Katherine Mansfield 1922
Katherine Mansfield was born Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp to a wealthy family in Wellington, New Zealand, on October 14, 1888. She was educated in London, deciding early on that she wanted to be a writer. She studied music, wrote for the school newspaper, and gained her intellectual freedom by Page 133 | Top of Articlestudying Oscar Wilde and the other English “decadent” writers of the early twentieth century. Three years later she returned to New Zealand, where her parents expected her to find a suitable husband and lead the life of a well-bred woman. However, Mansfield was rebellious, adventurous, and more enamored of the artistic community than of polite society. She began publishing stories in Australian magazines in 1907, and shortly thereafter returned to London. A brief affair left her pregnant and she consented to marry a man, George Bowden, whom she had known a mere three weeks and who was not the father of her child. She dressed in black for the wedding and left him before the night was over. Upon receiving word of the scandal and fueled by rumors that her daughter had also been involved with several women, Mansfield’s mother immediately sailed to London and placed her daughter in a spa in Germany, far away from the Bohemian artists’ community of London and her best friend, Ida Baker, whom Mansfield’s mother considered a bad influence. During her time in Germany, Mansfield suffered a miscarriage and was cut out of her parents’ will. After returning to London, Mansfield moved in with Baker, continuing to write and conduct various love affairs.
In 1911, Mansfield published her first volume of stories, In a German Pension, most of which had been written during her stay at the German spa. That same year she met John Middleton Murry, the editor of a literary magazine. Although they lived together on and off for many years, her other affairs continued, most notably with Baker. Together Mansfield and Murry published a small journal, The Blue Review, which folded after only three issues. However, the experience gained them entrance into the literary community of the day, and one of their newfound friends was D. H. Lawrence. In 1918, Mansfield was finally granted a divorce from Bowden, and she and Murry married. Stricken with tuberculosis in 1917, Mansfield became increasingly ill. She continued to write, publishing her two most well-known collections, Bliss and Other Stories and The Garden Party and Other Stories in 1920 and 1922 respectively. The collections received favorable critical attention, and she continued to write even after her health forced her to move to Fontainebleau. Though she was separated from Murray for long periods towards the end of her life, it was he who saw that her literary reputation was established by publishing her last stories and her collections of letters after her death in January, 1923, at the age of thirty-four.
The Jardins Publiques (Public Gardens) in a French town on an early autumn Sunday afternoon is the setting for “Miss Brill.” The air is still, but there is a “faint chill, like a chill from a glass of iced water before you sip,” so Miss Brill is happy to have worn her fur stole. The stole, in accordance to the fashions of the times, was constructed so that its fake eyes and nose could be attached to its tail, securing it around the wearer’s neck. It is the first time she has worn it in a while. When preparing for her stroll in the park, she gives it a “good brush,” “[rubs] the life back into the dim little eyes,” and teasingly calls it her “little rogue.”
Miss Brill watches the people in the park with delight. The band sounds “louder and gayer” to her than it has on previous Sundays. She listens to the concert from her “special’ seat” and is disappointed when the other two people seated there do not speak. Her favorite pastime on Sunday afternoon is to eavesdrop on people’s conversations.
In one observation, Miss Brill notices that all the people sitting on the benches listening to the band are “odd, silent, nearly all old” and “looked Page 134 | Top of Articleas though they’d just come from dark little rooms or even—even cupboards.” As Miss Brill listens to the band and watches the children playing, her thoughts drift from the pupils to whom she teaches English, to the old man to whom she reads the newspaper four days a week.
As her exuberance grows, Miss Brill likens her position as that of an actress in a play. As dramas are acted out in the park, Miss Brill realizes that she is a character, too: “Even she had a part and came every Sunday. No doubt somebody would have noticed if she hadn’t been there.” She delights in the metaphor. The band, which had been taking a break, resumes playing. Miss Brill thinks that the “whole company” might begin singing along at any moment. They would sing something “so beautiful— and moving.” She feels a vague sense of community with the rest of the people in the park.
A young couple, well-dressed and in love, come and sit near her, and Miss Brill imagines them to be the hero and heroine of the play. She listens to their conversation, but instead of revealing dialogue that fulfills Miss Brill’s fantasy of theater, the girl makes fun of Miss Brill’s fur collar. The boy, trying to appease his girlfriend, says “Why does she come here at all—who wants her? Why doesn’t she keep her silly old mug at home?” The girl, snickering, compares the woman’ s fur to a dead fish, saying that it looks like a “fried whiting.”
Miss Brill’s reaction to the comments are not recorded. Instead, she forgoes her usual stop at the bakery on her way back to her “little dark room— her room like a cupboard,” where she sits silently for a long time. Finally, she unclasps her fur quickly without looking at it. As she places it back in the box, she thinks that she hears “something crying.”
Miss Brill is a middle-aged, unmarried English woman who lives alone in a small apartment in France. She teaches English to students and reads the newspaper to an elderly man several times a week. One of her prized possessions is a fur necklet that she wears on a Sunday visit to the town’s park. The story takes place during one of these Sunday visits in which she eavesdrops on people’s conversations and listens to the band. Miss Brill is an astute observer of others, noticing that the other people sitting on the park benches seem “odd” as if they had “just come from dark little rooms.” She fails, however, to realize that she is one of them. Enchanted by the crisp air and the advent of the Season, Miss Brill compares the park to a stage, and the people—including herself—as actors and actresses in a play. The metaphor takes on the proportions of an epiphany in which she believes that she has finally connected with the community. The realization fills her with joy, and she imagines a young, attractive couple on the bench next to her as the play’s hero and heroine. She has made a false connection, though, she realizes when instead of partaking of romantic dialogue, the couple insult her. She has managed to connect with others only in her fantasy. Miss Brill retreats to her apartment without having succeeded in establishing the human contact she desperately wants and has sought. Miss Brill, however, suppresses her sorrow when she imagines that she hears her fur stole crying as she returns it to its box. She is unable to recognize the feeling as her own, just as she has been unable to see herself as others in the park perceive her.
Miss Brill’s fur necklet, with its “dim little eyes,” a nose “that wasn’t at all firm,” and a mouth that bites “its tail just by her left ear,” assumes many human characteristics in the story. It is a friend to Miss Brill, who calls it her “little rogue,” and whose eyes ask the question “What has been happening to me?”—a question that the woman is not able to ask of herself. The fur lives in a box, just as its owner lives in a “dark little room,” and together they visit the park on Sunday afternoon. After Miss Brill’s day has been spoiled, however, she returns to her apartment and stashes the fur back in its box, ashamed that it has brought her ridicule from people she has admired. The fur, she imagines, is crying—yet another human characteristic Miss Brill ascribes to her fur, which has come to symbolize Miss Brill herself.
The woman in the ermine toque
The woman in the ermine toque whom Miss Brill observes in the park symbolizes the title character herself, and her rebuff by a man in a gray suit foreshadows Miss Brill’s rejection later in the story. Miss Brill notes that the woman’s fur hat is “shabby,” bought when “her hair was yellow”; characteristics that could apply to the observer herself, though she fails to realize this. The woman is delighted to see the man in the gray suit, just as Miss Page 135 | Top of ArticleBrill is delighted by the young couple who approach her bench. When he blows smoke in the woman’s face, Miss Brill feels the rejection personally by imagining the drum beat of the band calling out “The Brute! The Brute!”
The young romantic couple
The young, romantic couple approach the bench from which Miss Brill is watching the crowd. They are “beautifully dressed” and in love. Immediately, they become the hero and heroine of Miss Brill’s imaginary play. However, instead of revealing some sprightly romantic dialogue, the boy and girl are having a quarrel in which the girl insists, “Not here, I can’t.” In an effort to placate his girlfriend, the “hero” condemns Miss Brill, asking, “who wants her? Why doesn’t she keep her silly old mug at home?” In response, the girl giggles that it is the woman’s fur that she finds so distracting. Thus, the couple’s dialogue, instead of fitting in with Miss Brill’s conception of the situation as a stage play in which they are all welcome characters, makes her realize that her presence in the park is not wanted.
“Miss Brill” presents an afternoon in the life of a middle-aged spinster. On her usual Sunday visit to the park, she imagines the she and the people in the park are characters in a play. Contributing to her good mood is the fact that she is wearing her prized fur stole. Anticipating the conversation of two strangers who sit down next to her, Miss Brill’s vivacious mood is shattered by the couple’s ridicule for her and her fur. She returns to her tiny apartment and places the fur back in its box, imagining that she hears it crying.
Alienation and Loneliness
Though Miss Brill does not reveal it in her thoughts, her behavior indicates that she is a lonely woman. She thinks of no family members during her Sunday outing, instead focusing on her few students and the elderly man to whom she reads the newspaper several times a week. Even her name, Miss Brill, suggests an isolating formality; with the absence of a first name, the reader is never introduced to her on a personal level. Her fantasy, in which she imagines the people in the park as characters in a play connected in some psychological and physical way to one another, reveals her loneliness
in a creative way. Yet, her manufactured sense of connection to these strangers is shattered when she is insulted by the young couple that sit next to her on the bench. When her fantasy of playacting is crushed by the conversation of the romantic couple, she is shown to be alienated from her environment— estranged and apart from the others in the park, to whom she only imagined a connection. Symbolically, this sense of alienation is heightened at the end of the story when Miss Brill returns her fur to its box quickly and without looking at it. This action is in stark contrast to her playful conversation with it earlier in the day, when she called it her “little rogue.” The final action of the story completes the characterization of Miss Brill as an alienated and lonely individual when she believes that she hears her beloved fur crying as she returns it to its box, just as she herself has returned to her “room like a cupboard.”
Appearances and Reality
Through the stream-of-consciousness narrative in “Miss Brill,” Mansfield creates a story in which the stark contrast between appearances and reality are manifest through the thoughts of the main character. At the beginning of the story, Miss Brill is perturbed by the old couple sitting on the bench near Page 136 | Top of Articleher. Their silence makes eavesdropping on their lives difficult. Yet, she does not realize that their behavior echoes her own silent existence. Similarly, Miss Brill notices that the other people sitting on chairs in the park are “odd, silent, nearly all old” and “looked as though they’d just come from dark little rooms or even—even cupboards!” The irony that she is one of these odd people who lives in a cupboard is not recognized. She also notices an old woman wearing a fur hat, which she calls a “shabby ermine,” bought when the woman’s hair was yellow. When the woman raises her hand to her lips, Miss Brill compares it to a “tiny yellowish paw.” While making fun of this woman in her own mind, the comparisons between the “ermine toque” and her own appearance go unnoticed. Later, when Miss Brill’s imagination concocts the metaphor of the park visitors as actors in a play, she thinks of them as connected to her in a harmonious way: “we understand, we understand, she thought.” Yet, the attractive couple whom she imagines to be the hero and heroine of the play are revealed through their conversation to not be part of this “appearance” of a stage play. In the reality of their cruel comments, they are not “members of the company” who “understand.” This strong illusion of playacting Miss Brill has envisioned has been dismantled through the harsh words of the boy and girl. In reality, they think of her not as a fellow actress, but as a “stupid old thing” whose fur resembles a “fried whiting.” The play—a metaphor which produced a moment of epiphany for Miss Brill— has taken place only in her mind. Thus, this contrast between appearance and reality in “Miss Brill” further illustrates the story’s theme of alienation— the idea that Miss Brill is separated and estranged from her environment.
“Miss Brill” presents the interior monologue of a woman on a Sunday trip to the park whose pleasant illusions are shattered when reality infringes on her thoughts.
“Miss Brill” is set in the “JardinsPubliques,” the French term for “public garden,” or park. Miss Brill, through her name and the indication that she tutors students in English, is revealed to be a non-native of France, and thus an outsider from the start. These factual references reinforce her emotional isolation, which she attempts to overcome by pretending that she is a cast member in a stage production. The pleasant weather, its crispness perfect for her fur collar, echoes Miss Brill’s good mood as she sits in the garden listening to the band and watching the people. When her illusion of understanding with the others in the park is shattered by the comments of the young couple, however, Miss Brill retreats to her “little dark room—her room like a cupboard.” This change of setting highlights the main character’s abrupt change in mood.
The primary symbol in “Miss Brill” is the main character’s fur stole. It assumes various lifelike traits, echoing the traits that characterize Miss Brill herself. She has “taken it out of its box that afternoon” just as Miss Brill has left her “room like a cupboard” for a walk in the park. It is given other human qualities: its nose “wasn’t at all firm,” and Miss Brill imagines its eyes are asking “What has been happening to me?,” and when placed back in its box at the end of the story, she thinks she hears it crying. The boy in the park criticizes Miss Brill’s appearance, suggesting that she should “keep her silly old mug at home.” Likewise, his girlfriend criticizes the fur, giggling that it looks “exactly like a fried whiting.” When Miss Brill takes the fur off at home, she does it “quickly; quickly, without looking,” perhaps symbolizing the way she failed to examine her own life or recognize how she appears to others.
“Miss Brill” is told in a third-person, stream-of-consciousness narrative, a common device in Mansfield’s works which serves to heighten the story’s psychological acuity and perceptive characterization. Though the narrative is third-person, the stream-of-consciousness technique allows the reader full access to Miss Brill’s thoughts, but nothing more than Miss Brill’s thoughts. Thus, the thoughts of others in the story are revealed by dialogue (such as the young couple’s), or they are not revealed at all (like the couple seated next to Miss Brill who do not speak). Likewise, the reader is privy to Miss Brill’s thoughts about her fur: “Dear little thing! It was nice to feel it again,” but is left to intuit much of Miss Brill’s character by what she does not realize. The stream-of-consciousness narrative reveals, for example, Miss Brill’s perception of the woman wearing an old ermine hat. Miss Brill slightly scorns the woman, calling her hat “shabby” and her hand Page 137 | Top of Articlea “tiny yellowish paw,” yet she fails to note that her own appearance is somewhat similar to the woman’s. Thus, part of Miss Brill’s character is revealed by what her stream-of-consciousness narration fails to address.
Europe between the Wars
In the 1920s, Europe was rebuilding after World War I, the most destructive and deadly war in history. As the economy grew, spurred on by the advances in medicine and technology gained during the war, a newfound era of wealth and cultural growth permeated many Western European countries. France, especially, became a haven for expatriate artists and writers from England and the United States drawn to its affordable living conditions. The values of the “Jazz Age” spread to the continent, where the dismantling of strict Victorian protocol resulted in the rise of controversial art like Expressionism and Surrealism and explicit literature from writers like James Joyce.
“Miss Brill” is set during this tumultuous time period, when the sight of an older, single woman wearing an outdated fur stole represented a genteel world forever obliterated by the atrocities of trench warfare, the promise of air travel, and the cynicism generated by the millions of casualties in the war. Like others of her day, Miss Brill is a foreigner living in France, but she is alienated from the thriving community of artists and writers who formed the “moveable feast” in Paris during the 1920s. Instead, Miss Brill has a few students to whom she teaches English and she reads to an elderly gentleman until he falls asleep. Miss Brill’s association with this man further represents her alignment with an era now obsolete. The young couple on the bench are of a younger generation, and their comments reveal the attitude towards which young people now regarded their elders.
Mansfield, whose numerous affairs always marked her as a bit of a free spirit, fit into this new social order quite comfortably. However, by the time she wrote “Miss Brill,” she was weak from tuberculosis and exerted the bulk of her energy writing stories and letters. In England, the Bloomsbury writers, a loosely-knit group that included Virginia Woolf and whose main literary goal was to eradicate the old social order of the Victorians, were in frequent correspondence with Mansfield.
In “Miss Brill,” Mansfield created one of her most famous characterizations; one that illustrates the illusions of the old order and how they are shown to be just that: illusions.
Mansfield is one of only a few writers to gain critical prominence on the basis of her short stories
alone; she published no novels during her short lifetime. Though published widely while she was still alive, her literary reputation was permanently established after her death with the publication of her collected letters and correspondence. In The Letters of Katherine Mansfield, the author gives readers insight into the way in which she constructed “Miss Brill”: “I choose the rise and fall of every paragraph to fit her. . . . After I’d written it I read it aloud—numbers of times—just as one would play over a musical composition—trying to get it nearer and nearer to the expression of Miss Brill—until it fitted her.” “Miss Brill” has always been on of Mansfield’s most popular stories. Clare Hanson and Andrew Gurr argue in their book Katherine Mansfield that Miss Brill is more than a characterization of a lonely spinster: “In Mansfield’s view we are all ultimately solitary, and human beings are fundamentally cruel and indifferent to one another except in the rare instances where they love. Without love, and without the comfort of illusions, the reality of life can be grim indeed.” They further note that “Miss Brill” has often been regarded as a moral, even as a sentimental story. Echoing the opinion of many critics, Robert L. Hull’s essay in Studies in Short Fiction states that “[t]he principle theme of Katherine Mansfield’s ’Miss Brill’ is estrangement.”
Robert Peltier is an English instructor at Trinity College and has published works of both fiction and nonfiction. In the following essay, he provides a general overview of Mansfield’s “Miss Brill.”
Katherine Mansfield, born Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp in 1888 in Wellington, New Zealand, lived a short life, but she established a literary reputation at a young age. Her first published book, In a German Pension, was published in 1911, when she was only twenty-two years old. She became friends with some of the great literary figures of her day, including D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf, and married the writer and critic J. Middleton Murry.
Her stories are full of detail and small, albeit significant, incidents in her characters’ lives. In an
often-quoted letter published in The Letters of Katherine Mansfield, she says of “Miss Brill”: “I chose the rise and fall of every paragraph to fit her, and to fit her on that day at that moment.” Katherine Fullbrook notes in her biography titled simply Katherine Mansfield that “while the surface of her stories often flash with sparkling detail, the underlying tones are sombre, threatening, and register the danger in the most innocent seeming aspects of life.”
“Miss Brill,” is one of her finest stories, capturing in a moment an event that will forever change the life of the title character. Miss Brill is an older woman of indeterminate age who makes a meager living teaching English to school children and reading newspapers to an “old invalid gentleman.” Her joy in life is her visit to the park on Sunday, where she observes all that goes on around her and listens to the conversations of people nearby, as she sits “in on other people’s lives.” It is when she tries to leave her role as spectator and join the “players” in her little world that she is rebuffed by that world and her fantasy falls apart.
On this particular Sunday, she has taken her fur necklet out of its box, brushed it, cleared its eyes, and put it on. She is glad that she wore it, because the air contains a “faint chill, like a chill from a glass of iced water before you sip.” It is a beautiful day, the first Sunday of the Season, so everything seems nicer than usual. Even the band seems to play “louder and gayer.”
Miss Brill is somewhat disappointed that there are only two older people near where she is seated. They do not speak, and her observations of the life around her begin in silence. It is clear at this point in the story that she considers herself a spectator, detached from the activities around her. She expects entertainment from the strollers and sitters, but she has been disappointed more than once. Last week, we learn, an Englishman and his wife held a boring Page 140 | Top of Articleconversation which drove Miss Brill to the point of wanting to shake the woman. But she didn’t shake her, because that would have meant involving herself in the actions she so quietly observed.
Mansfield’s eye for detail and the telling moment exhibits itself here as we, along with Miss Brill, watch the activities in the park: “. . . couples and groups [parade], [stop] to talk, to greet . . . children [run] among them, swooping and laughing. ” A “high stepping mother” picks up her child who has “suddenly sat down ’flop.’” It is a scene made up of details that we have all, at one time or another, witnessed ourselves. And that is all that Miss Brill does right now: witness the world parading past her.
But then she takes note of the people on the benches. She sees “something funny about nearly all of them.” And as she looks at these “odd, silent, nearly all old” people who look as if they have “just come from dark little rooms or even—even cupboards!” she does not see that she is one of them. Mansfield’s prose gives us an objective look at the people and events around Miss Brill while at the same time allowing us to see the subjective interpretation Miss Brill makes of that world. We don’t know what she thinks of herself, or even if she thinks of herself at all. But if she does, she must not see herself very clearly. She must not believe that she is old or odd or funny.
Now the band strikes up, and the procession continues with young girls and soldiers and peasant women leading donkeys and a nun and a beautiful woman who drops her flowers and, when a little boy picks them up for her, throws them away “as if they’d been poisoned.” Miss Brill doesn’t know “whether to admire that or not!”
Then an older woman wearing an ermine toque (a hat made of white fur) meets a man. The ermine is “shabby” and bought when “her hair was yellow.” Now her hair, as well as her face and “even her eyes” are as white as the fur. She makes superficial, yet somehow strained and desperate conversation but the man walks away after lighting his cigarette and blowing smoke in her face. The band plays more softly as the woman stands there, exposed and alone, but it picks up the tempo and plays even more loudly than before after the woman has pretended to see someone and walks away.
The fur connects them—her toque and Miss Brill’s necklet—and we see, as the woman is snubbed by the man, a foreshadowing of what is to happen to Miss Brill later in the story. The woman tried to engage the man in conversation, and Miss Brill will later try to engage with the world.
The pageant resumes with an “old man with long whiskers” nearly being knocked over by “four girls walking abreast.” Miss Brill is lost in her fantasy world now, thinking how wonderful it all is. She decides, suddenly, that it is “exactly like a play.” The scenery is perfect enough to be a painted backdrop. When a little dog trots on-stage, then off again, she realizes that not only is she—and everyone else—the audience, but they are also the actors. She has her part to play; that is why she comes at the same time each week: so that she will be on time for her performance! This wonderfully romantic idea captures her imagination. It is, she thinks, the reason that she “had quite a queer, shy feeling at telling her English pupils how she spent her Sunday afternoons.” (In those days, the theater was not considered a proper or legitimate career and also had dark, often sexual connotations). She imagines telling the old man whom she reads to that, yes, she is an actress, that she “has been an actress for a long time.”
She has entered fully now into the world she has previously only observed. She is a part of the play, someone in the cast who would be missed if she were not to come on Sunday afternoons. She delights in this newfound role as the band begins to play again. The music is “warm and sunny,” yet there is a “faint chill” to it, echoing the beginning of the story. It makes her want to sing and, as the music gets brighter, she believes that the whole company of actors in her little theater in the park will start singing together at any moment, “and then she, too, and the others on the benches.” Having entered the world, she is on the verge of becoming active in it. She feels at one with all the other actors. Her eyes fill with tears and she knows that they understand, although what they understand she is not quite sure.
It is at this moment of epiphany, when she feels a connection to the world, that a young couple arrives and sits on the bench. Miss Brill casts them immediately as the hero and heroine of her drama. She imagines them as just having arrived from his father’s yacht and “with that trembling smile,” she listens to their dialogue. But the dialogue is not heroic, but vulgar and common. The boy is trying to seduce the girl, and she is playfully, half-heartedly resisting his advances.
In the next few sentences, Miss Brill’s illusions are shattered, and she is forced to confront her life as Page 141 | Top of Articleit is. Brutal and direct, the boy asks: “Why does she come here at all—who wants her? Why doesn’t she keep her silly old mug at home.” And the girl answers: “It’s her fu-fur which is so funny . . . . It’s exactly like a fried whiting,” comparing the woman’s stole to dead fish. Miss Brill has discovered her part in her play, and now she finds that it is a tragedy, not a romance.
She leaves the park and goes home. She does not even stop at the bakery for her Sunday treat. Instead, she goes straight to her “little dark room— her room like a cupboard,” which again connects her to the old, odd, silent people on the park benches whom she has imagined as having come from just such rooms. She sits on the bed and puts her fur away in its box, but as she does, she hears something crying. She has now withdrawn so far from the world that has hurt her, that she does not realize that it is she who is crying.
Source: Robert Peltier, for Short Stories for Students, Gale Research, 1997.
Clare Hanson and Andrew Gun
In the following portion of a chapter from their book Katherine Mansfield, Hanson and Gurr recount what is known regarding Mansfield’s impetus for writing “Miss Brill” and discuss how Miss Brill manufactures a “false sense of community” that brings about her epiphany.
. . .’Miss Brill’, written soon after Katherine Mansfield arrived in Menton in November 1920, is structurally related to ’Bliss’ as a story in which a shift of feeling in one character is conveyed in a single scene. With unity of action, time and place these shorter stories tend to seem more ’realistic’ than episodic pieces like Prelude or ’Je ne parle pas francais’. However, this smooth narrative texture is in a sense appearance only. As much as in Prelude the stories are structured according to the demands of symbolist patterning and almost every detail has a symbolic as well as narrative context. There are also narrative suppressions and ellipses in stories like ’Miss Brill’, though they are less obvious than in the longer stories as they are not signalled by formal divisions in the text.
’Miss Brill’ has often been regarded as a moral, even as a sentimental story. It drew letters of thanks from solitary readers, and the author herself seems to have rather basked in such attention, writing to Murry after she had received these letters:
One writes (one reason why is) because one does care so passionately that one must show it—one must declare one’s love.
But in writing the story she adhered to Symbolist principles. Rather than ’declaring her love’ she kept her own, or rather the narrator’s point of view rigorously out of the story. The events and images function dramatically, the narrator providing only ’objective’ description. This is true even of the famous last lines of the story:
The box that the fur came out of was on the bed. She unclasped the necklet quickly; quickly, without looking, laid it inside. But when she put the lid on she thought she heard something crying.
The narrator provides objective information, then the rapid rhythms of ’quickly; quickly, without looking’ shade into the representation of Miss Brill’s agitated state. The closing perception of the story is Miss Brill’s and not the narrator’s and is entirely in accord with her neurotic, fantastic imagination. And it is entirely unsentimental, suggesting very firmly the fear and horror which attend the suppression of any human being.
In ’Miss Brill’ all is conveyed obliquely, through concrete imagery and the dramatic device of Miss Brill’s inner monologue. Not once is her inner state alluded to or described directly. The story is thus the perfect example of the technique Mansfield described to Murry—oblique, delicately suggestive:
I might write about a boy eating strawberries or a woman combing her hair on a windy morning and that is the only way I can ever mention [deserts of vast eternity].
The language of the story also reaches a high degree of perfection. She wrote in a well-known letter to Richard Murry that:
In Miss Brill I choose not only the length of every sentence, but even the sound of every sentence. I choose the rise and fall of every paragraph to fit her, and to fit her on that very day at that very moment. After I’d written it I read it aloud—numbers of times—just as one would play over a musical composition—trying to get it nearer and nearer the expression of Miss Brill—until it fitted her.
The author’s own satisfaction with the style of ’Miss Brill’ suggests her success in the story. A poetic intensity and concretion is sustained throughout, the sound of the words and the prose rhythms conveying and enriching meaning. The use of the musical analogy for ’Miss Brill’ in the passage quoted above also has more direct relevance. The story is shaped, specifically, as a lament, and something of the quality of a sung lament is deliberately Page 142 | Top of Articleinfused into it by the use of para-musical prose rhythms in some sections.
The story is constructed around a series of parallels and contrasts designed to expose with increasing clarity the inner state of the central character. The key themes are the opposition between age and youth, stasis and vitality, solitude and community, illusion and reality.
Miss Brill herself is old, as we realise immediately from the author’s handling of her stylised inner monologue. Her speech patterns are those of a nervous, fussy, elderly person. She is associated in the first paragraph of the story with her fur, which acts as a mirror image of the woman herself. The fur, too, is old, with ’dim’ eyes, and its nose is ’not at all firm’; ’Never mind—a little dab of black sealing wax when the time came—when it was absolutely necessary . . .’ The ellipsis signals Miss Brill’s reluctance to recognise a time when ’it’ will be absolutely necessary, her avoidance of the thought of decay or decomposition.
In the five and a half pages of the story Miss Brill’s state is explored through a series of figures who act as parallels for her. At the Jardins Publiques she sits beside an old couple who are as ’still as statues’, and she notices the other regular visitors to the park—’There was something funny about nearly all of them. They were odd, silent, nearly all old’—though Miss Brill does not, explicitly, include herself in this company. The most extended view which she has of any other visitor to the park is of a single woman in an ermine toque ’bought when her hair was yellow. Now everything, her hair, her face, even her eyes, was the same colour as the shabby ermine, and her hand, in its cleaned glove, lifted to dab her lips, was a tiny yellowish paw.’ The woman in the toque parallels Miss Brill in the efforts which she has made to ’touch up’ her shabby appearance before entering the park. The link between the furs—dead animals retaining the appearance of life—and the old people, is insisted on. Miss Brill is linked finally to another elderly man to whom she reads the newspaper:
She had got quite used to the frail head on the cotton pillow, the hollowed eyes, the open mouth and the high pinched nose. If he’d been dead she mightn’t have noticed for weeks; she wouldn’t have minded.
He too is a moribund figure, retaining little more than the appearance of life.
The pictures of the old are counterpointed by glimpses Miss Brill has of the younger people in the park, who all seem to be much further away. The old people are solitary and motionless. The younger ones are presented as energetic and vigorous—the conductor of the band flaps his arms, the bandsmen blow out their cheeks. Little children ’swoop’ and ’laugh’, young mothers ’rush’, ’high stepping’. Their vitality distinguishes them, as does the fact that they are all in groups or, more relevantly, in pairs:
Two young girls in red came by and two young soldiers in blue met them, and they laughed and paired and went off arm in arm.
The theme of solitude against community has already been introduced in the second paragraph where Miss Brill ironically sees herself and the other regular visitors to the park as ’the family’, as compared with the ’strangers’, the seasonal visitors. (The reverse is of course the case: the regular visitors are all strangers—all alone—whereas the visitors are in family groups.) The theme of false community appears again in the scene with the ’ermine toque’. This woman approaches a ’gentleman’ and tries to engage him in conversation. As she chatters, he lights a cigarette and ’while she was still talking and laughing, flicked the match away and walked on’. The ’ermine toque’s’ pitifully inappropriate behaviour and her imaginary sense of relationship anticipate the central moment of the story. The theme of false community is an integral part of Miss Brill’s epiphany, as is the theme of the discrepancy between appearance and reality which is also developed through the story.
From the beginning, the things which Miss Brill sees are described in ’stagey’ terms. She herself touches up her fur, that is, her appearance, before she sets out for the park. She sees other elderly people as ’statues’; the running little girls are ’dolls’. Towards the end of the story, her vision flowers into explicit recognition. She realises that everything she sees is like a play:
How she loved sitting here, watching it all! It was like a play. It was exactly like a play. Who could believe the sky at the back wasn’t painted? But it wasn’t until a little brown dog trotted on solemnly and then slowly trotted off, like a little ’theatre’ dog, a little dog that had been drugged, that Miss Brill discovered what it was that made it so exciting. 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.
When she realises this, Miss Brill looks again at the band, the play within the play. As the music flows out, she has her false epiphany. She feels at one with everyone else, everyone seems united, through the music and also because they are all part of a play and are in this sense a ’company’:
. . . And Miss Brill’s eyes filled with tears and she looked smiling at all the other members of the company. Yes, we understand, she thought—though what they understood she didn’t know.
The falsity of this sense of community is revealed almost immediately. A young couple replace the silent old couple on the seat beside Miss Brill. They are drawn immediately into her imaginary play— ’The hero and heroine, of course, just arrived from his father’s yacht’—only to destroy all its meaning as soon as they actually speak:
’. . .Why doesn’t she keep her silly old mug at home? “It’s her fu-fur which is so funny . . . It’s exactly like a fried whiting.’
Thus it is revealed to Miss Brill in the most painful possible way that her play is a play within her mind only. We are made to see the isolation of each individual within their own consciousness, and the all too common discrepancy between on the one hand the appearance which the mind creates through imagination and memory, and on the other hand reality, in the sense of what is generally agreed to be the truth. Miss Brill’s most recent sustaining illusion has been that on her Sunday afternoon visits to the Jardins Publiques she has been part of a community of feeling and interest. She has felt that the part which she plays in the Sunday afternoon pageant has mattered to others as theirs had mattered to her. We know that Miss Brill’s existence is barely tolerable, but we also know that she transforms her meagre situation, by the power of her imagination, which is creative. She idealises what she sees around her and idealises herself, revealing herself as an artist in this sense.
The young couple tear down the veil of illusion, leaving Miss Brill with nothing. She realises the cruelty of other human beings in the cruelty and indifference of the young couple—whom she has idealised. She has hoped that if she were to miss a Sunday afternoon (for reasons not admitted to consciousness) she would in her turn be missed. It is now apparent that this is doubtful, and that certainly no one would care. And Miss Brill realises finally that she does not appear to others as she does to herself (she does not see her face as a ’silly old mug’).
Miss Brill’s epiphany is too unbearable and her new knowledge cannot be admitted to consciousness at this moment. Hence the ellipsis which follows the speech of the young couple. Miss Brill does not think about what she has just realised, though it may make its way back into consciousness
by degrees. But, we sense, she will then transform this knowledge too by the power of her imagination, the saving grace of her life. This is suggested through the coda of the story as she puts her fur away, thus showing her ability to adjust and construct new appearances.
Miss Brill’s situation is extreme and her isolation is intensified because she is a spinster abroad in a foreign country. Yet in Mansfield’s view we are all ultimately solitary, and human beings are fundamentally cruel and indifferent to one another except in the rare instances where they love. Without love, and without the comfort of illusions, the reality of life can be grim indeed. ’Miss Brill’, for all its brevity, presents a genuinely tragic view of experience. The central character lacks love and has only her capacity of creative imagination between herself and the void. She will go on living and transforming her experience into tolerable forms, but the value and meaning of life on this level is questionable. Without love, what other ’real ideal’ can enter Miss Brill’s life? The brief descriptions of natural beauty—the sea, the golden leaves, the blue sky— suggest one possibility, but these are the perceptions of the narrator, and are introduced as thematic motifs, rather than being important to Miss Brill. Through a combination of character and circumstance, Miss Brill’s life has been reduced to the barest minimum necessary to continued existence. The story is a radical questioning of the meaning of such existence, and of the purpose of the life-force which makes her carry on on these terms. . . .
Source: Clare Hanson and Andrew Gurr, “The South of France 1918-20,” in Katherine Mansfield, St. Martin’s Press, 1981, pp. 75-82.
Robert L. Hull
In the following essay, Hull analyzes the principal theme of “Miss Brill,” which he states is
estrangement from love, and which Mansfield stated was her primary reason for writing the story.
The principal theme of Katherine Mansfield’s “Miss Brill” is estrangement. Miss Mansfield gives in this story a significant look, through the eyes of Miss Brill, a look short and startling and at once full of pity, at the world that the lonely woman inhabits. Indeed, Miss Brill’s world is more than lonely; it is also an existential world in which she finds herself in complete solitude estranged from God, man, and, more importantly, from herself. Explicators of the story have wholly or partly ignored the theme of estrangement that I feel is the major theme.
Two passages from Miss Mansfield’s letters to John Middleton Murry present evidence for her purpose in writing “Miss Brill.” “One writes (one reason why is) because one does care so passionately that one must show it—one must declare one’s love.” In another letter she writes: “Last night I walked about and saw the new moon with the old moon in her arms and the lights in the water and the hollow pools full of stars—and lamented there was no God. But I came in and wrote ’Miss Brill’ instead; which is my insect Magnificat now and always.” The reason for writing and the mood reflected in these two passages point to a clearer definition of purpose in “Miss Brill” than anyone has shown. Lamenting an absence of God and striving to show that one must love, Miss Mansfield created Miss Brill, who strives to show love but is incapable of showing or receiving it. In her solitude she is certainly not protected by any godly benevolence. It is the estrangement from love that alienates Miss Brill.
Some obvious elements of alienation occur in Miss Brill’s name and in her residence. Miss Brill’s name in French (briller) means to shine. The irony is that she does not shine but is indeed a dull spinster without a shining personality or the warming glow of love. In a Swiftian sense, the name further suggests Miss Brill’s estrangement from herself. All that she can see and know of herself is that “varnish and tinsel” of the surface. Her fur is the most obvious of the surface fixtures with which she identifies. Secondly, Miss Brill is an alien in France. This fact alone can account for some of her estrangement and inability to communicate freely. However, we can find the less obvious indications of alienation in the paradoxes and comparative events.
The story opens with a thematic paradox. From the description of the atmosphere— “the blue sky powdered with gold and great spots of light like white wine splashed over the Jardins Publiques . . . the air was motionless, but when you opened your mouth there was a faint chill, like a chill from a glass of iced water before you sip, and now and again a leaf came drifting—from nowhere, from the sky” — one immediately can feel the first throes of autumn, that “faint chill” anticipating the colder chill of winter. Yet paradoxically, Miss Brill finds in the chill the feeling of the vibrancy of spring. She takes out her fur piece, renews it for the season, questions its appearance, and then like an awakening “she felt a tingling in her hands and arms, but that came from walking, she supposed. And when she breathed, something light and sad—no, not sad, exactly— something gentle seemed to move in her bosom.” This passage certainly parallels the passage beginning what Miss Welty calls Miss Brill’s “vision of love.’” “The Band had been having a rest. Now they started again. And what they played was warm, sunny, yet there was just a faint chill—a something, what was it?—not sadness—no, not sadness—a something that made you want to sing.” The “chill” or the “something” points directly yet subtly to Miss Brill’s alienation. For her, love—the love of her fur piece, which functions like an unsympathetic mirror into which she cannot see, and the “vision of love,” in which she imagines all those gathered in the park singing and thus communicating with one another—is faintly chill because she has been somehow excommunicated from a real experience of love. Thus not knowing love’s warmth or having any framework of reference for the experience of love, she can feel or imagine love only in the solitude devoid of warmth, estranged and left cold with absence.
A further suggestion of estrangement is in the meeting of the woman in the ermine toque and the Page 145 | Top of Articleman in the gray suit. The man rejects the woman, whom Miss Brill admires and with whom she identifies. Mansfield drives home the rejection with the man’s blowing smoke in the woman’s face and with the beat of the bass drum drumming “the Brute, the Brute.” Miss Brill in her identification feels that her experiences of rejection are like those experienced by the flirtatious woman. However, as Mr. Thorp points out, the woman is probably a prostitute. Miss Brill, not understanding the nature of the woman, fails to see the significance of her identification. Both women passionately desire to express their love, the woman wearing the toque through the physical contact of sex; Miss Brill through what she imagines. Society rebuffs both expressions. It rejects the one because sex is only one manifestation of love; it rejects the other because of failure to communicate (society cannot read Miss Brill’s mind). Katherine Mansfield says in her letter “. . . one must declare one’s love.” Miss Brill’s declaration is unheard and thus, to society, unexpressed.
We can find still further evidence of alienation in the “vision of love,” in which Miss Brill is gathered up into an imaginative experience with all the people gathered in the park singing together as a harmonious whole. But even this imaginative attempt at an expression of love fails as Miss Brill thinks: “Yes, we understand, we understand . . . though what they understood she didn’t know.” Even in her most vivid imaginings, Miss Brill can find no understanding or communication. She finds herself completely alone, yet she denies or fails to understand or to confront her position.
The final and most overwhelming evidence of alienation is the tragic scene in which Miss Brill is rebuffed by the young man courting on the seat next to her. The rejection parallels that of the man in the gray suit blowing smoke in the face of the woman in the ermine toque. Both exclusions are crude and brutish. With this confrontation with her solitude, she returns to her “cupboard” with nothing left her but self-pity in her loneliness.
Thus the theme of estrangement has run its course. Miss Brill has made an ever so passionate attempt to express love, to be a part of the whole of society that means so much to her. Her imagination, though sensitive, has failed from lack of experience. She is left, as she began, in her pathetic solitude.
Source: Robert L. Hull, “Alienation in ’Miss Brill’,” in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. V, No. 1, Fall, 1967, pp. 74-6.
The Letters of Katherine Mansfield, edited by J. Middleton Murry, Knopf, 1930.
Fullbrook, Kate. Katherine Mansfield, Indiana University Press, 1986.
Biography of the writer’s life.
Kobler, J. F. Katherine Mansfield: A Study of the Short Fiction, Twayne, 1990.
Critical analysis of Mansfield’s stories.
Nathan, Rhoda B., Katherine Mansfield, Continuum Publishing Company, 1988.
Biography of the writer’s life.
Pilditch, Jan. The Critical Response to Katherine Mansfield, Greenwood Press, 1996.
Collection of reprinted criticism on Mansfield’s works.