An Ideal Family by Katherine Mansfield
In An Ideal Family by Katherine Mansfield we have the theme of change, trust, appearance, reliance, appreciation and awareness. Taken from her The Garden Party and Other Stories collection the story is narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator and from the beginning of the story Mansfield appears to be exploring the theme of change. Through the narrator the reader learns that Mr Neave’s family want him to retire and hand over the running of his business to his son, Harold. The fact that Mansfield sets the story in spring may also be significant as spring is suggestive of a new beginning (or the start of change), which the handing of the business to Harold would be. It is also interesting that Mr Neave appears to be struggling as he is walking home. This may be significant as symbolically Mansfield may be suggesting that Mr Neave is also struggling (or finding it difficult to accept) that it may be time for him to retire.
It is also very early on in the story that Mansfield appears to be exploring the theme of trust. Mr Neave, though he is aware that Harold only returns from lunch after four o’clock, never knows where he may have been. There is a sense that Mr Neave has difficulty in trusting Harold because he doesn’t really know what Harold may be doing. The idea of trust is further explored when the reader discovers that when Harold was a boy, he robbed money from his mother’s purse and left the purse in the cook’s bedroom. This incident is significant as it not only suggests that (as a child) Harold was untrustworthy but it may also highlight the sense of dissatisfaction that Mr Neave feels when it comes to his son. Despite the passing of time the incident of stealing his mother’s purse remains important for Mr Neave. Important enough for Mr Neave to have concerns about handing his business over to Harold.
There is also a sense that Mr Neave’s daughters do not appreciate him. Despite providing them with a very comfortable life, they don’t appear to have any understanding (or appreciation) for how lucky they are. It is as if they expect to live as they are living (comfortably). There is no suggestion that Mr Neave’s daughters understand that they live as they do due to Mr Neave’s hard work and that should he retire and entrust the business to Harold, life may not necessarily be as comfortable for them. Despite Lola’s suggestion that her father should take it easier and have a hobby the reader does not get a sense that Lola understands the practicalities of life. If anything Mr Neave’s family are reliant on him (in order to continue to live the life they are accustomed to), though they do not appear to be aware of this.
The fact that Mr Neave does not recognise Lola when he returns home may also be significant as Mansfield may symbolically be suggesting that due to his preoccupation with work Mr Neave has not spent as much time as he could have with his family. By trying to be successful in business Mr Neave may have neglected his family and may not really know them. Despite the outwardly appearance (to others) that Mr Neave and his family live an ideal life, things may be very different. Not only does Mr Neave not recognise one of his daughters but he also seems to be forgotten about when he returns home, it being left to Charles (the servant) to look after him. By having Charles look after Mr Neave, Mansfield may be suggesting that Mr Neave’s family may not be as ideal or as happy as Mr Neave would like to give the appearance of.
Mr Neave’s dream of a ‘little withered ancient man’ may also be important as symbolically Mansfield may be suggesting (or linking) the man in the dream to Mr Neave himself. The fact that the man is ‘climbing up endless flights of stairs’ may also be important as Mansfield may be suggesting the continued, unending struggle that Mr Neave faces when it comes to not only retiring but handing his business over to Harold. The spider in Mr Neave’s second dream may also be important as symbolically it could suggest the continuation (or lack of change) that is reflective of Mr Neave’s life. Just as the spider walks out of Mr Neave’s house to his office, it is possible that Mansfield, through the spider, is suggesting that Mr Neave will continue to live his life, doing the same thing (going to work).
The ending of the story is also interesting as Mansfield appears to be exploring the theme of awareness. Mr Neave, after he wakes from his dream, seems to realise that he doesn’t really know his family. Due to his preoccupation with having a successful business Mr Neave has never taken the opportunity to appreciate his family. Whether Mr Neave will take the opportunity to spend time with his family (and give up work) is never known. Some critics argue that Mansfield, by having Charles standing in the light (symbolic of an angel) as he tends to Mr Neave and having Mr Neave say ‘I’m coming, I’m coming’ at the end of the story is suggesting that it is too late for Mr Neave. If anything Mr Neave’s life could soon be over and he may never get the opportunity to really know his family.