived by others. Raised in a life of privilege, Laura’s usual concerns about flower arrangements, clothes, and preparing menus seem frivolous but are a necessary part of her life. She is thrilled to be asked to help organize the garden party and is pleased by her family’s and by extension her popularity but there is an underling curiosity about Laura that separates her from her more vapid siblings and mother.
The death of Mr. Scott, only a passing acquaintance, shocks Laura into action. She feels it would be incredibly rude of her family to proceed with their garden party so soon after Mr. Scott’s death especially because he lived and died so close to the Sheridan’s property. No one in her family shares her concerns which causes Laura to begin to view her family in a different light. How could they be so ignorant of the suffering of others? Laura’s vivid imagination and musings over how devastated the Scott family must be in the wake of the tragedy only intensifies her desire to help them. She cannot understand her family’s lack of empathy. The Scotts were their neighbors but Mrs. Sheridan is firm in her decision to have the garden party despite what has happened. Mrs. Sheridan, in direct opposition to Laura sentiments, is deeply prejudiced against families like the Scotts who live in the poorer section of their community. She does not understand how they can survive at all and yet makes no effort to help them. Instead she feels only irritated by their presence and thinks their “shabby” homes, located only one street away, reflect poorly on the Sheridan’s decadent property. Mansfield deliberately places the poor of Wellington alongside the Sheridan’s home as a less than subtle reference to class relations in New Zealand post WWI. Mrs. Sheridan’s mindset further illustrates the prejudice toward the lower classes for this time period. Like others of her social class, Mrs. Sheridan feels sympathy toward the Scott’s circumstances but she does not their misfortune should infringe upon her family’s affairs. Laura, conflicted over her own feelings, decides it is her duty to continue on with the garden party and is soon engrossed in the festivities.
Laura’s quick dismissal of Mr. Scott’s death reveals a lack of conviction and maturity. Although she tries to do well by others, Laura is still young and easily swayed by her family’s influence, especially her brother Laurie who distracts her with compliments. After their guests depart, Mrs. Sheridan agrees to allow Laura to go down to the Scott’s for a visit. She asks Laura to bring a basket of leftovers but decides against sending flowers. Laura is concerned the Scotts will see the leftovers as an insult (and they should) but what is more concerning about Mrs. Sheridan’s behavior is that she does not send the flowers, revealing an inner selfishness and lack of regard or respect for those beneath her rank. Observant Laura begins to see her mother very differently and once she crosses the road and enters the poverty stricken home of the Scotts, she begins a metaphysical transition from adolescence to adulthood.
Laura’s walk to the Scotts, her shame at wearing her best clothes and a new hat amid such depraved conditions is a brutal awakening to her psyche. She wants to flee, to return to her own kind but is made to enter not only the home of the Scotts but to see Mr. Scott’s dead body laid out in the back bedroom. Death, a reoccurring theme in Mansfield’s work, often acts as a catalyst, prompting other characters to revaluate their own lives. True to form, Laura has an epiphany of sorts while staring at Mr. Scott’s peaceful face. She sees herself as she truly is: frivolous, naïve, and wonton. She feels a deep sense of shame for having come to the Scott house dressed as she is and the only comfort she can provide is leftover food. For a brief moment Laura is envious of Mr. Scott, he has escaped society’s expectations and is answerable to no one. “Forgive my hat” (51), she remarks before leaving, her comment reflective of her thoughts. She runs away from the Scotts, away from the poverty and suffering that she can no longer ignore and meets her brother, Laurie, who had come to look for her. Crying, Laura tries to express herself but can’t. Mansfield ends the text with Laura asking, “Isn’t life…” and Laurie replying “Isn’t it, darling?” (51).
Emphasizing her modernistic roots, Mansfield purposely named these characters to denote similarities in their demeanor, the male and female version of the same person, although she gives preference to the female perspective. Note the symmetry in their responses and yet the divide between them. Laura has returned from the Scotts a different person, her brother has not had such an experience (that we know of), and although they are saying the same thing, neither really knows or understands the thoughts of the other. From a larger perspective the Sheridans and the Scotts and the social classes they represent, can never truly understand the viewpoint of the other if they remain ignorant of each other’s lifestyles. Noted for her ambiguous endings, Mansfield intentionally closes ”The Garden Party” with a dissatisfying conclusion to allow room for the reader’s interpretation of events to come.