A Cup of Tea by Katherine Mansfield
In A Cup of Tea by Katherine Mansfield we have the theme of jealousy, insecurity, materialism and class. Taken from her The Doves’ Nest and Other Stories 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 class or rather the differences between social classes. By telling the reader that ‘they were rich, really rich, not just comfortably well off’ Mansfield succeeds in not only highlighting to the reader how wealthy Rosemary and Philip are but more importantly she manages to highlight how different Rosemary is from others. Something that is a little clearer when Mansfield also tells the reader ‘if Rosemary wanted to shop she would go to Paris as you and I would go to Bond Street.’ Though it may appear to be insignificant the fact that Rosemary has a car may also be important as by introducing the car into the story it is possible that Mansfield is further highlighting the class difference that exists between Rosemary and those around her. At the time the story was written only the very wealthy (mostly upper class) would have had the resources to buy a car.
The fact that Rosemary is surprised when Miss Smith first speaks to her also suggests that Rosemary may be different to others. It would have been uncommon (at the time the story was written) for those considered to be of a lower class (Miss Smith) to engage with those considered to be upper class (Rosemary). It is also interesting that Rosemary thinks it is ‘extraordinary’ that Miss Smith has no money. This would again suggest that Rosemary is different from other people. She can’t imagine that somebody would have no money. By describing Miss Smith as the ‘other’ when Rosemary leads Miss Smith into the hall of her home and Rosemary as being like ‘the rich little girl in her nursery’ Mansfield may be further highlighting the difference in class between both Miss Smith and Rosemary.
It is also interesting that Rosemary, while Miss Smith is in her bedroom having tea, leaves Miss Smith’s hat and coat on the floor. By doing so Mansfield may be suggesting that in Rosemary’s eyes, Miss Smith is not her equal. This would further highlight the difference in class (in Rosemary’s eyes) between Miss Smith and Rosemary. The reader also doubts that Rosemary would take the same course of action (leave a hat and coat on the floor) should one of her upper class friends visit her home. At no stage in the story does the reader feel that Rosemary, by taking Miss Smith home with her, is doing so for the benefit of Miss Smith rather it serves to boost Rosemary’s perception of herself. She does after all consider the taking of Miss Smith home with her to be an adventure, something she will be able to boast about to her friends.
There is also some symbolism in the story which may be important. The little box that Rosemary sees in the antique shop, by telling the reader that Rosemary ‘must have it’, Mansfield may be highlighting the importance of material things to Rosemary. Mansfield also appears to be using the setting, after Rosemary leaves the antique shop, to highlight Rosemary’s mood after she is unable to buy the little box. Mansfield tells the reader that the ‘rain was falling, and with the rain it seemed the dark came too, spinning down like ashes. There was a cold bitter taste in the air, and the new-lighted lamps looked sad.’ In many ways this setting mirrors how Rosemary may feel about having to leave the shop without purchasing the little box. The flowers that Rosemary buys may also have some symbolic importance. By telling the reader that Rosemary wanted ‘those and those and those. Give me four bunches of those,’ Mansfield may be further highlighting how different Rosemary is from other people (due to her wealth) and how extravagant she is. Rather than just purchasing one bunch of flowers, as most people would and could only afford to do, Rosemary ends up with several.
Rosemary’s change of attitude towards Miss Smith after Philip tells her that he thinks Miss Smith is pretty is also interesting. It is from Philip’s remark that the reader realises not only is Rosemary jealous of Miss Smith (because she is pretty) but she also appears to be insecure about her own physical appearance. It may also be a case that Philip is attempting to manipulate or control Rosemary, just as she has Miss Smith. By telling Rosemary that Miss Smith is pretty Philip is aware that it will result in Rosemary not only feeling jealous but it will also ensure that Miss Smith leaves their home, just as Philip wants her to. If anything Philip appears to want to disassociate himself (and Rosemary) from Miss Smith. Which would again play on the theme of class. Philip does not want to associate himself with those (Miss Smith) he considers to be of a lower class.
How insecure Rosemary may feel about her physical appearance is further noticeable by the fact that after Miss Smith leaves Rosemary’s home, Mansfield tells the reader that Rosemary ‘done her hair, darkened her eyes a little and put on her pearls.’ This action is important as it suggests that Rosemary is attempting to make herself pretty, at least in Philips eyes. The fact that Rosemary asks Philip for the money to buy the little box may also be significant as it would again highlight the importance of material things to Rosemary. Also by ending the story with Rosemary asking Philip ‘am I pretty?’ Mansfield may be further highlighting how insecure Rosemary feels about her physical appearance. Despite being wealthy and living a life that the majority of people at the time the story was written were unable to live, Rosemary is insecure.