Bliss by Katherine Mansfield
In Bliss by Katherine Mansfield we have the theme of happiness, perception, deception, paralysis, control, trust, dependency and acceptance. Taken from her collection of the same name the story is narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator and after reading the story it becomes clear to the reader that Mansfield may be exploring the theme of happiness. Bertha can see nothing wrong with her life. Everything in Bertha’s eyes is perfect. She has a loving husband, a beautiful baby and a nice home. There is nothing in her life that she would like to change. However it is interesting that Bertha in many ways feels stifled by the fact that she cannot express her happiness as she would like to. The reader aware that Bertha is restricting herself to society’s opinion as to how one should act. If anything Bertha’s happiness makes her feel like a child again. However she knows that she must be careful in how she expresses herself. Again due to the preconceptions that society might have. This might be important as Mansfield may be suggesting that at the time the story was written any overt expression of happiness might have been considered to be unusual. The reason being that women at the time would not necessarily have had the power to express how they felt or have been allowed to express themselves. They had a place in society and that was to be just behind their husbands. Bertha might be fully aware that she cannot openly show that she is happy and may feel as though she has to adhere to the rules within society.
It is also clear to the reader that Harry is conducting an affair with Miss Fulton. Something that is clearly noticeable not only to the reader but to Bertha too while both Harry and Miss Fulton are in the hall. What is interesting about this encounter between Harry and Miss Fulton is that Bertha does not intervene. It is as though the sight of both Harry and Miss Fulton leaves Bertha paralysed. For the first time in the story Bertha is not in control of a situation. She is being forced to witness her husband’s infidelities with another woman. What is also interesting about Miss Fulton is the fact that the perception that Bertha has of her is not in fact true. She is not her friend and is more interesting in pursuing a relationship with Harry than having a friendship with Bertha. If anything Miss Fulton’s relationship with Bertha has been deceptive with her main goal being to pursue a romance with Harry. Which leaves the reader suspecting that Miss Fulton’s attendance at the dinner is more to Harry’s advantage than to Bertha’s. Yet this is not something that Bertha had realised.
There may also be some symbolism in the story which may be important. Usually in literature a black cat is bad luck however Mansfield compares Miss Fulton to a grey cat. This may be important as Mansfield may be using the colour grey to suggest at least symbolically that Bertha does not really know where she stands with Miss Fulton. Though she had previously considered her to be a friend. This is not the case after Miss Fulton’s engagement with Harry. Similarly the pear tree is described by Mansfield as being symbolic of Berta’s life. However at the end of the story the tree is described as being still. Which would mirror the paralysis that Bertha feels. There is no movement in either the tree or Bertha. She does not know which way to turn. Should she forget about what she has seen or should she take action. The reader is left to believe that Bertha may take no action such is the sense of shock she feels. It is as though her world has been turned upside down. What started out as a day full of happiness has ended in a nightmare for Bertha.
Bertha can no longer trust Harry and trust would be the foundation of a successful marriage. The repercussions of what has happened could be life changing for Bertha. At the time the story was written women were reliant on the male for their income. Bertha is probably fully aware that she cannot afford to leave Harry. She is to live her life stuck in a marriage with a man she cannot trust. She has no other option. Though some critics might suggest that Bertha could down-size in life. There is the baby to think of. Bertha in reality has no means to support either herself or the baby. She is dependent entirely on Harry. Which leaves the reader to believe that nothing will change in Bertha and Harry’s marriage. Bertha due to her dependency on Harry will accept what is happening with regard to Harry and Miss Fulton. No longer will Bertha feel the happiness she had previously felt prior to seeing Harry with Miss Fulton. Her life has changed from one of sheer joy to one of total paralysis. Bertha will stay married to Harry because she believes that she has no choice but to.