Katherine Mansfield incorporated literary Modernism into the genre of the short story in The Garden-Party and Other Stories, published in 1922. The title story, written in 1921, emphasizes mood, emotion, and relationships of characters rather than plot and reveals the interior world of protagonist Laura, Mansfield’s representative, as she confronts class distinctions and considers the meaning of life and death.
Born in New Zealand in 1888, Mansfield moved to England in 1909. A visit from her brother in 1915 a month before he died in World War I stirred memories of her earlier life, and she began to place many of her stories in her homeland. “The Garden-Party,” one of the stories set in New Zealand, pictures the cloudless blue sky “veiled with a haze of light gold, as it is sometimes in early summer” (534) and the karaka trees “with their broad, gleaming leaves, and their clusters of yellow fruit” (536).
The first half of the story deals with preparations for the garden party: the placement of the marquee, the positioning of the pots of canna lilies, the preparation of the 15 types of party sandwiches. Mansfield uses her clear, lyrical prose to create the magnificence of the day. The rose bushes “bowed down as though they had been visited by archangels” (534), and Laura sees the karaka trees as “proud, solitary, lifting their leaves and fruits to the sun in a kind of silent splendor” (536).
The attraction Laura feels toward the working class becomes apparent during her encounter with the men who come to put up the marquee. The smile of “a lanky, freckled fellow” is “so easy, so friendly” (535) that it puts her at ease. When he pinches a sprig of lavender and smells it, she reflects, “Why couldn’t she have workmen for friends rather than the silly boys she danced with and who came to Sunday night supper?” (536).
Into this “perfect day” (534) intrudes the news of the death of a neighbor who lived in one of the “little cottages just below” (541). Laura decides immediately that the party must be canceled. Her sister Jose rejects the idea as foolish, and her mother seems “amused” (543) at the suggestion. Back in her room, Laura pictures the body of the dead man being carried into his house, but the scene seems “blurred, unreal” (544), and the party activities soon crowd it out.
As the family nibbles on party food after the guests have left, Mrs. Sheridan decides to send a basket of leftovers to the bereaved family and appoints Laura, who is horrified at what she considers to be her mother’s insensitivity, to make the delivery. On her way to the house, the surroundings take on symbolic meaning. She walks down the gleaming white road outside her family’s garden gates, crosses a wide road, and enters a “smoky and dark” lane (546). Approaching the house of the grieving family, Laura sees “a dark knot of people” (546). Inside she finds, to her amazement, that the dead man appears “wonderful, beautiful” (548). Later, when her brother asks about her visit, she responds, “ ‘It was simply marvelous’ ” (548), but she is unable to complete her sentence “ ‘Isn’t life—’ ” (549). She realizes that life and death are too complex to put into words—or to understand, for that matter.
Mansfield wrote “The Garden-Party” while she was dying of tuberculosis. She knew life and death and the joy and grief of both. In the introduction to The Short Stories of Katherine Mansfield, J. Middleton Murray, Mansfield’s husband and primary publisher, wrote of his wife, “She loved life—with all its beauty and its pain” (xi). In “The Garden-Party” Laura experiences both the beauty and pain of life, but Mansfield, true to what George McLean Harper calls her “penetrating honesty” (232), leaves Laura at the end of the story groping for a satisfactory definition of life.
Harper, George McLean. Literary Appreciations. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1937.
Mansfield, Katherine. The Short Stories of Katherine Mansfield. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1965.