New Dresses by Katherine Mansfield
In New Dresses by Katherine Mansfield we have the theme of control, gender roles, struggle, appearance, connection and confidence. Taken from her Something Childish 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 may be exploring the theme of control. Throughout the story Henry seems to be controlling Anne. Something that is noticeable when Henry goes to look at the month’s draper’s bill. Rather than being happy that Anne and her mother have made two dresses that will last for two years. Henry is annoyed over the price of the material. If anything there is a sense that Henry is dictating to Anne over how much money she can spend. This may be important as not only does it suggest that Henry wishes to control the family finances but it also highlights the fact that Henry wishes to be and is the dominant person in the marriage. This would not be unusual for the male to be dominant at the time the story was written (1910). Very few women if any were treated as being equals to their husbands. The fact that Anne’s mother does not stay in the kitchen while Henry is looking at the draper’s bill may also be significant as there is a sense that Anne’s mother does not like Henry or how he treats Anne.
It is also noticeable that Anne’s mother doesn’t like how Anne and Henry treat Helen. She is constantly being compared to Rose who is viewed in a more favourable light by her parents. How Anne views Helen’s activities with Boy may also be wrong. Anne thinks that Helen is teasing Boy yet some critics might suggest that Helen is the only member of the family who plays and connects with Boy. It is also noticeable that Helen makes a connection with both Doctor Malcolm and his dog. There is also a sense that Doctor Malcolm like Anne’s mother has his eye out for Helen. It is as though he knows that she struggles because of how she is treated by her mother and father. In reality both Doctor Malcolm and Anne’s mother may be aware of how dangerous Anne’s continued comparison of Helen with Rose is. If anything this practise will only result in a child (Helen) losing confidence. It is also clearly unfair to Helen to be constantly compared to Rose.
The fact that Anne forgives Henry for scorning her over the cost of the dresses may also be important as it suggests that Anne is used to Henry giving out or wishing to be in control of his environment. At no stage does the reader suspect that Anne will ever stand up to the criticism she receives from Henry. Which may leave some readers to suspect that Anne is weak. However it might be important to remember that Anne has no option but to accept her circumstances. She is financially reliant on Henry in order to survive as too are the children. The fact that Henry attends a Political League meeting while Anne is at home making the dresses also suggests that there are very stereotypical gender roles in action. It is also noticeable that in public Anne portrays an image of the family being happy. Something the reader is aware of when the family attend Mass. Yet the previous evening Henry was shouting at Anne over the money she had spent. If anything appearance is important to Anne. She is concerned about what other people might think about her and her family.
The end of the story is interesting as the reader discovers just how fond of Helen Doctor Malcolm is. He could have ignored what was happening and allowed for Helen to be beaten by Henry but instead he goes out of his way to help her. This could be important as it highlights to the reader the fact that Helen has influential friends (including her grandmother). That somebody else is aware of how she is being treated by her mother and father and how they disapprove of her parents actions. Growing up can be difficult and can be made more difficult if one is alone. Thanks to Doctor Malcolm and her grandmother Helen is not alone. She may never meet the standards that her parents have set for her but she doesn’t need to. She is a free spirit who has an ability to think for herself. Something that both Doctor Malcolm and her grandmother most likely admire. Not all children will conform to their parents will and Helen happens to be one of these children. She is not overly concerned about her appearance unlike her mother and it is possible that Helen will become part of a new generation of women. Women who are unlike Anne. Helen is a strong character whose confidence in herself has not been fully taken away by her parent’s actions and opinion of her.