Katherine Mansfield and the Moment of Truth

james-tissot-bunch-of-lilacs

This painting by Tissot captures the same kind of joyous luminosity which Katherine Mansfield conveys so well in such short stories as “Bliss” and “The Garden Party.”

James Joyce and Flannery O`Connor are both famous for the “epiphanies” or moments of grace in their stories, which often function structurally as the climax of their story. While the character may not be changed for the better by the choice he makes, the reader, on the other hand, is given in this literary moment of truth a glimpse into the reality of the character’s situation or moral fibre which elevates the story from a particularized occurrence to a significant revelation of some general truth, while remaining immersed in the tale itself.

Perhaps because of the widely varying quality of her short stories, her relatively limited output, her troubled life, or her early death, the New Zealand-born Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923) receives little attention from the average reader of twentieth-century fiction. Yet her work was widely praised in its day and is treasured by those modern readers and scholars who are fortunate enough to discover her writings. Mansfield’s use of the epiphany or moment of truth as a structural device may have influenced the work of both Joyce and O’Connor; yet her vision of life derives much of its power from her use of detail and description.

One of Mansfield’s most famous contemporaries was Virginia Woolf, who both admired and envied her contemporary’s literary skills. The frequent comparisons between the two are easily understood by even the most cursory reader of these two writers; Woolf and Mansfield continue in their own particular ways and with a new Modernist approach the long-standing tradition of women writers who are able to grasp and capture the significance of seemingly trivial occurrences and details in the lives of lowly human beings.

But while Woolf`s style pushed the definitions of Modernism to new stylistic lengths, Mansfield worked with materials in a way that at first sight can seem extremely traditional. One can read a story of hers from beginning to end and grasp each sentence as a whole, something that cannot be said of all Modernist fiction. But while her prose is simple, the emotions which she describes are nothing of the sort.

Often enough, Mansfield’s characters arrive at a “moment of truth” through a series of events which are hardly events so much as impressions or images. Here we come across one of Mansfield’s chief resemblances to Woolf (or vice versa)–the sight, the feel and the smell of objects can have an emotional or mental effect as great if not greater than any phrase or event. It is in her subtle understanding of the force a chain of circumstances or impressions can have that Mansfield proves herself a genius in the comprehension of complex human motives and reactions.

One has only to look at some of her most famous stories to see with what talent Mansfield can delineate the connection between a mood and some beautiful object that seems to contain within itself the essence of that mood. There is, for example, the fruit and the glassware and the famous pear tree in “Bliss,” all of which give off a heightened sheen to Bertha in the opening scenes, transfigured by the “bright glowing place” within her. And there is the magical dining room table in “Sun and Moon,” which for a brief time becomes for the little boy nicknamed Sun the symbol of all order and loveliness in the world.

Mansfield’s understanding of the manner in which objects can symbolize or take on emotional qualities in the eyes of its viewers leads her to structure the often painful “moment of truth” some of her characters encounter in a way which does full justice to the human ability to distance oneself from reality in the same way one had earlier heightened it. An unforgettable example of this is found in her story “Miss Brill,” whose humiliation and hurt is memorably voiced by an imagined cry from her shabby fur: “She unclasped the necklet quickly; quickly, without looking, laid it aside. But when she put the lid on she thought she heard something crying.” In “Sun and Moon,” a melted ice cream house and ravaged dinner table serve a similar purpose as symbols of a destroyed ideal for the little boy through whose eyes the story is told.

Much of the power of Mansfield’s stories is derived from such juxtapositions and comminglings of object and emotion. The confusion between the inside and outside worlds which her characters experience is not, however, a negative or evil thing; rather, it testifies to Mansfield’s ability to portray how closely related our physical existence is to our mental and emotional states, and how we learn not merely from reason but from the very texture of our surroundings.

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