The Garden Party by Katherine Mansfield

The Garden Party - Katherine MansfieldIn 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.

Cite Post
McManus, Dermot. "The Garden Party by Katherine Mansfield." The Sitting Bee. The Sitting Bee, 24 Dec. 2014. Web.

30 comments

  • I haven’t yet read Mansfield, but she sounds like an author whose work I would enjoy.

    I like stories that explore the subtleties in human relationships and connections more generally. Life is made up of small moments where people are kind or leave petty wounds, and these can have profound effects. Even the decision to go to a party or stay away is fraught. I enjoyed your analysis.

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Hila, I’m glad you enjoyed the review. I’ve only read and reviewed a few of Mansfield’s stories but I do like what I have read.

  • Hi! There is a possibility that Mansfield when she wrote the story was drawing on her own personal experiences, what happens in the story may also have happened in Mansfield’s life too because sometimes a writer, whether they are writing a short story, a novel or novella are drawing on personal experiences. But The Garden Party is full of so many sad events that leave the reader wondering as to what may be Mansfield’s reasons for writing the story and the significance of the ‘Garden’. I notice that Mansfield deliberately chooses a garden without a home or house. Finally I need to thank you for your analysis of this complex story…good job.

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Halima. I’m glad that you found the post helpful. You could be right. Mansfield when she wrote the story may have been drawing on her own personal experiences. It is possible that through her life Mansfield may have encountered people similar to Laura’s mother who considered themselves better than those who may have been of a lower social economic class. Though Mansfield would have been considered to be upper class she still had an ability to realise that everybody, regardless of class, shared the same common humanity something that Laura also realises at the end of the story. It’s also difficult to say for sure as to why Mansfield set the story in a garden as each individual reader may interpret the story differently but it may be a case that she is using the garden to symbolise the Sheridan’s isolation from the real world (as I mention in the post) but she may also be using the garden to symbolise the reliance that humanity or each individual has on each other. Just as Laura’s mother needs the workmen to get the garden ready for the party, Mansfield may also be suggesting that in life, everybody relies on each other or shares a common interest (or bond) regardless of class. Though again it is difficult to say for certain as each individual reader may interpret the story differently.

  • To what extent is she presented as a sympathetic character?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Ozun. If you are referring to Laura’s character Mansfield may be attempting to cross the divide that existed at the time (and possibly still today) between social classes. Laura prefers to spend her time talking to the workmen who are getting the garden ready for the party preferring their company to that of the boys she meets at the dances she attends. Which would be generally populated by young upper class men. Also by being the only member of her family that visits the Scott’s (and apologizes for her hat) Mansfield may be suggesting that again Laura has the ability to connect with those who upper class society (at the time) would have considered beneath them. If anything it is possible that Mansfield is humanizing Laura’s character.

  • how does the death affect the tone of the story?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      It’s difficult to say for certain but Mansfield may using Mr Scott’s death (and Laura removing her hat) to symbolize that everyone is similar. Though Mr Scott would have obviously suffered more, he does after all die. For many death is the end of not only life but of something else too. So maybe Mansfield is using Mr Scott’s death to highlight the ‘death’ or end of the class barriers that exist between Laura and the other poorer villagers. It may also be a case that Mansfield could be using Mr Scott’s death to highlight the seriousness of the divide between social classes. Though Laura may have learnt that everybody is the same, her mother on the other hand remains as aloof as ever, still considering herself better than the other people in the village.

  • What is the issue in this story?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment. I suppose the main issue in the story is one of class. How those more privileged look down on those who are not as fortunate. And just as they look down on those less fortunate they don’t see anything wrong in what they are doing. There is no sense of equality. With the exception of Laura at the end of the story who realizes that everyone is the same.

  • thanks for your reply 🙂 i really appreciated it! it helps me a lot <3

  • Can anyone give me a short note on Mr.Scott, please?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Aroni. By situating Mr Scott’s home at the bottom of the hill Mansfield may be highlighting how different Mr Scott is from the Sheridan’s (lower class versus upper class). Also the Sheridan’s are having a garden party or a celebration which is in contrast to what is happening Mr Scott (who is dying). It is possible that Mansfield is suggesting there is no life for Mr Scott or his family when compared to the Sheridans. If anything Mr Scott and his family are isolated throughout the story by the Sheridans (or the upper classes). Though Laura does attempt to make a connection at the end of the story.

  • Do you think there is a theme of a generation gap? Especially between Laura and her mother.

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Alice. There may be a generation gap between Laura and her mother when it comes to the theme of class. Laura out of all the characters mentioned in the story is able to ‘identify’ with Mr Scott, unlike her mother. Also Laura’s mother appears to be more concerned about the garden party then she is about anything else. Again unlike Laura who has the ability to show compassion for others who are less fortunate then herself.

  • Explain The Garden Party as a modernist short story.

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Ginika. In 19th Century literature the poor were often marginalized or forgotten about by many writers. Mansfield in The Garden Party manages to put the focus not only on the upper class (Laura and her mother) but is also inclusive of the working class (Scotts). She manages to give them a voice too by focusing on class distinction. Something that the previous generation of writers failed to do. Were previously the poor or working class had been considered inconsequential by many writers Mansfield reverses this tradition by placing a spot light on Laura’s engagement with the Scotts.

  • Thank you for what you have written here. It is really helpful.

  • Did Mr. Scott die while doing work in the garden?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Sowmiya. Mr. Scott didn’t die while working in the Sheridan’s garden. He died in his home.

  • Why did the party take place in the Sheridan’s garden?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Mrs Sheridan probably wanted to show her friends how affluent she was and the garden would have been an ideal setting for her to show off her wealth. It is also possible that Mansfield set the party in the Sheridan’s garden in an attempt to highlight to the reader the differences between the Sheridans (upper class) and their neighbours, like the Scotts (working class).

  • Can you explain how Laura became mature?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Anthony. When Laura visits the Scotts she realises that everybody is the same. Though she feels out of place when she sees Mr Scott she still nonetheless grows as a person (by having actually visited the Scotts and connecting with them in some way). Unlike her mother who remains the same throughout the story and does not develop or grow. Considering herself, because she is upper class, to be different to other people. Laura shows maturity by transcending class barriers.

  • Hi Dermot, can you give me a summary about the whole story.

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Tuleen. A very brief summary of the story would be as follows. A wealthy upper class family (Laura’s family) hold a garden party. Laura while at the party considers bringing some food to her neighbours who are not in attendance and who are all lower class. It is while Laura is bringing some of the food to her neighbours that she meets and connects with Mr Scott who is dying. It is through this process that Mansfield explores the theme of connection, class, isolation, conflict and denial.

  • For me, the story is more about alienation and isolation. Just as Bertha in Bliss has good intentions and wants to feel close to others, but has only the shallowest connections, Laura too has good intentions but cannot relate to those outside – or perhaps inside – her social class in any meaningful way. She relates more to the corpse than to the widow; and is swept away in a romantic rapture about beautiful Death rather than attempting to condole with the bereaved. She can’t give any coherent comment to her brother about Life because her feelings and thoughts are extremely superficial.

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Excellent analysis John. You have looked at the story a lot closer than I have. Opening my eyes to possibilities that I did not previously see. I have yet to read Bliss but it is on my list of stories to read.

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