At Lehmann’s by Katherine Mansfield
In At Lehmann’s by Katherine Mansfield we have the theme of innocence, vulnerability, appearance, confusion and desire. Taken from her In a German Pension collection the story is narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator and from the beginning of the story the reader realises that Mansfield may be exploring the theme of innocence. Sabina believes Hans’ story about why his hands are so dirty even though the story is exceptionally far-fetched and borders on the impossible. What is also interesting about Hans’ story is that because Sabina believes Hans she pities him which may be important as it highlights how good natured Sabina is. She is unable to see any bad in Hans even though he is lying. If anything not only is Sabina innocent but she may also be naïve and as such it is easy for an individual to take advantage of her. It is also noticeable that Mansfield describes Sabina as having a ‘magical child air about her.’ This line may be important as it further suggests that Sabina may be innocent or somewhat naive just as a child would be. What is also interesting is the fact that Sabina is such a hard worker getting up early in order to allow Anna some extra time in bed and doing extra work in the café. Though some critics might suggest that Anna is taking advantage of Sabina it is more likely that Sabina is dedicated to her job and does not necessarily mind having to get up that little bit earlier. Though it may also be a case that Mansfield is highlighting the hierarchy that exists at Lehmann’s with Anna due to her position being able to dictate to Sabina. Sabina after all would not have the same rank as Anna and as such may be answerable to her.
Just how innocent Sabina may be is further noticeable by the fact that she doesn’t realise Herr Lehmann’s role in Frau Lehmann’s pregnancy. She knows that a husband is needed for a pregnancy to occur but as to the role the husband plays, Sabina remains in the dark. It is also interesting that Sabina feels ashamed that she is unaware of the male’s role in a woman’s pregnancy as Mansfield may be suggesting that Sabina at times may be conscious of the fact that she is somewhat naive or innocent and may not particularly like it because it leaves her vulnerable to others. Mansfield also appears to be exploring the theme of appearance. Frau Lehmann is told by her husband that she should remain upstairs and sew due to the fact that she looks (while pregnant) ’unappetising.’ This may be important as Mansfield may be suggesting that Herr Lehmann is looking at his wife not as a woman (or individual) but as an object something that he either finds pleasing to his eye or ‘unappetising.’ In reality Herr Lehmann is dictating the course of his wife’s pregnancy because he does not find her physically attractive while she is pregnant. Similarly Hans when he discovers that Frau Lehmann has varicose veins becomes interested in the conversation that Sabina and Anna are having. Though this may seem to be irrelevant it is possible that Mansfield is again placing the spotlight on the male’s obsession with the female body and the fact that the male rather than looking upon a woman as being an individual objectifies the female.
It is also noticeable that when Sabina meets the Young Man, though she is physically attracted to him, she is also somewhat confused and unprepared for the conversation that she has with him. There is also the possibility that the Young Man is married something that the reader suspects when Mansfield makes mention of a ring. Also while looking at the Young Man’s drawings there is a sense that Sabina is unaware of just how suggestive the Young Man is being. If anything she is totally unprepared or unaware of the direction the Young Man would like to take the conversation. While she admires him from afar the Young Man is prepared to take things a step further. A step which the reader knows Sabina has never taken.
The end of the story is also interesting as Sabina beings to rebel slightly against the Lehmann’s for the first time in the story. She wonders why she is doing so much work and blames Frau Lehmann’s pregnancy. Also when the Young Man returns and Sabina is putting more wood on the fire she is doing so in the full knowledge that her actions would displease Herr Lehmann. However despite the sense of rebellion that Sabina is going through she is appalled by the fact that the Young Man kisses her and touches her breasts. Sabina can’t understand the Young Man’s actions nor does she wish to have any sexual involvement with him. Though some critics differ on what Mansfield’s intentions may have been at the end of the story it is possible that she is suggesting that Sabina, as an innocent, is totally unaware of how a man may behave when driven by lust or desire. Rather than wanting a relationship with Sabina the Young Man is only concerned about her physicality (or looks) and satisfying his own desires. Without consideration as to how Sabina may feel.