Essay- writers consistently use short stories as a lens through which they scrutinise society.
Katherine Mansfield uses short stories as lens, to show how during the 1920’s; in a society purely focused on keeping the old traditions alive and leaving new ways of thinking and change in the dark. Mansfield uses her short stories to uncover the harsh reality of gender biased marriages in which power and control were held by the male and how status and reputation allowed people to act a certain way and still be accepted by society. This enabled the males to dictate the family how they wanted to and power was a very desirable item to have in life; it also highlights how the women of the 1920’s were very vulnerable and powerless due to the traditions which said that they couldn’t work and make a life for themselves, making marriage their only way out to have a life.
Control means to have ‘power to direct something or power over something’, ‘To exercise restraint or dominate over’. Stanley from Prelude shows his power by moving his family into the country. This decision is driven by his insecurities of status in society, that the only way to earn respect of his peers is to hold a large amount of land; and because he is the ‘man’ of the house, he holds the power over his family and doesn’t consult with his wife or family but simply tells them that they are moving. Beryl, Linda’s sister voices her thoughts to her friend in a letter, “the dreadful deed” refers to the move and how they don’t “know a soul here” clearly depicts how isolated from the world the family feels being kept at the house all day and that no one would visit due to the only transport being the bus but that was never an option for any socialite to take.
Although beryl lives with Stanley, she has no voice in the matters of the household and no power or control over her life and where she lives. The male dominated roles left no room for women to have an opinion other than their husbands but that was simply how society felt the world should work. Mansfield cleverly uses beryl to show the reader that even though she was not married, her life was still run by males and women had no independence over their lifestyle and don’t have the resource to change it. Beryl longs to escape her brother in laws life but the only way to do that would be to marry, once she married she would be free from Stanley but then her husband would take his power and the cycle would continue.
Frau Brechenmacher attends a wedding (1910), also shows the power and control of husbands. Even though it is set in Germany, it has the same ideas as Mansfield’s stories set in England and New Zealand, proving how male dominated marriages are not just in one culture but can be related to, all over the world. Frau B. is married to a well-respected post man, pre-world war one the only way to communicate with people towns over without going to see them was by post; this meant that a post man’s job was very important and much respected amongst society. Herr B. was a man that held great power in his community and in his marriage, Frau B. is still respected in her community but only because she is the wife of a post man.
Even though Herr B. is respected, he shows no respect towards his wife and selfishly orders her around because he simply can; during the rush of getting ready for the wedding, Frau B. runs around getting her husband’s clothes ironed and ready for him even though she is not ready herself and when he comes home the first thing he says to her is “nothing ready, of course, and everybody at the wedding by this time… what are you doing? You’re not dressed. You can’t go like that”. Ignoring the fact that she was busy getting him ready and not herself, he still makes her dress in the dark so he could have the light to see what he was doing; this inevitably leads to Frau B.’s dress tucked in at the back without her knowing. Herr B.’s lack of respect continues at the wedding when he pushes his wife out of the way up the stairs and Mansfield voices his thoughts perfectly “Herr Brechenmacher, completely overawed by this manner, so far forgot his rights as a husband as to beg his wife’s pardon for jostling her against the banisters” of course if he had done that to anyone else it would have been a different story.
Herr B’s actions could be the result of the power and control he holds in the community; his sense of self-worth because of his job allows him to act a certain way towards his wife because she if his wife and is supposed to do certain things in their marriage and he expects them. Mansfield shows how status gives people an excuse to act a certain way and how society accepts that as the normal and clearly depicts this through Herr B. and shows what women were expected to do for their husbands without question, like an unspoken rule of society.
Mansfield manly focuses on dominating men in marriage but in Marriage a la mode (1921), she use the marriage of William and Isabel to show that not all cases have controlling and powerful men but women can hold power in their marriage. Their relationship shows how not everyone conforms to the normal gender roles given by society. During the 20’s, people were starting to get into the new ‘art world’, Isabel is one of those many and has now found herself with a new group of friends. William sees the change in his wife but never confronts her about it and sees how Isabel’s friends take advantage of her but doesn’t do anything about it. The story starts by calling Isabel, “the new Isabel” showing that William knows that his wife has changed into a ‘new’ person, he also sees his wife pay for her friends and watches them eat the fruit he bought for his children by telling him “I refuse to part with my pineapple” calling it hers even though she knows it wasn’t bought for her.
Isabel is so consumed with her new life that she neglects William and replaces him with her so called friends and new life style out in the country because their how in London was “pokey little hole”. Isabel is the one controlling William and what happens in his life, he moves for her and complies with her demands even if he doesn’t want to, much like what Stanley does in his family, Isabel moves to the country because her new life calls for more space and better status. Mansfield used this story to contrast how women during the 1920’s were vulnerable and powerless in marriage and life; but shows how powerless men can be in marriage just like women.
Katherine Mansfield used her short stories to show how within society, across different cultures, there are gender biased marriages where a male normally holds power and control over his family. In the context of the 1920’s, Mansfield explains through her stories that women were very vulnerable in life due to the circumstances of women not working so the only way to live a good life was to marry. Using stories like Prelude and Frau Brechenmacher attends a wedding to show how men could be very controlling in their actions, making decisions that only benefited them because they had the power to do so.
It also shows that over many different cultures like England, New Zealand and Germany, they all share the same gender biased society making Mansfield’s stories relatable to everyone. In contrast to the power and control of males, Mansfield also used her short story Marriage A la Mode to show that not all marriages are dominated by men, that women can also hold power their husbands just as much and gives a voice of reason that not all marriages are ruled by men and not to judge men to harshly on the assumption that all men are the same; proven by William.