Miss Brill by Katherine Mansfield
In Miss Brill by Katherine Mansfield we have the theme of paralysis, loneliness, connection and escape. Taken from her The Garden Party and Other Stories collection the story is narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator and after first reading the story the reader realises that Mansfield may be exploring the theme of paralysis. In the opening paragraph of the story Mansfield tells the reader that ‘the air was motionless.’ This line may be important as the lack of movement (of the air) suggests a paralysis in Miss Brill’s environment. Something that becomes clearer to the reader as they continue to read the story. Miss Brill appears to go to the same park (and the same bench) every Sunday and every Sunday she listens to the same band playing. Just as the air is motionless, there seems to be a lack of movement within Miss Brill’s life. Everything stays the same or is static. It may also be significant that Mansfield describes the two old people who sit beside Miss Brill on the bench as statues. Again this suggests a lack of movement, which in turn would suggest the idea of paralysis.
It is also interesting that Miss Brill looks upon some of the people in the park as ‘nearly all odd and from the way they stared they looked as though they’d just come from dark little rooms or even – even cupboards.’ This line may be important as later Mansfield describes Miss Brill’s own lodgings as being similar to a cupboard, but rather than connect or link herself to others (in the park) Miss Brill appears to escape into a fantasy world in whereby she views her surroundings, as she is sitting on the bench, as being part of a stage (or a play). It is possible that Miss Brill is escaping from the world around her (or the realities that she sees and doesn’t want to face). Rather than accept the reality of her own life (of being lonely) Miss Brill creates an alternate world in which she is not lonely, rather she is an actress and part of a play. If anything Miss Brill is escaping from the boredom or loneliness of her own life.
What is also interesting in the story is that Miss Brill doesn’t engage in conversation with any of the other characters (she just observes her surroundings). However despite this lack of engagement with the other characters Miss Brill does appear to be attempting, to make some type of connection with others (by formulating an opinion on what she sees around her). However how distant she is from the other characters in the story can be seen when the young couple sit next to her on the bench. As Miss Brill is eaves dropping she can hear the young man talking about her. The fact that the man’s comments are unfavourable may also be significant as it could suggest that there is a distance between the young and the old. As far as the young man is concerned Miss Brill is a ‘stupid old thing.’ This line could be important as it suggests that there is no commonality between Miss Brill and the young couple sitting beside her, if anything there is a lack of connection. The young man’s comments (though harsh) are also significant for another reason as they allow for the reader to empathise with Miss Brill.
There is also some symbolism in the story which may be significant. The fur that Miss Brill wears in the park in many ways mirrors her own life. It is old (like Miss Brill) has been taken out of a box (a dark place) which is similar to Miss Brill’s own environment (a small dark room, a cupboard) and just as the fur is returned to its box at the end of the story, Miss Brill too returns to her own lonely, lodgings. The ermine toque may also be important as it too in some ways mirrors Miss Brill’s life. Mansfield describes the ermine toque as being alone which would mirror Miss Brill’s life. The fact that it is described as yellow and shabby may also be important as Mansfield may be suggesting that it has not only seen better days but it is also old which would mirror Miss Brill’s life. She too is old and may possibly have seen better days.
The ending of the story is also interesting as it is through Mansfield’s description of Miss Brill’s actions that the reader further empathises with Miss Brill. On her way home Miss Brill does not treat herself to her usual slice of honey-cake rather Mansfield tells the reader that Miss Brill ‘passed the baker’s by, climbed the stairs, went into the little dark room – her room like a cupboard – and sat down on the red eiderdown.’ The fact that Miss Brill doesn’t follow her usual routine may be important as it could suggest that Miss Brill, through over hearing the young man’s comments, has now fully realised how lonely her life is. No longer can she escape into the alternate world she has created rather she is forced to face the harsher realities of her own life (and face her loneliness). How overpowering this feeling (or awareness of her situation) is for Miss Brill is noticeable by the fact that after she puts the fur back into its box, Miss Brill ‘thought she heard something crying.’ It is quite possible that Mansfield at the end of the story is suggesting that it is Miss Brill who is crying, now that she is aware of how lonely her life is.