A Birthday by Katherine Mansfield
In A Birthday by Katherine Mansfield we have the theme of responsibility, selfishness, gender roles, appearance, suffering and paralysis. Taken from her In a German Pension collection the story is narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator and after reading the story the reader realises that Mansfield may be exploring the theme of responsibility. Andreas if anything thinks only of himself. True he goes to fetch Doctor Erb but apart from this Andreas takes no responsibility for the condition that Anna may be in. That task is left to Andreas’ mother. Where one would expect Andreas to be by his wife’s side. This does not occur. This may be significant as it serves to highlight how selfish Andreas may be. Other incidents in whereby Andreas shows selfishness include his preoccupation with himself and how he is feeling. Showing total disregard for Anna’s feelings. Also Andreas is preoccupied with the fact that he wants a son. A son who will take over the family business and ensure that Andreas has a legacy. Again Andreas is thinking only of himself and not the condition that Anna may be in or how she may be suffering.
In fact throughout the story Andreas makes no allowance for Anna’s suffering. He is more focused on what he calls his sensitivities. This too may be important as Andreas is aware that he may be a sensitive man yet he does not do anything about it. He allows for all indiscretions he feels to be attributed to his sensitivities. It is as though Andreas believes himself to play a specific role, that of the male leader, and has no consideration for others. His thoughts and treatment of the servant girl serve as an example of how badly Andreas treats people. The reader left suspecting that Andreas believes in each gender serving a particular role. The servant girl is there to serve Andreas while his wife is there to provide him with his fourth child in as many years. At no stage does the reader feel as though Andreas has the ability to be compassionate. Though some critics might suggest that Andreas visit to Doctor Erb’s highlights his ability to be compassionate. He is only going to visit Doctor Erb on his mother’s instruction.
It is also possible that Mansfield is using Andreas as an example of middle or upper class men who believe themselves to be better than others. Throughout the story Andreas has everything provided for him. True he may be paying the servant girl to work for him but his attitude and beliefs when it comes to the servant girl ensure that the reader is left in no doubt as to what Andreas thinks of her. Likewise he scorns upon the criticism he feels he receives from Doctor Erb when no offence should be taken. At all stages the most important person in Andreas life is himself. In reality he is unable to or chooses not to think about others. The present situation that Andreas finds himself in (Anna giving birth) is an unwelcome chore for Andreas. He even considers discarding the photograph of Anna because he no longer likes how she looks. This may be significant as Andreas may believe that appearance is important, more so than an individual’s character. The reader is left feeling as though Andreas, just as he is prepared to discard the photograph, is likewise prepared to abandon Anna. All because she no longer looks as youthful as she once did.
The end of the story is interesting as Andreas considers it to be himself who has suffered for the duration of Anna giving birth. However the reality is very much different. Throughout the story Andreas has acted selfishly and without any responsibility towards Anna. Neither has he put himself in Anna’s shoes believing it to be more appropriate to think of his legacy and the importance of Anna giving birth to a son. The fact that Andreas believes that he has suffered during Anna giving birth also suggests or highlights how single-minded Andreas is. He is relieved that a son has been born yet he thinks only of himself and his suffering when the reality is Andreas has not suffered any type of discomfort at all. He has thought only of himself. Been critical of others and judged that Anna is no longer the woman that he married. The fact that Andreas remains on both the ground level or lower ground level of the house throughout the story may be important as it is possible that Mansfield is suggesting that Andreas is going nowhere, there will be no progression. In reality he may be paralysed or stuck with his way of thinking.