Analyzing the Garden Party
An Analysis of Katherine Mansfield’s 1922 short story “The Garden Party”.
Katherine Mansfield was a New-Zealandian writer, who is most recognized for her modernist short stories reflecting a vast range of subjects from family values, sexuality, life, death, relationships to injustice in society, social divisions and war. Her impressive ability to extract the beauty and vitality from whatever the subject discussed, no matter how mundane or difficult it might be, was greatly appreciated, and is revealed in the short story “The Garden Party”.
“The Garden Party” is an almost autobiographical portrayal of Mansfield’s own experiences, which tells us the story of Laura, a young girl from a wealthy, upper class who discovers the reality of life, within the scope of the garden party and the death of a neighbor.
Mansfield uses a third person limited narrative style for the most of the story, providing the reader an in-depth understanding in the Laura’s perspective, and a chance to observe her actions from the outside. This narrative is disturbed only in a few instances, to provide a glimpse in to Mrs. Sheridan’s and Jose’s perspectives. The use of internal dialogue throughout the story is a signature technique of Mansfield, providing an easy flowing rhythm to the narration, and it fully immerses the reader in the story, making him empathize with the character as of his own accord. The lack of male characters in the story is also noteworthy, as is the emphasis on the female perspective.
The plot follows a chronological sequence with a few flashbacks to provide background details. The lack of a proper structure allows the story to unfold in a few hours, and the story lacks proper character descriptions and set beginning. Mansfield allows the context of each character and story come in to light as the story unfolds.
Symbolism is another feature that should be addressed in the story. The hat Laura’s mother gives her, which is “trimmed with gold daisies, and a long black velvet ribbon”, symbolizes the prejudice and heartlessness of Mrs. Sheridan and Jose regarding the poor. In accepting the hat and wearing it, Laura abandoned her own sympathy and concern about the death, and managed to keep those images that kept haunting her distant, “blurred, unreal, like a picture in the newspaper.” But in her visit to the village, she realizes her mistake, and her remark “Forgive my hat” in the face of death, can be taken as an apology for her ignorance and vanity in disregarding the reality.
The social prejudice of the rich regarding the poor is portrayed in the attitude of Mrs. Sheridan and Jose, with a contrasting view point of Laura, who “seemed to be different from them all.” The reaction for the Laura’s suggestion to postpone the party gives a clear picture of how each think of the poor people. According to Mrs. Sheridan, “People like that” don’t expect the rich to sacrifice themselves, and her “brilliant” idea to send leftover food to the poor after the party, with lilies which will impress the “people of that class” shows how little she thinks of them. Here, the fact that Mrs. Sheridan’s sympathy and concern only apply to the people of their status shows the attitude of most upper class people who has no regard for someone poor in any aspect.
The main theme of the story, at first glance, seems to be the coming-of-age of the young Laura. However, the story carries may undertones of comparison between different extremities in life and existence, as well as of the social prejudices.
In order to compare two different ends of a concept, Mansfield essentially creates two contrasting worlds, each presenting the extreme characteristics of its end. The context of the comparison is unique to each reader, and what resonate with him. The two worlds may represent Beauty & Ugliness, Wealth & Poverty, Childhood & Adulthood, Life & Death, Joy & Sorrow, and Pleasure & Suffering. Note the philosophical implications of these subjects, and how they are related to the human existence. This theme is the most noteworthy feature of Mansfield’s writings, where her own philosophy of life is flawlessly inflicted.
When analyzing the text, analogies for each and every context can be found within the story. The highlighting of the positive characters in the first half of the narration, where everything is “perfect” and the second half woven with the “dark” is crucial to this theme of the story. The difference between the Sheridan’s world and that of the poor is conveyed in strong visual imagery. The reader follows the images and the mood of the Sheridan residence, where even the weather is “ideal”, the skies “blue” and “without a cloud” and the nature itself seems to dance with happiness, and “hundreds, yes, literally hundreds [of roses], had come out in a single night” to decorate the garden as it is “veiled with a haze of light gold”. The perfectness of this opening picture can be contrasted with Laura’s visit to the village, where the sky is “pale”, lane “smoky and dark” the cottages “mean” with a “flicker of light” and “painted a chocolate brown”. The village was “the greatest possible eyesore” and their garden patches have “nothing but cabbage stalks, sick hens and tomato cans.” The contrast of the images is so much; it is hard to believe both of them exist in the same world, let alone in close proximity. But they do, and in that the author manages to convey how in reality all extremities in life are connected and depend on each other. Just as beauty cannot exist if there was no ugliness, the rich cannot be without the poor, the pleasure without the suffering, joy without sorrow and life without death. It’s the combination of all these that make life what it is, and in order to live, one must accept everything, even the things one does not want. This message is the ultimate objective of the author, and it is this Laura comes to understand at the end, shifting her perspective from the narrow-minded ignorance at the beginning.
The concluding words of the story are intentional in their open interpretation. While Laura’s inability to fond words to convey her feeling shows her youthfulness, it also leaves space for the reader to insert his own interpretation to fill in the blanks. “Isn’t life,” wonderful? complicated? beautiful? Whatever it is, the reader can make his own choice of words to complete Laura’s thoughts. This technique makes the philosophical meaning of the story even more powerful.
In her short story “The Garden Party”, Mansfield creates a philosophical discussion about the existence, using simple language and almost comedic undertones. In order to appreciate the deep, intellectual nature of the story, one has to delve in and uncover the subtext within an apparently simple and inconsequential narration. Mansfield’s own philosophy of life, which is, in order to experience life fully, one has to accept everything it offers, good and the bad alike, has majorly influenced this story and in the end, Mansfield succeeds in making the reader speculate about this long after he has read the last words of the story.