Miss Brill is a middle-aged, unmarried English woman who lives alone in a small apartment in France. She teaches English to students and reads the newspaper to an elderly man several times a week. One of her prized possessions is a fur necklet that she wears on a Sunday visit to the town’s park. The story takes place during one of these Sunday visits in which she eavesdrops on people’s conversations and listens to the band. Miss Brill is an astute observer of others, noticing that the other people sitting on the park benches seem “odd” as if they had “just come from dark little rooms.” She fails, however, to realize that she is one of them. Enchanted by the crisp air and the advent of the Season, Miss Brill compares the park to a stage, and the people—including herself—as actors and actresses in a play. The metaphor takes on the proportions of an epiphany in which she believes that she has finally connected with the community. The realization fills her with joy, and she imagines a young, attractive couple on the bench next to her as the play’s hero and heroine. She has made a false connection, though, she realizes when instead of partaking of romantic dialogue, the couple insult her. She has managed to connect with others only in her fantasy. Miss Brill retreats to her apartment without having succeeded in establishing the human contact she desperately wants and has sought. Miss Brill, however, suppresses her sorrow when she imagines that she hears her fur stole crying as she returns it to its box. She is unable to recognize the feeling as her own, just as she has been unable to see herself as others in the park perceive her.
Miss Brill’s fur necklet, with its “dim little eyes,” a nose “that wasn’t at all firm,” and a mouth that bites “its tail just by her left ear,” assumes many human characteristics in the story. It is a friend to Miss Brill, who calls it her “little rogue,” and whose eyes ask the question “What has been happening to me?”—a question that the woman is not able to ask of herself. The fur lives in a box, just as its owner lives in a “dark little room,” and together they visit the park on Sunday afternoon. After Miss Brill’s day has been spoiled, however, she returns to her apartment and stashes the fur back in its box, ashamed that it has brought her ridicule from people she has admired. The fur, she imagines, is crying—yet another human characteristic Miss Brill ascribes to her fur, which has come to symbolize Miss Brill herself.
The woman in the ermine toque
The woman in the ermine toque whom Miss Brill observes in the park symbolizes the title character herself, and her rebuff by a man in a gray suit foreshadows Miss Brill’s rejection later in the story. Miss Brill notes that the woman’s fur hat is “shabby,” bought when “her hair was yellow”; characteristics that could apply to the observer herself, though she fails to realize this. The woman is delighted to see the man in the gray suit, just as Miss Brill is delighted by the young couple who approach her bench. When he blows smoke in the woman’s face, Miss Brill feels the rejection personally by imagining the drum beat of the band calling out “The Brute! The Brute!”
The young romantic couple
The young, romantic couple approach the bench from which Miss Brill is watching the crowd. They are’ ‘beautifully dressed” and in love. Immediately, they become the hero and heroine of Miss Brill’s imaginary play. However, instead of revealing some sprightly romantic dialogue, the boy and girl are having a quarrel in which the girl insists,’ ‘Not here, I can’t.” In an effort to placate his girlfriend, the “hero” condemns Miss Brill, asking, “who wants her? Why doesn’t she keep her silly old mug at home?” In response, the girl giggles that it is the woman’s fur that she finds so distracting. Thus, the couple’s dialogue, instead of fitting in with Miss Brill’s conception of the situation as a stage play in which they are all welcome characters, makes her realize that her presence in the park is not wanted.
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, Katherine Mansfield, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.