The Woman at the Store by Katherine Mansfield
In The Woman at the Store by Katherine Mansfield we have the theme of struggle, hardship, relief, loneliness, change, isolation and regret. Taken from her Something Childish and Other Stories collection the story is narrated in the first person by an unnamed female narrator and from the beginning of the story the reader realises that Mansfield may be exploring the theme of struggle and hardship. As the narrator, Jo and Jim are making their way towards the store Mansfield describes the horses as stumbling along, the pack-horse as being sick ‘with a big open sore rubbed under the belly’ and the sound of the larks being similar to ‘slate pencils scraping over its surface.’ While the narrator also dreams of being on a rocking-horse (going nowhere). If anything all three characters are in an environment which is getting the better of them. Something that is noticeable by the fact that Jo has stopped singing his song for the first time. However it is also noticeable that each character remains driven and determined to reach their destination. Which in many ways is interesting because when they do reach the store none of the characters expectations are met. However there is a sense that they are relieved to have finally reached the store regardless of the fact that things are not as they expected them to be. In many ways the narrator’s journey (and struggle) to the store also acts as foreshadowing to later on in the story when the reader becomes aware of just how difficult life has been for the woman at the store.
The fact that the woman at the store is not what the narrator and the others expected may also be important as it suggests that things may have changed for the woman rather than it being Jim’s imagination that had run wild when he was describing the woman. The reader is aware that the woman no longer physically looks the same (the narrator calls her ugly) and that at one stage she suggests that the narrator, Jo and Jim do not stay at the store. Which may be important as not only does it highlight the fact that the woman is being unwelcoming (contrary to what Jim had said about her) but she may also have something to hide which she does not want the narrator, Jo or Jim to see. As to what this might be becomes clearer to the reader near the end of the story when Else hands the narrator her drawing.
As readers we are also aware that the woman has had four miscarriages which not only suggests that she has had a hard life but symbolically Mansfield may also be highlighting the fact that the woman is not as connected to the world as she might like to be. It may also be important that the store is no longer doing the trade that it used to do and has very few visitors as this would suggest that not only is the woman at the store isolated from the outside world but she may also be lonely. Something that is noticeable by the fact that she invites the narrator, Jo and Jim to the store to drink the whiskey. Also it would seem that by the end of the night Jo ends up sleeping in the same bedroom as the woman. Which may be a sign of just how lonely the woman feels. Jo provides comfort and relief to her. Else also appears to live a very lonely life with no mention of any friends or attendance at school. Rather she spends her day drawing pictures. Though this is a creative outlet for Else it is not something that would fulfill a child’s needs (friends and school).
It may also be a case that the woman at the store has regrets about how her life has turned out. No longer is she the pretty woman Jim met on the Coast when the woman worked as a barmaid. Her life has changed dramatically. The reader suspecting that the woman ended up marrying her husband and opening the store under the impression that her life would be better. However that is not how things have worked out for her. Her looks have failed her, she is isolated from others and she at times has had a husband who spends a lot of his time away from her and the store. It would also seem that she is the one who is responsible for the upkeep and running of the store. There is no one else to do the work. Rather than her life improving it has become one long chore and struggle. Though it is not explicitly stated in the story it is also possible that the woman’s husband was not exclusively committed to their relationship.
The end of the story is also interesting as it is through Else’s drawing that the reader gets some insight into what may have happened the woman’s husband. If the drawing is to be taken literally it would seem that the woman has killed her husband and buried him. Despite telling the narrator, Jo and Jim that her husband was away shearing the reality may be very different. As to why the woman might kill her husband the reader only has to look at the life that she is living. It is in complete contrast to how she lived her life on the Coast. If anything it is possible that the woman at the store blames her husband for how her life has turned out and as a result has killed him. What is also interesting is that the narrator and Jim don’t appear to see any link between Else’s drawing and the husband. Rather they leave the following morning without Jo who has decided to stay at the store with the woman for a while. At no stage in the story are the narrator, Jo or Jim suspicious of the woman at the store despite Else’s drawing.