Marriage à la Mode by Katherine Mansfield
In Marriage à la Mode by Katherine Mansfield we have the theme of change, uncertainty, selfishness, alienation and isolation. Taken from her The Garden Party 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 at the beginning of the story may be using foreshadowing. Just as William is uncertain as to what present to buy his children there is a sense that by the end of the story he is also uncertain as to what his relationship with Isabel is. If anything William no longer knows Isabel. Something that is compounded by the fact that when he does arrive home she spends little or no time with him (or the children). Isabel has thrown herself into her new found friendships with three individuals who make no contribution to Isabel or William’s life. If anything Isabel’s friends symbolise selfishness. Something that the reader becomes aware of when we discover that they end up helping themselves to the presents that were meant for the children. At no stage in the story do any of Isabel’s friends think about anybody but themselves. They appear to have no money and rely on Isabel to pay for things. Despite this Isabel continues with the friendships and rather than distancing herself from her friends spends as much time as she can in their company.
Mansfield may also be exploring the theme of change. On several occasions she uses the word ‘new Isabel’ when William is thinking about Isabel. We are already aware that the move from London to the country was due to the fact that Isabel was uncomfortable living in the city (and the old house). She wanted a new and different life. However Mansfield’s description of the house in London may be important. She describes it as being ‘a little white house with blue curtains.’ In literature white and blue is often symbolically used to highlight the idea of innocence (or purity) or of something being heavenly. It is possible that Mansfield is suggesting that for William the life he lived with Isabel and his two children in London was far better than the life he finds himself living now. Something the reader clearly understands as the story progresses. The shift or change from city life to country life suits Isabel (and her friends) but alienates William. Not only from Isabel but from his children too. If anything Isabel’s new life isolates William from his family. It is also interesting that while William is at home he only briefly manages to see the children. Isabel without consideration for William has made plans for the children which do not involve either herself or William. The reader suspecting that for Isabel the children are a hindrance rather than a pleasure. She is throughout the story preoccupied with spending time with her friends.
The introduction of the painting in the house which depicts a man with wobbly legs and a woman with one arm longer than the other may also be symbolically important as it in many ways symbolises the imbalance that exists in William’s marriage. Just as the man in the painting has wobbly legs (or is unsteady) likewise William is uncertain of the direction his marriage is going. The fact that the woman in the painting also has uneven arms may symbolically suggest that Isabel is living her life disproportionately. In essence rather than spending time with her family (William and the children) she is devoting all her energies to making sure that she can spend time with her friends. It might also be important that William can recall some of the holidays he had with Isabel and the children before they moved to the country and Isabel changed. There is not only a sense of innocence about their relationship (Isabel looking fourteen) but there was a sense of unity between both of them (feet locked together while in bed). However since Isabel has changed this sense of innocence and unity is no longer there with Isabel is more preoccupied with her friends than her family.
The end of the story is interesting as the reader gets a closer insight into just how selfish Isabel and her friends are. Dennis wants to use a very personal letter written by William to Isabel as material for a book. While Isabel rather than keeping the letter personal, as it was meant to be, has allowed her friends an unnecessary insight into how William is feeling and thinking when it comes to their marriage. There is however a brief moment of clarity for Isabel when she goes to her bedroom to read the letter again (in private). Though this clarity is short lived when she decides that rather than replying to William immediately as one would expect her to do. She decides instead to spend even more time with her friends. William has not only been alienated and isolated again but he no longer takes precedence over Isabel’s friends. The reader is sure that Isabel will write a letter back to William, something that is clear by Mansfield’s deliberate use of the word ‘certainly’ in italics. But we are also aware that the new Isabel is to remain. For Isabel friendships are more important than family. The changes that she has made in her life and which cause distress to William are to remain. No longer is she the innocent young girl he imagined when they were on holiday.