Katherine Mansfield’s short story “Miss Brill” is an great example of how a writer can use various literary techniques to lead the reader to a better understanding of Miss Brill the character. Instead of merely stating the message of the story, Mansfield used various literary techniques to allow the reader to draw his own conclusions about the character. Using these literary aspects to reveal a truth about a character to the reader is often referred to as characterization. Four of the most easily recognized literary techniques used in Mansfield’s “Miss Brill” are her use of symbolism, setting, allusion, and points of view used by different characters in her story.
Symbolism plays a very large part in understanding Miss Brill the character. This can easily be seen by the relationship between Miss Brill and her “alter-ego”, the fur. A symbol is “a person, object or event that suggests more than its literal meaning.” In other words, it is something that has two levels of meaning: on the literal level it is what it is, for example, Miss Brill’s fur is just a fur. It can also represent a more “hidden” meaning such as the fur being a symbol for Miss Brill herself. Miss Brill lives for the days that she spends in the park, this can be seen when she rubs “the life back into [her fur’s] dim little eyes”. This quote reveal that the trips to the park help to “rub” life back into Miss Brill.
The condition of the furs eyes also imply that Miss Brill is not as full of life as he once might have been, but as long as she can see the beauty and worth still in her fur, she can retain her sense of worth. Mansfield uses the bond between Miss Brill and the fur the show how deeply she needs to belong. For example, throughout the story when Miss Brill is happy the fur is also happy, and when the fur is insulted then Miss Brill is also insulted. Perhaps the best example of this bond is when Miss Brill is sitting in her cupboard-like room and puts her fur away, and thinks that she hears “something crying”. Rather than facing the sadness and disappointment of the day, she attributes her sadness to the fur.
The setting of “Miss Brill” is an important feature of the story because Miss Brill defines herself in relation to the setting. As she walks about the park, she feels more and more in tune with her setting, as she notices that all of the people at the park, including herself, are actors in a weekly play. Her sense of herself in relation to the setting changes drastically, of course, when she overhears the young couple ridiculing her. As the story opens, she is upbeat and happy watching the other people in the park. After the young couple mock her, we see the sadness as she walks slowly back to her apartment, her “cupboard”.
Mansfield also uses allusion to reinforce the theme of the story. We first see Miss Brills allusions to a cupboard as she describes the other elderly people in the park. She seems to sympathize with them because they are not a part of this grand play like she is. After being confronted by the young couple, Miss Brill realizes that she also lives in a “room like a cupboard”. This allusion Mansfield gives to Miss Brill’s room is valuable because of two reasons. She first used the term “cupboard” to describe the homes of the “funny old people” in the park every Sunday.
It does not occur to Miss Brill that she is also one of these “funny old people” , however, Mansfield tells the audience that she is indeed one of these “funny old people” when she describes Miss Brill’s room to the reader. The used of the term “cupboard” is also important because it demonstrates the effect setting can have on the readers opinion to the characters true nature. The quote referring to Miss Brills cupboard room, also gives the reader a look at the point of view that Miss Brill has. When Miss Brill is happy her room is not so bad, however, when she is depressed then her point of view is that she is like those “funny old people” that she notices in the park every Sunday.
In “Miss Brill,” the limited omniscient point of view allows the reader to see that Miss Brill remains unchanged when the story ends. The point of view is based strictly on what Miss Brill sees and feels, without being biased by her rose-colored view of life. Upon arriving at the park, Miss Brill begins to take in the details of her surroundings. She seem to cling to the best qualities of her surroundings – there were far more people than last Sunday, the band sounded louder and gayer, and the conductor was wearing a new coat. As she sits in her “special seat” she is disappointed that the odd man and seated next to her. She had become “quite an expert at listening as though she didn’t listen”. She views her eavesdropping as active participation in conversations surrounding her. Although she continues to watch the others in the crowd in and awe and fascination, she views the elderly people in the crowd quite differently.
She calls them “odd, silent and nearly all old…and they looked as though they had just come from dark little rooms or even – even cupboards”. Trying to keep her mid of the elderly people, Miss Brill convinces herself of her importance in this grand play and that “no doubt, somebody would have noticed is she hadn’t been there”. When the young couple seated beside her begin to talk, Miss Brill listens intently to their conversation. It is then that she hears them talk of her the way she has been viewing the other elderly people throughout the afternoon. “Why does she come here at all – who wants her”? The omniscient point of view allows the reader to view this conversation as it actually occurred, not as Miss Brill would have no doubt changed it in her mind. When she returns home “to her room like a cupboard” without getting her usual slice of honey cake, we see that she scene at the park has affected her. Yet, she is not changed by it. When she puts away the fur, “she thinks she hears something crying”. As a defense mechanism, she attributes her grief and pain to the fur, making it possible to carry on in her fantasy world.
Mansfield’s “Miss Brill” is an excellent example of how a reader can gain an understanding of a character through characterization. The reader is allowed to understand and interpret the story utilizing their own methods. Mansfield uses the literary methods of symbolism, setting, and points of view to enable the reader to understand the story and this get the greater meaning.
“A Short Story: Katherine Mansfield’s Miss Brill”. http://www.op.org/domcentral/study/ashley/arts/arts404.htm
Mansfield, Katherine. “Miss Brill.” Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry and Drama. Ed. X.J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia. 7th ed. New York: 1999. 33-37.