Inter- and Intra-Class Distinctions: Physical, Linguistic, and Competitive Features in Katherine Mansfield's Burnell Family Stories.

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Date: Spring 2021
From: South Atlantic Review(Vol. 86, Issue 1)
Publisher: South Atlantic Modern Language Association
Document Type: Article
Length: 7,966 words

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... the greatest literature of all--the literature that scarcely exists--has not merely an esthetic object, nor merely a didactic object, but in addition a creative object; that of subjecting its readers to a real and at the same time illuminating experience. Major literature, in short, is an initiation into truth.

--Katherine Mansfield (Orage 37)


In the Burnell family stories--"Prelude" (1917), "At the Bay" (1922), and "The Doll's House" (1922)--Katherine Mansfield presents working-class New Zealanders who are distanced from middle-class families through their appearance, the spaces they inhabit, and their use of language. The complex interplay of these features conveys the reality of both inter- and intra-class distinctions in the early twentieth century and offers a real and illuminating experience of the compounding nature of class markers. Mansfield wrote with "an infinite delight and value in detail--not for the sake of detail but for the life in the life of it" (Letters I 192). Her attention to detail reveals the heterogeneity of the working class through the interaction of physical and linguistic markers that place individuals higher or lower within their class continuum. "A born actress and mimic" (Baker 233), Mansfield also uses these markers to underscore the ultimately impermeable boundaries between the classes.

As will be discussed below, scholars have examined how Mansfield caricatures the appearance of her characters to situate them within the social stratum, how she uses spatial boundaries to delineate the classes, and how she employs certain linguistic markers as indicators of class. However, little attention has been given to the inter- and intra-sectional power of these features. The current analysis will reveal that linguistic features are the more powerful intra-class markers. A character's speech raises or lowers his or her position within the working class. However, linguistic features do not surpass physical features (or vice versa) as more dominant inter-class markers but work in conjunction with one another. In other words, Standard English does not enable a working-class character to pass as middle class. Furthermore, when physical and linguistic differences are minimized between the classes, perceived threat or competition from a member of a higher class triggers a temporary resurgence of marked linguistic features in working-class characters, reinforcing the inter-class distinction. The following detailed examination of the working-class adults in these stories will provide new insight on the compounding nature of class markers and will show that appearance, locative space, and dialect work together to establish an individual's place within their class while these features along with competitive features interact to solidify the boundaries between social classes. This analysis begins with a review of the critical conversations on Mansfield's use of locative space, physical appearance, and linguistic features as markers of social class distinctions, followed by an examination of these features in each of the working-class characters in the Burnell family stories, and concludes with a discussion on perceived competition and a summation of the findings.

Markers of Social Class

Physical Space and Social Class

In the critical conversation on Mansfield's use of physical space to...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A655503291