How is the link between Mansfield’s personal views and experiences and the characters in her short stories reflected in her writing style? Today I will be talking about the similarities between Katherine Mansfield’s personal views, experiences and short stories. The portrayal of characters and their interactions in her short stories mirror many of her own relationships and experiences. I will be explaining how these parallels are reflected in the style of writing Mansfield uses. Although the stories were not completely identical to her real life experiences they were based on them and were strongly linked in the underlying themes.
“At The Bay” is a brief insight into the relationship of Mr and Mrs Kember, focusing more so on Mrs Kember. Mansfield’s rebellious attitude is seen in her character development of Mrs Kember as an exaggerated, more unrefined version of herself. The character is described by other women as being “very fast” and she “treated men as though she were one of them” creating the impression that she does not behave like a conventional woman was expected to in those days. She uses negatively connoted language to demonstrate the disapproval of the other women towards Mrs Kember which could symbolize how Mansfield disappointed her mother and eventually became estranged from her. Her unconventional behaviour is reflected in her use of contrasting imagery when she draws comparisons between Mrs Kember and the other women of the bay, such as Beryl. This contrasting imagery is portrayed through the women’s clothing and mannerisms.
Beryl “steps out of her skirt and shed her jersey, and stood up in her short white petticoat, and her camisole with ribbon bows on the shoulders” whereas Mrs Kember “rose, yawned, unsnapped her belt buckle, and tugged at the tape of her blouse.” The way in which Beryl undresses shows she is graceful and proper while the image of ribbon bows gives alludes to her femininity. The way Mrs Kember undresses is brash and her clothing is much plainer; the unsnapping of her belt and tugging of her blouse is related to manly gesture. The juxtaposition of the characters, Mrs Kember and Beryl, acts as a metaphor of her own incongruence to society’s norms and expectations of what it is to be a woman. During Mansfield’s life, she had her fair share of relationships and sexual partners.
She had two lesbian relationships which were famous for their significant presence in her journal entries and stories however she also continued to have male lovers. Her bisexuality is explored in the stories “At the Bay” and “Bliss” perhaps using her characters as mouthpieces for her own feelings towards women or her intimate experiences with them. Like in her real life, both the characters she portrays as being attracted to women, already have men in their lives and believe themselves to be heterosexual despite their apparent feelings for other women.
In “At the Bay” she uses dialogue between Mrs Kember and Beryl to establish a sensual under tone and express Mrs Kember’s attraction to Beryl. Remarks such as “what a little beauty you are” and “it’s a sin for you to wear clothes, my dear” coupled with Mrs Kember touching Beryl’s waist could be interpreted as flirtatious especially when combined with Mrs Kember’s masculine nature. It also felt as if Mrs Kember was corrupting innocent, naïve Beryl and yet Beryl seemed to welcome it. She “felt that she was being poisoned by this cold woman but she longed to hear it” which reinforces the impression of forbidden feelings and sexual tension between the women.
“Bliss” is about a woman Bertha Young who is attracted to a female friend, Pearl Fulton. She has everything she could ask for, a husband, a baby and a beautiful home. She is overwhelmed with joy at the thought of her wonderful life but this takes a turn for the worst when it is revealed that her husband is having an affair with Pearl. Bertha’s state of mind is established within the first paragraph of the story; she is “overcome, suddenly, by a feeling of bliss-absolute bliss!” and feels like she has “swallowed a bright piece of that late afternoon sun”. The fragmented sentences used by Mansfield reveal the erratic behaviour of not only the character Bertha but of her as well. Through the repetition of words like “…deeply, deeply” and “..passionately, passionately” to describe even the most ordinary action of breathing Mansfield’s impulsive behaviour and passionate outlook on life is shown.
Again Mansfield shows her dislike for conformity through the phrase of “oh, is there no way you can express it without being drunk and disorderly? How idiotic civilisation is! “Frau Brechenmacher attends a wedding” is centred on Frau Brechenmacher who is a mother of five and the wife of a postman. The story is written in third person omniscient, focusing on Frau, and Mansfield uses the omniscient narrator to comment on her dislike for the patriarchal society in which she lived. She uses Herr Brechenmacher as an example of a typical man and by using short, abrupt sentences to express himself she shows the demanding, controlling nature of men. His dialogue mostly consisted of orders and claims like “Here, come and fasten this buckle” and “No. I’ll get my feet damp-you hurry!” She also likens men to animals through her vivid description of him “gesticulating wildly” with “saliva spluttering out of his mouth” when he is drunk.
The carnal imagery underpins her views that society’s expectation of gender roles was quite primitive. Furthermore she depicts Frau Brechenmacher as a victim at the mercy of her husband. Her repeated use of the words “her man” alludes to Herr Brechenmacher being her master which reflects Mansfield’s perception that society believed a woman, was like property and belonged to a man. The first image Mansfield introduces at the beginning of her story is that of the character Frau Brechenmacher carrying out the stereotypical duties of a women in the home; putting her children to sleep, polishing buttons and ironing her husband’s clothes. She also shows her daughter helping and learning from her. Mansfield uses the interaction between Frau Brechenmacher and her daughter to show how engrained the idea women are bred for domestic life is. It is a continuous cycle and that notion is passed on from generation to generation.
The bride in the story is wearing a “white dress trimmed with stripes and bows of coloured ribbon, giving her the appearance of an iced cake all ready to be cut and served in neat little pieces to the bridegroom beside her”. The description Mansfield uses to equate the bride to cake that is to be served to the bridegroom is delivered with an air of disdain. She shows signs of pitying the bride. It also illustrates the purpose of women as objects of pleasure. The link between the cake and bride is indicative of Mansfield’s interpretation of marriage; a woman is consumed by her husband and loses her sense of self. Overall the tone in many of her stories is sombre, with very brief moments of joy mimicking the ups and down’s of Mansfield’s life as well as her feelings of being constrained by society.
There are also strong themes of restlessness between the person she is and the person she portrays to the world. This is exhibited in her writing style through the differences between how the dialogue presents a character and how the omniscient narrator presents them. The endings to her story always appear incomplete as if there is unfinished business that the character has left to resolve much like Mansfield’s own experiences where she unresolved feelings for her lovers. The lack of closure in the endings leaves the audience with a sense of yearning and dissatisfaction. In parts of her stories where the mood is depressing her pace of her writing is quite slow with lengthy sentence structures.
In parts that are positive and optimistic her pace of writing switches between succinct, bursts of bubbly language and sentence structure to ornately descriptive verses reflecting the sense of fulfilment and ecstasy. After analysing Mansfield’s writing style I have come to the conclusion that her use of imagery, sentence structure and use of narration are her most utilised devices. Her ability to develop her characters and relationships between characters so in depth, so quickly is a credit to her writing abilities and the way her personal experiences and views are communicated through her writing strengthens her connection with the audience.