The Lady’s Maid by Katherine Mansfield
In The Lady’s Maid by Katherine Mansfield we have the theme of independence, control, guilt, reliance, disappointment and regret. Taken from her The Garden Party and Other Stories collection the story is narrated in the first person by a woman called Ellen and after reading the story the reader realises that Mansfield may be exploring the theme of independence (and sometimes the lack of it). The reader learns that when Ellen was a child she chose to cut her hair short much to the annoyance of her grandfather. Though this incident may appear to be insignificant it is important as through it the reader suspects that Ellen, in some ways, was thinking for herself or was acting independently of others. The fact that she runs away after her grandfather burns her hand may also be significant as it also suggests that Ellen does not wish to be controlled by others (her grandfather).
However there is also a sense of irony in Ellen not wishing to be controlled by her grandfather as after she leaves her grandfather (and her aunt) she becomes a maid (answerable to others). Though it is noticeable that while she is a maid, Ellen does continue to display an independent streak. When her lady kneels down to pray on the hard floor, Ellen, without instruction from her lady, lays down an eiderdown. Also when her lady’s mother dies, Ellen places some purple pansies beside her body, again without having been instructed to do so.
Mansfield also appears to be exploring the theme of regret and disappointment. This is noticeable when Ellen is on the beach looking at the donkeys with her lady’s nieces. Despite being in uniform Ellen wishes that she could ride one of the donkeys and later that night when she is in bed, she pretends to be dreaming and shouts out ‘I do want to go on a donkey. I do want a donkey-ride!’ This line is important as it suggests that Ellen, despite having a responsibility as her ladies maid, continues to have an independent streak. However by feeling responsible to her lady (and her lady’s nieces) while she is at the beach, Ellen does not act on her impulse to ride the donkeys.
Mansfield further explores the theme of regret through the introduction of Harry. Despite telling Harry that she could not marry him, there is a sense, particularly when Ellen runs out on the street after Harry has gone, that she regrets her decision not to marry him. Harry’s introduction is also important for another reason as it serves to highlight the possibilities that exist for Ellen, should she leave her job. Harry would have allowed Ellen to have lived a more independent life. It is also interesting that Ellen’s decision not to marry Harry is based on her lady’s opinion. Despite her lady suggesting that she will ‘have to begin to practice,’ should Ellen decide to leave her job and marry Harry, the reader suspects that Ellen is being controlled by her lady and if anything Ellen appears to feel guilty about leaving her lady. There is also a sense that not only is her lady reliant on Ellen but Ellen too is reliant on her lady. Ellen’s reliance on her lady to help her decide whether she should marry Harry or not is also important for another reason as it serves to highlight that Ellen no longer has the ability to act independently of others.
The fact that Harry is a florist may also be symbolically important as Mansfield appears to be using flowers in the story to highlight or suggest the possibility of freedom. Just as Ellen decided to place some purple pansies beside her lady’s mother when she died (acting independently or freely of others) Mansfield may also be suggesting that Harry has the possibility to allow Ellen to become more independent or to act more freely. This freedom or ability to act independently is noticeable by the fact that Ellen at the beginning of her courtship with Harry was free to speak her mind (even if it did cause arguments) when it came to how the flowers should be arranged.
The ending of the story is also interesting, if not ambiguous. Despite Ellen telling the madam that she rarely thinks about what may happen her when her lady dies and that when she does think about it she tells herself ‘at it again – you silly girl!’, there is a sense that Ellen is concerned about her future. It is possible that Ellen may be aware that spending her life in servitude and being reliant on her lady may not have been the correct path for her however it does not appear that she will change, if anything she may be looking at the madam as a replacement for her lady. Rather than live her life in pursuit of her own independence (which she may have achieved should she have married Harry) the reader senses that Ellen will remain in servitude, if not to her lady, than to the madam.