The Garden Party by Katherine Mansfield
In The Garden Party by Katherine Mansfield we have the theme of connection, class, isolation, conflict and denial. 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 the reader realises that Mansfield may be exploring the theme of isolation. Through the setting of the story (Sheridan’s house and gardens) there is a sense that the Sheridan’s are isolated (or disconnected) from the world around them. Mansfield situates the Sheridan’s house on a hill which could suggest that not only do the Sheridan’s live above others (which would play on the theme of class) but they also appear to be detached (or isolated) from those who live around them (the Scott’s and the poorer, working class neighbours). Similarly the garden itself may also be important as Mansfield may be suggesting that the Sheridan’s and the other guests at the party remain isolated (or protected) from the world around them while the party is taking place.
Despite the apparent isolation from others, Laura does appear to attempt to make some type of connection with those who would have been commonly perceived to have been beneath her class. This is noticeable by the fact that while Laura is talking to the workmen she wishes that she had friends who were workmen rather than the ‘silly boys she danced with and who came to Sunday night supper.’ It is also interesting that Laura, as the workmen are working ‘felt just like a work-girl.’ This line is significant as it suggests that Laura is connecting with the workmen and if anything she is disregarding the perceived differences between classes.
There is also some symbolism in the story which may be significant. Laura’s hat, which is given to her by her mother appears to symbolise Mrs Sheridan’s view on the world (and Laura’s apparent acceptance of this view). When Mrs Sheridan hands the hat to Laura she tells her daughter that ‘People (Scott’s) like that don’t expect sacrifices from us.’ This line is significant as it suggests that Mrs Sheridan is not connected (or in line) or is isolated from those neighbours who may be of a lesser class to the Sheridan’s. The fact that Laura, after she goes into her bedroom and looks at herself in the mirror, sees a ‘charming girl’, may also be significant as again it can suggest that (just like her mother) Laura is detached (or isolated) from the world around her (and the Scott’s tragedy). The fact that the hat is black, which would not be a warm or bright colour may also be important as by having the hat black Mansfield may be suggesting the lack of warmth or compassion being shown to the Scott’s by Mrs Sheridan. Mansfield may also be using the hat as symbolism to suggest the continued denial by Laura and Mrs Sheridan of what has happened (Mr Scott’s death).
The fact that Laura walks down the hill, towards the Scott’s house may also be symbolically important as it could suggest that Laura is overcoming the barriers that come with class and if anything she is connecting (as she did with the workmen) with those, who again, would have been perceived to have been beneath her class. It is also interesting that Mansfield, as Laura leaves the grounds of her house, describes Laura as crossing ‘the broad road.’ By describing the road as broad (or wide), Mansfield may be suggesting, at least symbolically, that a large gap exists between the Sheridan’s (upper class) and their neighbours (Scott’s, working class).
Mansfield also appears to be exploring the theme of conflict (internal) in the story. It is through Laura’s thoughts that the reader senses how uncomfortable (or conflicted) Laura is over Mr Scott’s death. She is the only member of the Sheridan family who feels any sympathy for the Scott family. Laura is torn between wanting to cancel the garden party (as a mark of respect to the Scott family) and participating in the party. However it is interesting that Laura, regardless of how she feels, does actually participate in the party. It is possible that Mansfield may be suggesting that Laura, by participating in the party, continues to live in denial or remains distant (or isolated) from the outside (and real) world. It is also possible that Mansfield, by having Laura wait for Laurie’s opinion (as to whether she should participate in the party), is suggesting that Laura does not have the maturity to make up her own mind and is reliant on others to make the decision for her.
The ending of the story is also interesting as Laura appears to have an epiphany (or moment of realisation). As she is looking at Mr Scott’s body lying on the bed, she apologises for her hat. This may be important as symbolically (as mentioned previously) the hat represents denial and by apologising for wearing the hat, Laura may realise that she has been disconnected (or isolated) from the world outside. The fact that Laura tells Laurie ‘Isn’t life’ and doesn’t finish her sentence may also be important as it could suggest that Laura has also come to realise that everyone, regardless of class, shares a common humanity. If anything everyone is connected in some way.