Life of Ma Parker by Katherine Mansfield
In Life of Ma Parker by Katherine Mansfield we have the theme of struggle, hardship, acceptance, escape (lack of it) and letting go. 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 the reader realises that Mansfield may be exploring the theme of struggle. Ma Parker finds it difficult (if not struggles) to take her boots off and the reader is told that to ‘take them (boots) off or to put them on was an agony for her, but it had been an agony for years.’ This line is important as it not only serves to highlight Ma Parker’s (physical) struggles in life but it also acts as foreshadowing to later in the story when the reader learns as to just how difficult life is for Ma Parker. Mansfield further explores the theme of struggle (and hardship) throughout the story. The reader is aware that from an early age (sixteen) Ma Parker has been working, firstly as a ‘kitching’ (or kitchen) maid and then as ‘help’ to a doctor’s house. It is during her time as a kitchen maid that the reader learns of some of the hardships that Ma Parker had to suffer.
The cook of the house would burn letters that were sent to Ma Parker because she felt that by reading them Ma Parker became ‘dreamy.’ Mansfield’s use of the word ‘dreamy’ may be important as it suggests the idea of escape, something that the reader discovers Ma Parker has never been able to do in her life. If anything she has spent her life, working or caring for others with little or no time for herself. The reader also learns that life was not much better when Ma Parker was working at the doctor’s house. Mansfield telling the reader that Ma Parker was ‘on the run from morning till night.’ This line may also be important as it further suggests that Ma Parker had no time for herself (or time to escape from the realties and hardships that surrounded her). Even after she leaves the doctor’s house and gets married, life does not appear to improve for Ma Parker. If anything she continues to endure hardship, Mansfield telling the reader that Ma Parker lost seven of her thirteen children and if she wasn’t in the ‘opsital it was the infirmary.’
It is also through remembering Lennie that Ma Parker begins to realise just how difficult her life has been. Though she had previously accepted everything that had happened to her, Lennie’s death has made her realise that she has ‘had too much in her life to bear.’ This line may be important as for the first time in the story there appears to be an awareness within Ma Parker of just how difficult life has been for her. However despite this awareness the reader discovers that there will be no release for Ma Parker. If anything she is to continue to struggle. It may also be important that Mansfield describes the street as Ma Parker is walking home as ‘cold’ and the wind as ‘like ice.’ Mansfield through these descriptions appears to be mirroring just how Ma Parker is feeling. There is also a sense that Ma Parker is trapped, unable to escape (again) from how she is feeling.
This idea of Ma Parker being trapped (or unable to escape from how she feels) is explored further at the end of the story. As she is walking home Ma Parker realises that she cannot be seen to be crying in public. Mansfield telling the reader that ‘if she (Ma Parker) broke down, if at last, after all these years, she were to cry, she’d find herself in the lock-up as like as not.’ This line may be significant as Mansfield appears to be suggesting (or highlighting to the reader) that the act of crying (particularly at the time the story was written) would not have been seen by people as part of a grieving or healing process but rather a person seen crying may have been deemed to have been mentally unwell and as such may have been admitted to a psychiatric hospital (lock-up).
It may also be significant that as Ma Parker continues to walk home she longs to find somewhere private so that she can start crying. She is already aware of societal beliefs should she be seen to be crying in public and so overpowering (or urgent) are her feelings, Ma Parker knows that she has to find somewhere private where she has the ability to grieve for her losses (and the hardships she has endured in her life). However Mansfield does not afford Ma Parker the opportunity to cry in private, telling the reader that ‘there was nowhere’ for Ma Parker to cry. This inability by Ma Parker to find somewhere private to cry may be important as by not affording her the opportunity to cry (in public or private) Mansfield may be suggesting that life is to continue to be a burden (or struggle) for Ma Parker and she may never be able to let go of all that has happened her.