Critical Analysis of Short Story Prelude

Categories: Short Story

Catherine Mansfield revolutionized the 20th Century English short story. In her works, she breaks away from the tradition of plots and endings. Her works are open-ended. She is the earlier writer who used the technique of stream-of-consciousness in her writings. Where, Plot is secondary to characters. Her prose gives a vivid and strong picture of ordinary lives. Her literary creations are masterpieces in the sense that they raise discomforting questions about identity, belonging and desire. She is a writer from New Zealand who retains the memories of her childhood spend in her country.

‘Prelude’ is a modern short story by New Zealander Mansfield. There are noteworthy autobiographical elements in ‘Prelude’. The theme and the characters are composed on the persons, she has known in her own life. The readers get a glimpse in to the minds of the characters. She uses extensive imagery from nature to hint at hidden layers of meaning of human life. As a literary work of art, ‘Prelude’ is a written narrative fiction, where there is a third-person narrator who is not in the story but an outsider observing from a distance.

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Character dominates over the plot. The story actually is a vivid picture of psychological state of mind of the characters. From the definition of narration by Ismail S Talib, we find that it is dualistic in nature. It consists of two elements: story and discourse. The story is the content and the discourse is the arrangement, emphasis or magnification of any of the elements of the content.

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In Katherine Mansfield’s ‘Prelude’, there is a story and the discourse is the journey from one consciousness to another. Finally emphasis is on analysing human mind.

Regarding the end of narrative, in this regard, Chatman has said: ‘No end, in reality, is ever final in the way “The End” of a novel or film is’ (1978). There is another form of narrative where the end is not clear or explicit. It is ‘open end’ fiction. From the late nineteenth century onwards, this form has been extensively used by writers. According to the narrative theory, there is internal as well as external setting. External is the location where the action takes place and internal is the psychological state of the person. ‘Prelude’ deals with the psychological state of mind of Burrell family.

According to this theory, there are different types of narrator. One of the types is third person-omniscient ‘who can move from place to place and backwards and forwards in time, and does not merely concentrate on the consciousness of one character’. In ‘Prelude’, it is the third person narrator who gilds from one consciousness to another in the course of the story. There is another concept in this theory; schema which ‘is a collection of the generic properties of a meaningful category which is stored in a person’s memory for future retrieval’.

In’ Prelude’, the author relies on her memories of life spend in her native country for her composition. The theory states that some characters are driving force behind some plots. Similarly, in ‘Prelude’, the plot will collapse without the characters in it. The characters bind the story together. The story is all about the expectations, inner turmoil, happiness and unhappiness of the adult characters. Modernism is a continuous project that incorporates within itself all serious change and progress. Modernism became a distinct cultural movement in the fist of twentieth century.

The philosophic foundations of modernism are traced to the period between Marx Einstein. Darwin in his book “The Origin of Species” (1859) propounded the theory of evolution which is seen as an important step towards the development of modern mindset. The theory attacked the traditional beliefs regarding God. Next on the line was Freud’s theory of dreams. He considered dream as a “product of repressed desires” which created a stir in the realm of ideas. The concept of a definable unified normative self gave way to discontinuous, divided self.

Self was then considered as the hidden designs of the unconscious. Psychoanalysis paved the path towards quest for self-knowledge. Short story evolved as an autonomous genre and became an important medium of expressing the petty and small truths and lies of human existence. The story developed from depicting the realism of life to more being allusive, ambivalent and self-reflexive. According to the book ‘Modernism’ by Peter Child, the meaning of the term ‘Modernism ‘is variously defined: as a genre, style, period or combination of all three.

It stems from the term ‘modern’, taken from Latin word ‘modo’ which means anything ‘current’. The modernism in prose represents consciousness, perception, emotion, meaning and individuals’ relation to society in the form of internal monologue, stream-of-consciousness, irresolution and other techniques. In the phrase of Ezra Pound, ‘make it new’. By expressing the sensibilities of the time: of the city, of war, mass production and communication, New Women and aestheticism. It is expressed in compressed and complex form of literature.

In literature, the focus shifts from broader moral concerns of society to deeper psychological problems of the individual, from external details of the events to their finer internal dynamics, and from a telescopic perspective of reality to a microscopic view of it. Another aspect of modern literature (form of art) as we find from the book ‘Modernism’ by Peter Child is that it is extremely compressed in the sense that it should be read with attention which is normally reserved for philosophy and poetry. Short story as a genre falls under written narrative fiction.

Fictional narrative may refer to real people, actual places and events but it cannot be used as evidence of what happened in the real world. This story is a fictional narrative based on real life experience of the author. Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923) is one of the few authors to attain prominence exclusively for short stories, and her works remain among the most widely read in world literature. .Her works are noted for their themes relating to women’s lives and social hierarchies as well as her sense of wit and characterizations. As a writer, she placed great emphasis to individual than to society.

Her works are open-ended in the sense that it does not have a formalized ending to it. In her work ‘Prelude’, she applied the technique of ‘stream-of-consciousness’. She created her story on revealing the mental conflict of characters rather than the development of plot. The core idea raised by the story is that the narration delves in to the minds of the individuals. The tale does not have a conventional plot where the story unfolds through a sequence of events but focuses on a crisis or a mental conflict. We enter an individual consciousness to another.

We get a glimpse of the mental state of the personas. In the course of the narration, very little ‘happens’ but the story gives us a vivid picture of personal crises that crucially affect each character’s internal well being while leaving the atmosphere of amiable, conventional family life intact. Kezia is a very imaginative child who find Parrot prints on the wallpaper as real parrots who ‘persisted in flying past Kezia with her lamp’. She also witnesses the killing of a chicken. Kezia’s unmarried and desperately timid Aunt Beryl is unsatisfied with her life and never shows her real self to others.

Linda, Kezia’s mother pregnant with yet another child at times wishes to abandon the whole family and not even say goodbye. She visualizes her feelings for her husband in small packages, where she loves and respects her husband in one time to hate his later. His husband is a business tycoon who wants his roots in the country, which is the reason for their move from their town to their country home. He wishes for a son of his own. Modernism as Peter Child writes in his book is break away from convention. Katherine Mansfield’s brief life was also a lesson in casting off convention.

Famously, Mansfield remarked ‘risk, risk everything’. She was rebellious in nature. She could not accept that all women have definite future of waiting for a husband as she wrote in one of her letter to her school friend when she was sixteen. In ‘Prelude’, Katherine explores the possibilities and discovery of the wide canvas of human life in the small domestic world of the Burrells. In the story, she questions the traditional believes of society, where a woman has the duty of getting married and bearing children for the family as Linda Murrell.

Or the vacant side of a woman’s life where she stays at home and does the household chores. She has no profession of her own and no freedom of movement as in the case of the character of Aunt Beryl. Mansfield is a New Zealand writer. In her short life she has travelled to England and France but she had her roots firmly grounded in her native land. She uses her memories of childhood in her writing. He molds her characters on real people, places and even inscribes the colloquial speech of the country.

‘Prelude’ is a recount of one of the move her family made from their city home, from Tinakori Road in Wellington to Karori, five miles away to town. She reveals the insecurity and instability of her childhood connected with this repeated shift from one home to another. The portrayal of Linda Burrell is a depiction of her mother Annie Dyer, who has been described as ‘delicate and aloof’. Mrs. Linda Murrell is a character who keeps herself detached from the running of the household. It is her mother who runs the house. She has a neglecting attitude towards her daughters.

She remains with her own dreams and expectations holed in her bedroom. She remains secluded from her family even when she is in midst of them: we find her on the easy chair rocking in the same room, where her husband and her sister are playing a game of crib. As she watches them, she thinks ‘how remote they look’. The character of Mr. Burrell is based on her father, Harold Beauchamp, who was a successful merchant. Mr. Murrell is a successful business man. He is a pompous man who prided himself of having a bargain regarding the new land which he now own. Rather than direct detail, her images stress on suggestion and implication.

In Prelude she uses the images of plant aloe and birds to reveal the working of the mind of human beings.. The image of a rich young man under Linda’s window may imply that she wants to escape from her family and the rich household of her husband. The image of a child with bald head and bird may hint that she is overwhelmed with the burden of bearing one child after another. She likes the aloe so much because it has sharp thorns which restrict a person from coming near it. Also because it flowers every hundred years, Katherine Mansfield is the centre figure in the development of modern short story.

She was born in New Zealand but spend much of her adult life in Europe. In the course of her adult life, she tried to extricate herself from the dominance of her family. She also removed herself from the expectation of society regarding women of her class. Her attitude towards life casts its shadow on her literary works. She writes without a conventional plot. Rather she concentrates on a particular point or crisis. She uses themes which are universal like isolation of man, the traditional role of men and women in society or the conflict between love and dissolution. The images in her works, elaborate farther the death of human psychology.


  1. Katherine Mansfield: Significance as a Writer [Internet], Katherine Mansfield Birthplace Society. Available from: < http://www. katherinemansfield. com/mansfield/signif. asp> [Accessed 31 August 2007] Akshaya Kumar. (2001)
  2. The icons of modernism with Euroamerican bias [Internet], available from: < http://www. tribuneindia. com/2001/20011216/spectrum/book1. htm> [Accessed 31 August 2007]
  3. Eric Eldred. “Prelude. ” by Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923) [Internet], available from: <http://digital. library. upenn. edu/women/mansfield/bliss/prelude. html> [Accessed 31 August 2007] Peter Child.
  4. Modernism [Internet], available from: <http://www. litencyc. com/php/stopics. php? rec=true&UID=1219> [Accessed 31 August 2007]
  5. Katherine Mansfield: Short Story Moderniser [Internet], available from: <http://www. nzedge. com/heroes/mansfield. html> [Accessed 31 August 2007]
  6. Manfred Jahn. (2005) Narratology: A Guide to the Theory of Narrative [Internet], available from: <http://www. uni-koeln. de/~ame02/pppn. htm> [Accessed 31 August 2007]
  7. Ismail S Talib. Narrative Theory [Internet], available from: <http://courses. nus. edu. sg/COURSE/ELLIBST/NarrativeTheory/> [Accessed 31 August 2007]
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Critical Analysis of Short Story Prelude. (2016, Aug 30). Retrieved from

Critical Analysis of Short Story Prelude

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