Analysis of Katherine Mansfield’s Bliss

The first important collection of Katherine Mansfield’s work and a touchstone for the modernist short story. Bliss brought together stories composed from 1916 to 1919; at this time, Mansfield was living through the last years of the World War I and traveling to France and Italy in the hope of curing the tuberculosis that would eventually kill her. Despite the upheaval in her life, this was a period of great productivity for her. The stories in Bliss share a number of common themes, exploring the nature of human personality and sexuality, alienation, loneliness, and malaise. The collection is characterized by a bitter sense of irony; a hard, clean style; and a Chekhovian psychological realism. It is also notable for Mansfield’s experimentation with narration.

The stories in Bliss include “Prelude,” “JE NE PARLE PAS FRANÇAIS,” “Bliss,” “The Wind Blows,” “Psychology,” “PICTURES,” “The Man without a Temperament,” “Mr. Reginald Peacock’s Day,” “Sun and Moon,” “Feuille d’Album,” “A Dill Pickle,” “The Little Governess,” “Revelations,” and “The Escape.” “Prelude” was first published in 1917 by Leonard and VIRGINIA WOOLF’s Hogarth Press and went generally unnoticed, although it is now considered one of Mansfield’s finest stories. “Je ne parle pas français” was published privately by John Middleton Murry, Mansfield’s husband, in 1918. In 1919 “Bliss” was published in The English Review and “Pictures” and “The Man without a Temperament” in Art and Letters. In 1919 Grant Richards expressed interest in publishing a collection of Mansfield’s stories, but Murry interceded and contacted Michael Sadleir of the publishing firm Constable, who would pay more for the collection. Mansfield read proofs for the publication while in a sanatorium in Italy, and the book was released in 1920. She believed Bliss for the most part to be trivial, but it was well reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement, the Athenaeum, and the Observer and sold quite well (4,000 copies in 1920–21). Sadleir submitted the collection for the Femina-Vie Heureuse prize, for which it placed third. According to the jacket blurb, “In theme, in mordant humor, and in keen realistic outlook, she [Mansfield] is the nearest thing to the modern Russian story writers and to de Maupassant that England has produced. . . . The stories have a wry chic, and tell, with a cruel and detached irony, of sorrows and of sudden brutal joys.” In their depiction of “moments of being,” the stories represent the height of the genre in modernism and reveal, as many reviewers noted, the influence of Anton Chekhov and Oscar Wilde and a representation of psychology indebted to Sigmund Freud.

Mansfield’s interest in psychology is evident in stories like “The Man without a Temperament.” Critics have seen a biographical origin in this text coming from her relationship with Murry during her illness; he was quite pained by the character of Robert, a husband traveling with an invalid wife and seeking to fulfill her needs while sublimating his resentment at being taken from his own life in England. The story fl ashes back to moments in their marriage when she was well and vibrant, and it juxtaposes scenes of their static existence abroad to show how illness has trapped them both. Robert’s position is ambiguous, as the reader is never certain of the extent of his resentment. The narration never allows us inside the man’s head, and we are left to draw conclusions from the moments Mansfield presents: a tired woman insisting her husband go for a walk without her while other guests sneer at his passivity, a final scene where she asks him if he truly minds being away with her, only to hear him say, “Rot.” The story is notable for its sense of stasis, of entrapment, and of the alienation between two people in a stifling intimacy.

Other stories similarly explore psychology with more of Mansfield’s characteristic satire. “Bliss” shows a series of revelations on the part of Bertha Young, who first realizes her own attraction to her husband only to discover his adulterous affair. “Psychology” intertwines a satire of intellectuals who delight in conversations about philosophy and literature while failing to understand and communicate their own feelings for each other. In this story, the narration is focalized through the alternating point of view of a man and a woman who meet regularly for conversation. The plot consists of a series of moments when they realize their feelings for one another, but their own desires and needs are so frightening that each retreats into empty discussion of “psychological literature.” The irony of the story lies in their professing to understand psychology while failing to understand their own psychology and that of their companions.

Mansfield’s satire comes to the fore in “Mr. Reginald Peacock’s Day.” In this story, a singing teacher imagines himself as an artist who is irresistible to his female pupils. The reality of his existence is revealed through his relationship to his wife, who, in his mind, fails to treat him as the artist he really is. The banality of his marriage and everyday life is juxtaposed with a vision of himself that is shown to be ludicrous. Here Mansfield seems to be making a particular comment on the nature of the artist and the impossible tension between the way one views oneself and the truth of one’s own life. A similar irony is present in “Pictures,” the story of an aging singer who believes herself still capable of performing. She travels from agency to agency, fantasizing about being discovered, only to wind up in a café going home with a middle-aged man; we are left to assume that she will have sex with him for money, the only recourse left to her.

This portrayal of the isolated, alienated woman and the possibility of deviance in human sexuality is also very much a part of “The Little Governess.” Here, a young girl is traveling to Germany for her first job as a governess. She is exhorted by her agency to be wary of strangers, and her position as a young woman alone is shown to be a dangerous one. An old man takes an interest in her that she believes to be benevolent, and he offers to protect her and show her around the city where she is to meet her future employer. The old man’s purpose, however, is to engage her sexually, and she flees back to her hotel, only to discover that her employer has already been there looking for her. She is left alone in a strange land, and the reader must suppose that further victimization is imminent. “The Little Governess” has much in common with “Je ne parle pas français,” in which another young woman is abandoned and faced with sexual predation. These stories, like “Bliss,” are notable for their frank depiction of sexuality, in terms of both desire and depravity.

“Prelude,” a story that has garnered much critical attention for its depiction of sexuality, for its postcolonial aspects, and for its symbolism, is possibly the most significant text in the collection. One of Mansfield’s New Zealand stories, it forms, with other texts like “At the Bay” and “The Doll’s House” that draw on her childhood, a bildungsroman, portraying a child’s coming to awareness of sex and mortality. The story is focalized varyingly through the child Kezia, based on Mansfield herself, and through her parents, Linda and Stanley Burnell. The plot is the family’s move to a larger and better house, indicating their upward class mobility. At the same time, Linda is revealed to be pregnant, an outward manifestation of her husband’s physicality and what she perceives as his overwhelming desire. Her dislike of sex and her children, indeed of her own body, is symbolized by an aloe that grows in the yard of the house and the violent animal imagery that permeates the story. Kezia is only dimly aware of these feelings, but they are revealed to be part of her growing consciousness as the story progresses.

The theme of alienation, the awareness of psychology, and the exploration of sexuality that made Bliss so worthy of attention upon its publication in 1920 has also made it a key text of modernism, and critics continue to find Mansfield’s considerations of gender, exile, and the unconscious seminal to discussions of that era.

Analysis of Katherine Mansfield’s Stories

Alpers, Antony. The Life of Katherine Mansfield. New York: Viking, 1980. Kaplan, Sydney Janet. Katherine Mansfield and the Origins of Modernist Fiction. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991.
Kobler, J. F. Katherine Mansfield: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1990.
Mansfield, Katherine. Bliss and Other Stories. London: Bloomsbury, 1994. Nathan, Rhoda, ed. Critical Essays on Katherine Mansfield. New York: G. K. Hall, 1993.
Robinson, Roger, ed. Katherine Mansfield: In from the Margin. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1997.
Scott, Bonnie Kime. Refiguring Modernism. 2 vols. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995.

Categories: British Literature, Literature, Short Story

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

%d bloggers like this: