Analysis of Katherine Mansfield’s Miss Brill

Written in 1920 and included in Katherine Mansfield’s short story collection The Garden-Party and Other Stories, “Miss Brill” narrates a day in the life of an aging spinster, Miss Brill, who perceives life as a play and is aware of her role as an actress, playwright, and director in the metaphorical representation. Alone and with no friends, she spends her Sundays visiting the local park, listening to the band, and observing people’s lives around her. Since it is the first Sunday of a new season, she decides to celebrate by wearing a shabby fox-fur collar that has been long stored in an old box. This scene is part of her own play, in which she is one of the protagonists, until she is awakened from her idyllic dream by the comment of a couple, who laugh at her decrepit state, making her conscious of her age and terrible loneliness. Feeling utterly miserable, she returns home, locks herself in her bedroom, and throws the fur into the box, from which she hears a little cry of anguish.

This story was originally published in the Athenaeum (November 26, 1920) and, despite the opinion of some critics, like Richard F. Peterson, who sees it as a story “better suited for melodrama than the delicate art of the modern short story” (385), its general public acclaim was unprecedented, as Mansfield herself acknowledged (Letters, 130, 136). As opposed to other stories that she might have written just for money, like “Mr. and Mrs. Dove” or “See-Saw,” the quality of this piece of fiction derives from the author’s almost obsessive reworking on it:

I chose not only the length of every sentence, but even the sound of every sentence—I chose the rise and fall of every paragraph to fit [Miss Brill] on that day at that very moment. After Id written it I read it aloud—number of times—just as one would play over a musical composition, try to get it nearer and nearer to the expression of Miss Brill—until it fitted her. (Letters, 165)

Pamela Dunbar (66) notes that the stylistic flourishes in the story (such as frequent repetitions, omissions, and exclamations) capture Miss Brill’s personality (her lack of confidence, tenderness, and defiant, gushy gaiety). Indeed, together with “Poison” and “The Lady’s Maid,” “Miss Brill” is considered by some to be one of Mansfield’s best stories written at that time (321).

“Miss Brill” reflects two of Mansfield’s central preoccupations in her narrative: the use of metafiction and the figure of the old, lonely spinster. With the former, Mansfield intends to dismantle the artificiality of language, which creates illusions of identity and a false sense of belonging, to show finally that we are puppets manipulated by society. Miss Brill is conscious that she is “composing” a play and that we are reading her work of art. Everything is artificial: the “great spots of light,” her old job as an actress, the landscape as if it were a backdrop, the people as “members of the company,” “a little ‘theatre’ dog,” and the couple who ridicule her as a “hero and heroine.” As Miss Brill thinks, “They were all on the stage. They weren’t only the audience, not only looking on; they were acting. Even she had a part and came every Sunday. No doubt somebody would have noticed if she hadn’t been there; she was part of the performance, after all” (334). She feels overjoyed, godlike, until the young couple’s comment brings her back to reality: She is “an old mug,” like the fur she is wearing (shabby, with a need to belong and shine with a little glamor); she is, after all, an illusion of identity in the fictional play of life, in which she ultimately does not have a role.

This evanescent identity connects with the topic of the aging spinster, and Miss Brill is its perfect epitome. Mansfield’s taste for symbolism can be observed in the character’s name: It is a kind of flatfish, living isolated in the bottom of the sea, where it blends in with the sand because of its color. Therefore, this old lady is presented as a social outcast, an insignificant and invisible animal who adopts a superficial identity to survive in a system of appearances, condemned to live in a vicious cycle, like the “fried whiting” that bites its own tail, with which she is compared in the end. Mansfield herself considers Miss Brill as “my insect magnificat now & always” (Letters, 109), and her social criticism is conspicuous in the story: She parodies the isolated figure of the old expatriate woman who never matures, does not have access to the emblematic institution of marriage, and wastes her time leading other people’s lives. The old spinster, including such figures as Miss Brill, Ada Moss in “Pictures,” the protagonist in “The Canary,” and Miss Bray in “Second Violin,” is the most pathetic of all Mansfield’s heroines. The box into which she throws the fox fur could represent the most tragic of deaths: the coffin where she is buried alive.

Analysis of Katherine Mansfield’s Stories

Alpers, Antony. The Life of Katherine Mansfield. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980.
Mansfield, Katherine. Collected Stories. London: Penguin, 1981.
———. The Collected Letters of Katherine Mansfield. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.
Peterson, Richard F. “The Circle of Truth: The Stories of Katherine Mansfield and Mary Lavin,” Modern Fiction Studies 24, no. 3 (1978): 383–394.

Categories: British Literature, Literature, Short Story

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