Two of Katherine Mansfield’s most famous stories are “Prelude” and “At the Bay”, both of them portraying a New Zealand family. Both stories, are revolving around the female characters, but the one link that connects all of them is Stanley Burnell, member and provider of the family.
The New Zealand critic Carl Stead affirms that Stanley Burnell is a ‘benevolent despot’ meaning that he is a kind person, and a tyrant in the same time. I agree with Stead affirmation, but as it seems somewhat incomplete, I would want to add a few words to it: Stanley character is benevolent but unconsciously despot.
Stanley is dynamic and doesn’t like to rely on other people; he is eager to put down roots and settle down. He has no inherited wealth or special education; only his own intellect on which to rely. He is not only responsible for Linda and his children, but he has assumed responsibility for her mother and unmarried sister, Beryl. He works hard and makes sacrifices to support his family. For example, when they are all on holiday in “At the Bay”, Stanley catches the bus in to work .To have such a busy life, Stanley demands constant support from everyone else into covering his insecurities. He is not only looking for support, but he also expects for other people to try and achieve something on their own as he does.
Because Beryl lacks money, Stanley expects her to try and work hard: ‘By Jove, if she can’t do a hand’s turn occasionally without shouting about it in return for…’. Stanley does not finish his sentence, being not sure exactly what it is Beryl owes him. This shows that it became a routine for him to financially take care of everybody in the family, and that he does not expect a material reward, even though he wants to see people try. In ‘At the Bay’ there is a moment when all the women seem to enjoy Stanley’s departure: ‘Oh, the relief, the difference it made to have the man out of the house. Their very voices were changed as they called to one another; they sounded warm and loving as if they shared a secret’. But Katherine Mansfield uses this passage to highlight how much they all depend on him.
Anyone in Mansfield’s fiction who uses slang or truncated sentences, such as Stanley is suspect of having controversy in the character. Usually, in Stanley’s dialogs, Katherine Mansfield uses short sentences as trying to prove that he speaks fast. Stanley also seems to use slang and to swear in front of the kids: ‘”What the hell… Damnation take it”‘. All this demonstrate that he is a voluble and an action men, as he does not have time to fix his language.
There is a tension in Stanley’s life: he is controlled by the need of always to be on time; he can rarely relax. In “At the Bay”, even going for an early morning swim, he flung, cleared, rushed staggered, raced, swooped, in order to be first in, and once in, he can not stop to enjoy it: “I have no tie to fool about”.
This is a good example of life authenticity (a recreation of life) that Mansfield achieves. The scene happens in early morning, to highlight that Stanley was used to getting up early. Mansfield uses a very subtle mixture of precision and action, to portray exactly his enthusiasm. She has run every step behind him and she slows down the motion by using the word ‘staggered’ – ‘staggered up the sandy hillock’. Mansfield intends to slow down Stanley’s race not because he was tired, but because his feet were sinking into the sand. This race might represent the symbol of his life. Stanley’s life is a race in which he wants to be the best. But just as his feet sink in the sand, in real life he meets obstacles and becomes insecure, needing the family support to give him the strength to keep going, ‘racing for dear life’.
In the passage the atmosphere seems to be filled with excitement, even joy, which shows that Stanley is happy with his complicated life. Mansfield uses lots of words like “exulting”, “swoops” and “souse” to convey his thoughts and feelings. He wades out ‘exulting’. He ‘swoops’ to ‘souse’ his head and neck, delighted with himself for being first in the water again. Then he hears Jonathan Trout’s voice and he realizes that he is not first after all and small explosions occurring inside his head. ‘”Great Scott! Damnation take it! Why the dickens didn’t the fellow stick to his part of the sea?”‘ To escape from Jonathan conversation, which he thinks of as ‘piffle’ and ‘rot’, he turns over on his back and kicks with his legs till he is ‘a living water-spout’.
Stanley seems ridiculous as we witness his confidence, delights and disappointments because he is acting like a child and is hard to understand that he is the same person that is very successful in business.
This is why I added the word unconsciously to Carl Stead affirmation that Stanley is a benevolent despot. He pushes people to work hard and be like him, but he does not realize that this might be harder for some people than he thinks. If he would know that he is hurting his family, especially Linda, he would stop bullying them. He loves Linda too much and would never want to hurt her. He thinks he will punish her by going off in the morning without saying goodbye, but he regrets he did that and he suffers all day “I’ve been in tortures” . He arrives home ready to apologise for something that was unnoticed.
Linda cares about him too but she keeps him away from getting to close by misinterpreting his actions on purpose. When he arrives home with ‘all the harvest of the earth’, expensive gifts for her – oysters, a pineapple, and cherries – she refers to them as ‘these silly things’; she drapes a cluster of cherries over his ear, knowing full well that he hates to appear foolish. She acts this way because Stanley is the antithesis with her. He has all the energy she lacks. He becomes more successful at business, more prosperous, and more secure in the home while she loses strength. His quick movements and rapid speech exhaust her.
When he worries bout running to fat, Linda replies “You are far too energetic” and he interprets her answer as a reassurance, when it can also mean that he is to energetic for her, as when she wants to scream at him “You are killing me”. He seems to dominate her, like when she does not resist his sexual acts.
Linda admires Stanley’s best qualities: his goodness, his reliability, and his honesty. She compares Stanley with Jonathan Trout, whom she finds attractive and whom she has much in common. Stanley doesn’t like a person like Trout, a person of dreams and impractical ideas, because he, Stanley is a man of action. Linda also cares about Stanley because she is aware of the fact that he is providing the money for the family, and admires his devotion.
Katherine Mansfield, at first sight, seems to make Stanley Burnell look as if he is a tyrant, a despot, because he is pushing everybody to work hard, but he is actually a positive character, because he has the dignity and the morality to deal with his life and take the responsibility of looking after his family.