Essay On Miss Brill By Katherine Mansfield

Sample Student Essay on Katherine Mansfield’s “Miss Brill”

 

The following essay was written by a student who wishes to remain anonymous.  (As we will shortly see, this reticence stems from modesty, not embarrassement!)

The essay is discussed at some length here.

It was written in response to the following assignment:

Discuss how the author's choice of a particular point of view helps communicate a central theme of the tale.  Develop a clear argument to show how the narrator's point of view is essential to the audience's recognizing and understanding the theme.  Support your argument with specific observations and analysis.  Quote and document according to the guidelines in the chapter "Writing About Literature" at the back of our textbook.


 Mansfield’s “Miss Brill”

     This short story is narrated in the third person from the point of view of the limited omniscient narrator who primarily acts as the voice of the story’s protagonist, Miss Brill. By telling the story through the eyes of the protagonist, Mansfield is able to convey to the reader the protagonist’s loneliness and the lack of self-awareness. She offers no explanation as to the Miss Brill’s past, leaving it to the readers to draw their own conclusions. At the same time the author provides illuminating insights into the protagonist’s character and lifestyle that effectively communicate to the reader the theme of this short story. The central theme of “Miss Brill” is the pain of loneliness, and inadvertent attempts to experience life through the experiences of total strangers.

    From the beginning of the narrative it becomes apparent that Miss Brill is starving for warmth and companionship. She tenderly caresses her fur as if it were a beloved pet when she rubbs “the life into the dim little eyes” (p.50) of the old fox boa. Another sign of Miss Brill’s need for companionship is evident in her perception of the music which the band is playing at the Jardins Publiques: “It was like some one playing with only the family to listen (p.50).” Despite of her loneliness, she is considering herself a part of this family that the band is entertaining with its music. But in reality she is more of an observer, a voyeur, and not an active participant in life as it unfolds at the Jardins Publiques. She is looking forward to eavesdropping on other people’s conversations, believing herself to be quite an expert in remaining unnoticed. Miss Brill adopts a more critical, at times even hostile, attitude toward the women that she observes in the park than toward their male companions: she views the man who shares her “special” seat as “a fine old man,” while the woman is “a big old woman (p.50).” When she recollects the events of the previous Sunday at the park, she remembers a patient Englishman with the difficult to please wife, whom “Miss Brill wanted to shake (p.50).” These observation of the women carry perhaps a note of envy that she feels toward the women who have male companionship.

    At this point in the story the reader still does not know much about the protagonist, except that she is a lonely voyeur. Then one of her observations about the “odd, silent, nearly all old people, and from the way they stared they looked as though they’d just come from dark little rooms or even – even cupboards! (p.51)” whom she sees every Sunday at the park hints to the reader that she might be one of those people. The pieces of the puzzle, of course, fall into place at the end of the story, when the protagonist’s room is described as “the little dark room-her room like a cupboard (p.52).” This is the conclusion of the story, when Miss Brill is able to see herself and her surroundings in the new light. Her new self-awareness is brought about by disparaging remarks of the young lovers who refer to Miss Brill as “that stupid old thing (p.52),” and to her precious fur as “a fried whiting (p.52).” This is Miss Brill’s moment of epiphany. She is as old as the other park-goers, her fur is a pitiful necklet, and she foregoes her usual Sunday slice of honeycake. In spite of her newly found self-awareness, Miss Brill still denies some of her own emotions when “she thought she heard something crying (p.52)” at the very end of the story. The tears are obviously her own.


Work Cited

 Mansfield, Katherine. “Miss Brill.” An Introduction to Fiction. Ed. X.J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia. 7th ed. New York: Longman, 1999. 50-52

  Suggestions are welcome.  Please send your comments to lyman@ksu.edu .

      Since the student author wishes to remain anonymous, contents are copyright © 2000 by Lyman A. Baker, with the understanding that the student may assert copyright at any time, upon discretion.

  This page last updated 25 October 2000 .

Summary

Although the day was warm, Miss Brill was happy she had decided to wear her fur. She had taken it out that morning for the first time all season, brushing its coat and polishing its eyes. She enjoyed the way its sad eyes looked up at her and how soft the fur was. Miss Brill called it “little rogue” and liked how its head tickled her behind the ear. She was so happy she thought about putting the fur on her lap and stroking it.

Sitting on her usual bench at the Jardins Publiques, a public local garden, Miss Brill adjusted her fur and watched all of the people around her while a band played nearby. There were more people than usual and the band was playing beautifully to entertain them. Miss Brill liked to watch all of the people and listen to their conversations, without them knowing she was listening in. She had perfected a technique of looking uninterested in her surroundings but in reality she was an avid observer of life at the gardens.

An old couple sat near her but they were not very entertaining and sat as still as statues. She watched the crowd as they passed as she did every Sunday, no matter the season. Miss Brill came to realize that nearly all of the people she observed at the gardens on Sundays were somewhat odd. They had a pale look about them, as if they had all been hiding in cupboards and were only now coming out for fresh air.

Behind the band’s rotunda Miss Brill had a perfect view of the sea, a beautiful backdrop to the stories unfolding before her. Two girls walked past and were joined by two soldiers. A woman with a straw hat ambled by with a donkey. An attractive woman went past, dropping her flowers. A young boy stopped her and gave her back the bouquet but the woman tossed them down again. Miss Brill wasn’t sure what to make of that.

Another woman wearing an ermine toque appeared with a gentleman. Although the woman was trying very hard to keep the man’s attention, he blew smoke rings in her face and then left her behind. The band seemed to sense her mood and played more softly. Eventually the woman left and an old man appeared bobbing his head to the music. Four girls almost knocked him over and Miss Brill was thrilled with them all.

It was like watching a play where the sea was the backdrop; the band the orchestra and all of the people were the actors. Even Miss Brill was apart of the production! Miss Brill had had always been very mysterious when her students asked her how she spent her Sunday afternoons. She had gone so far as to tell the elderly gentlemen that she read to during the week that she was an experience actress. And as the band struck up a playful tune, Miss Brill wanted to sing aloud, believing that when she did all of the people around her would join in. They were only waiting for their cue.

Miss Brill was just preparing her voice when a handsome boy and girl sat down on the bench with Miss Brill. She immediately recognized them as the hero and heroine of the play and prepared to listen to their conversation.

The girl said she would not kiss the boy while seated on the bench. The boy said “But why? Because of that stupid old thing at the end there? Why does she come here at all-who wants her? Why doesn’t she keep her silly old mug at home?” (113). The girl laughed and said Miss Brill’s fur was funny looking.

On the way home Miss Brill usually stopped to buy a slice of honey-cake from the bakery. Sometimes there was an almond in her slice and sometimes there was not. She always felt very special on the days she found an almond in her cake. Today; however, Miss Brill walked straight past the bakery and headed home.

Sitting on the side of her bed, in her little dark room, which felt like a cupboard, she took off her fur and quickly placed it inside its box “but when she put the lid on she thought she heard something crying” (114).

Analysis of Miss Brill

"Miss Brill" was written by Katherine Mansfield and first published on November 26, 1920 in the literary magazine Athenaeum. The self-titled protagonist blurs the line between fantasy and reality on an ordinary Sunday outing to the public gardens. There, she imagines she is taking part in a grand play when in reality she is merely sitting alone on a bench observing the world around her. Mansfield takes particular care in establishing a sense of realism in "Miss Brill." Although the exact location is ambiguous, Mansfield’s descriptions of the public gardens and the imagery of the many people who Miss Brill observes, helps create a rich, atmospheric setting of movement and commotion. The motif of music, often used by Mansfield to set the tone of her stories, is utilized in "Miss Brill" to reflect the various moods of the characters as they interact. Miss Brill notes the reflective quality of the music in her own observations, using it as a backdrop for the imaginative scenes developing in her own mind.

Mansfield, a modernist, often experimented with structure and narration in her work both of which center on the use of internal monologue in "Miss Brill." Internal monologue was often employed by the modernists to express the thoughts of the characters without disturbing their actions. Mansfield’s use of internal monologue in the character of Miss Brill breaks free its usual constraints because Miss Brill begins to believe her distorted reality is true. The story’s structure is divided between what Miss Brill thinks and what is really happening in the story. The third person narrative supports the structure, creating a rounder picture of Miss Brill’s circumstances while the internal monologue allows the reader access to Miss Brill’s inner, fascinating world.

As a character, Miss Brill lives in two distinct worlds. In reality she is a schoolteacher who spends her spare time volunteering and goes to the public gardens on Sundays. A private woman, Miss Brill enjoys the simple pleasures of life like almonds in pastries and seems content in her solitude. Her inward life; however is very different. She images that she is a great actress and dresses herself in fur, most likely a fox head stole which is draped around the neck. Note that the fox’s eyes are glassy when Miss Brill takes the stole from its box, essentially freeing it from storage now that the weather is getting cooler. She strokes and pets the fox’s fur as if it were alive and once she is at the public garden she wants to put the stole on her lap and pet it, as if it were alive. In doing so Miss Brill’s grasp on the difference between reality and fantasy begins to shift. A people watcher, Miss Brill imagines the rich and diverse lives of those around her, observing them and pretending they are apart of her inner world. Note that Miss Brill remains sitting while everyone else around her is in some form of motion. Their lives are full and active while Miss Brill’s remains stationary. Note too her preoccupation with observing couples. Perhaps she yearns to be loved but for her own reasons would rather watch rather than participate suggesting low self-esteem. Interestingly, Miss Brill does not cast herself as the lead in her imaginary play but the performer who opens the show with a song. Just as her imagination has gotten the best of her, Miss Brill physically prepares to sing when the young hero and heroine of the play sit down on the bench and poke fun at her and her “funny-looking” fur. The hero’s statement that no one wants Miss Brill at the public garden, though probably meant in jest, is a smack in the face to the protagonist. She was so taken with her distorted reality that when truth presented itself, Miss Brill was emotionally unequipped to handle it.

Distorted reality, an important theme in the overall text of The Garden Party and Other Stories, is especially apparent in "Miss Brill." Straddling the line between truth and fantasy, Miss Brill is content, even happy, living in the imaginary world she has created for herself. Is it her intention; however, to bridge the gap between both of her worlds and finding that they do no coexist that jars her back into reality. The rude remark of the young hero opens Miss Brill’s eyes to what others must think of her when they see her dressed in furs at the public gardens, never interacting with anyone but always observing. She is marked as an outsider. These revelations prompt Miss Brill to abandon her distorted reality no matter how painful the transaction. The hero’s comment may seem insignificant to readers but Mansfield cleverly demonstrates Miss Brill’s fragile psyche with the short anecdote about the bakery that she frequents and how easily her day is ruined when her pastry does not have an almond in it. Later when Miss Brill boxes up her beloved fox head stole, she is figuratively also laying to rest her inner dream world and her fantasies about being an actress. The soft cry Miss Brill imagines she hears from the box is representational of her own sorrow and her imagination’s final death moan.

 

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