Analysis of Katherine Mansfield’s The Daughters of the Late Colonel

Published in The Garden Party and concerned, like the title story of the collection, with “the diversity of life and how we try to fit in everything, Death included” (Mansfield 1985, 259), this story was written one year before Katherine Mansfield’s own death and was considered by many reviewers a “cruel” piece when it was published. Like most fictions by Katherine Mansfield it is difficult to recount, being plotless—Mansfield despised “nice ‘plotty’ stories” (Mansfield 1985, 239)— although the title of the story tells something of what it is about. Josephine and Constantia, the two middleaged, unmarried and, childless protagonists of the story, have existed only in relation to their father, a symbol of Victorian patriarchy and imperialism. When the colonel is dead, the two women discover that although they are no longer obliged to obey his rule, their lifelong submission to his authority has stripped them of their potential for independence: They are unable to get away from the claustrophobic space of his house and exchange a world of escapist fantasies for the potential dangers of freedom and external reality.

As in “Prelude” and “At the Bay,” one of the main achievements of “The Daughters of the Late Colonel” lies in its complex and modernist structure based on a significant tension between linear continuity and spatial contiguity—between the apparently logical succession of scenes and the illogical juxtaposition of images and unstated links. Section one begins in the sisters’ bedroom, a week after their father’s death, an event that will never be directly named until the last section of the story. From the start, Josephine and Constantia’s reaction to their loss appears both comic and pathetic, a mixture of embarrassment, nervousness, and paralysis. In section two, we realize that the sisters’ fearful attitude to Nurse Andrews and their servant Kate replicates their father’s tyranny over them. Section three records the sisters’ remembered horror at the gothic sight of their father opening “one eye only” just before dying in his bed. Section four centers on a decorous visit from the vicar, in the drawing room, the day of the Colonel’s death. The conversation shows the sisters’ guilt and anxiety when confronted with male authority. Section five takes us back at the cemetery, when Josephine imagined their father’s resurrection and revenge for the fact that they buried him.

Katherine Mansfield /

In section six, the two women try to face their fears and weaknesses for the first time as they enter their father’s room, two mornings after his funeral. Constantia deliberately locks the Colonel’s wardrobe and takes the key out, a symbolic gesture of punishment that reminds Josephine of the day when she pushed her brother Benny into the pond. But in the section seven, as they are back in the dining-room, inner tension increases again: The sisters wonder what memento of their father they should send Benny while unconsciously making a link between domestic tyranny and the empire (we infer here that the colonel served in the colonial service in Ceylon). Deciding on a watch, a male symbol of historical and chronological time, Josephine then wonders in section eight whether their adult nephew Cyril should not have it. Until the end of section nine, the dining room dissolves in a happy memory of one of Cyril’s visits as a child. Sections ten and eleven take us back to the present and to the daughters’ indecisiveness and unlived lives.

The final section of the story focuses on a series of metaphorical objects and images that embody the possibility for the sisters to escape from patriarchal order and develop their own female identities. The music from the barrel organ in the street defies the military order imposed on them by their father, the sparrows chirping on the window-sill echo Josephine’s “queer little crying noise” inside her, and the moonlight and the sea suggest a reconciliation with female rhythms and limitless territories. But when Constantia turns to her sister to articulate what she has glimpsed of this new fantasized life, the expected moment of self-revelation evaporates into oblivion: “I can’t say what I was going to say, Jug, because I’ve forgotten what it was . . . that I was going to say.” As Mansfield wrote to a friend in June 1921, “All was meant, of course, to lead up to that last paragraph, when my two flowerless ones turned with that timid gesture, to the sun. ‘Perhaps now . . .’ And after that, it seemed to me, they died as surely as Father was dead” (Mansfield 1985, 224). The sisters’ awakening is smothered by their upbringing and education.

The mixing of time and space in the 12 numbered sections of the story reminds us that for many modernist writers time is both subjective and objective; it is a complex flow of fragmented moments challenging the logical causality usually associated with time sequence. In this story, the illusion of chronological linearity created by the numbered sections is rapidly dismissed by the confusing function of the temporal ellipses and typographical gaps and by the sisters’ successive movements in the different rooms of the house. The use of flashbacks within the sections or in between them underlines the retreat into the subjective memory of an “eternal” past that functions like a prison. As the story unfolds and time elapses, the structuring of the narration draws attention to the circularity of the short story: Suspended in time, the daughters are unable to experience the cyclical time of creative and maternal capacity, an inability that seems to be confirmed by the absence of the mother in the story. But the structure of Katherine Mansfield’s story also has symbolical implications linked with its dramatic frame and main thematic impulses. “The Daughters of the Late Colonel” is a story concerned with Oedipal romance, with the neurotic fixity of gender roles, with authority and suppressed desire, alienation and freedom, life and death. If the story is indeed cruel, this cruelty is not primarily addressed to the sisters, whose unfulfilled lives are rendered poignant and humorous by Mansfield’s technique of point of view and free indirect style. It is rather the result of a harsh yet indirect criticism on a Victorian patriarchal system that victimizes its women to the point of making them unaware of their own potential.

Fullbrook, Kate. Katherine Mansfield. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986.
Hanson, Clare, and Andrew Gurr. Katherine Mansfield. London: Macmillan, 1981.
Kleine, Don W. “Katherine Mansfield and the Orphans of Time,” Modern Fiction Studies 24, no. 3 (Autumn 1978): 423–438.
Mansfield, Katherine. The Garden Party and Other Stories. London: Penguin, 1998.
———. The Letters and Journals of Katherine Mansfield: A Selection. 1977. Edited by C. K. Stead. 4th ed. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1985.

Categories: British Literature, Literature, Short Story

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