The Singing Lesson by Katherine Mansfield
In The Singing Lesson by Katherine Mansfield we have the theme of despair, sadness, reliance, appearance, desperation and happiness. Taken from her The Garden Party and Other Stories collection the story is narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator and from the opening line of the story it becomes clear to the reader that Mansfield is exploring the theme of despair. Mansfield opens the story with the line ‘With despair – cold, sharp despair – buried deep in her heart like a knife.’ This line is significant as it not only sets the tone for the story but through Mansfield’s language usage (cold, sharp, knife) the reader also gets a sense of how deeply affected Miss Meadows is after she has read Basil’s letter. It may also be important that Mansfield tells the reader that Miss Meadows ‘trod the cold corridors.’ It is possible that Mansfield is using the setting of the school (the cold corridor) to reflect how Miss Meadows is feeling. This sense of coldness is further explored when Miss Meadows is talking to the Science Mistress and she tells her ‘it is rather sharp.’ Again Mansfield may not only be describing the weather but also how Miss Meadows is feeling.
It is also interesting that Miss Meadows’ mood appears to have a negative effect on the girls in her music class. This is noticeable by the choice of song that Miss Meadows tells the girls to sing – a lament. Mansfield telling the reader, as the girls are singing the song, that ‘every note was a sigh, a sob, a groan of awful mournfulness.’ This line is significant as in many ways, the girl’s response to the song mirrors how Miss Meadows is feeling. Just as Miss Meadows is feeling sadness, by choosing a lament and telling her class to sing it, Miss Meadows appears to be transferring or allowing her own mood (of sadness) to affect the girls in her class.
Mansfield also appears to be exploring the theme of reliance and appearance. The reader is aware that Miss Meadows is older than Basil (she is thirty, Basil is twenty five). At the time the story was written thirty would have been viewed upon as old, when it came to a woman getting married. If anything it is possible that Miss Meadows is aware, that due to her age, she may never again, now that Basil has called off the engagement, get the opportunity to marry and as such is reliant on him to marry her. It is also interesting that Miss Meadows believes that she may have to leave her job, now that Basil has called off their engagement. This plays on the theme of appearance, Mansfield tells the reader that (Miss Meadows) ‘she would have to leave the school, too. She could never face the Science Mistress or the girls after it got known. She would have to disappear.’ This line may be important as it is from it that the reader suspects that Miss Meadows’ is concerned about how she will appear to others (the Science Mistress and the girls in her class) now that Basil has called off their engagement. It may be a case that Miss Meadows is embarrassed by the fact that she is to remain single, possibly due to how society (at the time) would have viewed a woman of thirty who had not gotten married.
Mansfield may also be exploring the theme of desperation. Miss Meadows is not concerned by how much (or little) Basil may love her, Mansfield telling the reader (through Miss Meadows’ thoughts) ‘I don’t mind how much it is. Love me as little as you like.’ This line is important as it not only suggests that Miss Meadows doesn’t care how little Basil loves her but it also suggests that Miss Meadows is prepared to settle for (and marry) a man who may not love her at all. It would appear that Miss Meadows’ is desperate to get married, again it is possible that she fears how she will be perceived by others should she remain single. It is also interesting that Mansfield tells the reader that Miss Meadows’ ‘she knew that he didn’t love her’. Despite this awareness, at the end of the story when Miss Meadows’ reads Basil’s telegram and the engagement resumes, Miss Meadows is happy. Again this suggests that appearance is more important to Miss Meadows than whether Basil really loves her.
The ending of the story is also interesting. Having previously told the class to sing (the lament) without expression. Miss Meadows now scolds her class for singing the new song without expression. Miss Meadows telling her class ‘don’t look so doleful, girls. It ought to sound warm, joyful, eager’. This line may be significant as Miss Meadows is in many ways describing how she is feeling, now that Basil has changed his mind. Having previously felt sadness (and despair), Miss Meadows appears to have shifted to the other end of the spectrum (happiness) and just as she had previously appeared to transfer her mood to her class (when they sang the lament), now again she appears to be attempting to do the same with her new song choice. There is also a possibility at the end of the story that Miss Meadows’ happiness has been triggered, not by Basil resuming their engagement but rather Miss Meadows’ awareness that she will not remain single. Again the reader suspects that appearance and how she is perceived by others may be more important to Miss Meadows than whether Basil actually loves her.