Most criticism of Katherine Mansfield’s short story “The Garden Party” concentrates on the story as a truncated bildungsroman—a story of the growth and maturity of a young idealistic character. Critics such as Daniel S. Taylor in “Crashing the Garden Party: A Dream, A Wakening,” for example, see Laura’s initiation as a passage from the “dream world of her parents and social class to the real world of the Sheridan’s neighboring working-class.” As Taylor notes, describing the symbolic significance of the garden party, “The garden party epitomizes the dream world of the Sheridan women, a world whose underlying principle is the editing and rearranging of reality for the comfort and pleasure of its inhabitants. Its war is with the real world, whose central and final truth is death.” Similarly, Clare Hansen and Andrew Gurr, in “The Stories: Sierre and Paris,” discuss Laura’s evolution into adulthood as taking place in the context of a gulf between rich and poor—a gulf that is indicated by the Mansfield’s oppositional descriptions of the world of the Sheridans and the world of their less fortunate neighbors:
“Words such as “perfect,” “delicious,” “beautiful,” “splendor,” “radiant,” “exquisite,” “brilliant,” “rapturous,” “charming,” “delightful,” “stunning,” convey the outward beauty of the Sheridan’s life … In striking contrast are words describing the working people and Saunders lane: “haggard,” “mean,” “poverty-stricken,” “revolting,” “disgusting,” “sordid,” “crablike,” “wretched.””
Given that “The Garden Party” was written in 1922 at the height of Marxist movements across Europe and Russia—which, among other things, attempted to understand class structure and identity—it is necessary to explore the way in which “The Garden Party” presents a picture of class interdependence. Specifically, “The Garden Party” is interesting to investigate for the way it portrays families like the Sheridans as being dependent for their class—identity on their always nearby working—class neighbors. Thus, rather than conceptualizing the worlds of the Sheridans and the worlds of the Scotts as diametric opposites whose paths seldom cross, this essay will explore the way in which “The Garden Party” presents the two worlds as always meeting and clashing—defining one and the other through their continual juxtaposition.
“The Garden Party” is structured around the preparations for an early afternoon garden party. The sense of the Sheridans as inhabiting a dreamlike world is set out in the very first lines when the narrator comments on the ideal weather conditions for the garden party. “And after all the weather was ideal. They could not have had a more perfect day if they had ordered it. Windless, warm, the sky without a cloud.” The family, and particularly its female members, seem to derive their life-force from the carefree atmosphere in which they live. In the story’s first scene, Meg, one of Laura’s sisters, is seen sipping coffee, hair washed, wrapped in a green turban. Jose, another sister, is simply described as a butterfly who always “came down in a silk petticoat and a kimono jacket.”
Mansfield, however, does not allow this sense of early morning luxuriance to go uninterrupted. Immediately, those upon whom the Sheridan sisters’ luxury depends burst in upon this scene of lazy breakfast-taking. Their entrance is signaled by a break in the narrator’s description of the garden and weather: “Breakfast was not yet over before the men came to put up the marquee.” The now down to-earth tone of this sentence connotes linguistically a clash between the lives of the Sheridan sisters and the men who must come at dawn to put up the marquee for the party. This interruption is further signaled when Laura, the main character who throughout the story attempts to bridge personally these two ever-present worlds, runs out to meet the workmen with breakfast—the signifier of her “Sheridan” life—in hand. Significantly, Laura feels embarrassed still holding the bread and butter when she comes to meet the workmen: “Laura wished now that she had not got the bread-and-butter, but there was nowhere to put it and she couldn’t possibly throw it away.”
The reason for this awkwardness is precisely that the bread and butter, the piece of Sheridan life which she has taken with her, defines her to the workmen as not one of them but as opposite from them, and upper class. Laura attempts to mediate that duality by playing both roles—taking a big workman-like bite from her slice of refined Sheridan life while thinking of the “absurdity of class distinctions.”
While Laura is exulting in her camaraderie with the workmen, one of them catches her attention. He seems somewhat apart from his compatriot—he does not share the general frivolity, and functions to once again remind Laura of their difference. Discussing the placement of the marquee, Laura remarks that there will be a band playing at the party. To this the workman replies,”H’m, going to have a band, are you?” After this remark, Laura notices that this workman “was pale,” and with a “haggard look as his dark eyes scanned the tennis court.” At this very moment, however, of a sense of mutual alienation, the workman picks and smells a sprig of lavender from the garden. Witnessing this, Laura feels their differences evaporate and “wonder(s) at him for caring for things like that—caring for the smell of lavender.” Once again, then, a moment of antimony, of unmediated difference of “two worlds,” is mediated by an action, this time on the part of one of the workmen rather than Laura.
This sense of similar class identities is short-lived, however, as the narrative continues with the continued clashing and jarring of the two worlds. In fact, during the rest of the story there is never a moment where Saunders Lane is forgotten. Even at the dreamiest point in the Sheridan world, Saunders Lane is suggested in some way or another. For example, after Laura has met the workmen, she settles down for a moment and listens to the sound of the house. As she listens she finds that the house is an airy delight, “every door seemed open… And the house was alive with soft, quick steps and running voices.” Even this momentary enjoyment of the house’s heavenly comfort is interrupted by Saunders Lane. The interruption comes in the form of “a long chuckling absurd sound. It was the heavy piano being moved on its stiff castors.” Although we are told that Meg and Jose are involved in moving the piano, it is the servant Hans’s physical labor that Laura undoubtedly overhears.
A more humorous (if not satirical) moment of potential mediation between the two worlds of the story is Jose’s absurd song with which she tests her voice. Jose has been earlier described as a “butterfly”—a girl of cream-puffs and linen dresses, and of course garden parties. Yet, the song that she sings is decidedly not of this type: “This life is Wee-ary,/ A Tear—A Sigh/A Love that Chan- ges/This life is Wee-ary.” Rather than the expected moment of unity between the Sheridan house and Saunders Lane, the absurd pairing of an emotionally calloused character like Jose with a song of sorrow and desperation serves instead to remind the reader that it is precisely the weariness of others that makes possible Jose’s butterfly-like existence. This antithesis of expression and experience is punctuated by Jose’s actions at the close of the song,
“But at the word “goodbye”, and although the piano sounded more desperate than ever, her face broke into a brilliant, dreadfully unsympathetic smile, ‘Aren’t I in good voice, Mummy?’”
This mismatch of expression and character is underscored by the fact that this song is preceded by Jose giving orders to the servant, Hans, to rearrange the tables and to sweep the rug.
The garden party is itself not fully described in the story. We are only privy to certain snatches of conversation—and these tell us that it has been a success, with Laura the center of much attention because of her black hat. Before the garden party, Laura’s mother, Mrs. Sheridan, had distracted Laura from thinking about the dead laborer and her wish to cancel the garden party by enticing her with a black hat. Laura had at first resisted this appeal to her vanity, but once she leaves her mother’s bedroom, she catches a glimpse of herself in the hat in her bedroom mirror. What she sees startles her, and serves to obliterate the image of the dead laborer.
“There, quite by chance, the first thing she saw was this charming girl in the mirror, in her black hat trimmed with gold daisies, and a long velvet black ribbon. Never had she imaged she could look like that…. Just for a moment she had another glimpse of that poor woman and those little children, and the body being carried into the house. But it all seemed so blurred, unreal, like a picture in the newspaper.”
The hat thus functions at this moment to reinforce more than ever the division between the world of the Sheridans and the world of the Scotts. Suffused with vanity as a result of the hat’s charm, Laura forgets the tragedy down the hill, and more than ever desires to continue with the garden party. Even when confronted with her brother, Laurie— the family member with whom she is most emotionally intimate—Laura decides not to tell him of Scott once he has complemented her on her hat.
Ironically, the hat—after the garden party—is a catalyst for a moment of understanding/connection between Laura’s world and the world of the Scotts. After the party, Laura’s mother suggests that Laura take a basket of party scraps down to Scott’s widow. At first, Laura questions the appropriateness of this gesture, but is soon convinced. Mrs. Sheridan also insists that Laura “run down just as [she is]”-in party dress and hat. Arriving at Saunders Lane, Laura soon feels awkward because of the way in which she is dressed. This awkwardness, I would argue, signals a moment of insight for Laura into the lives of the workers who live on this lane. She is disturbed because of the brightness of her frock and the extravagance of the famous hat: “how her frock shone! And the big hat with the velvet streamer—if only it was another hat!” Noting the difference between her dress and that of the laborers—tweed capped men and shawled women—Laura realizes the life absent of carefree happiness that the inhabitants of Saunders Lane must endure. A bright frock and an extravagant hat have no home here. Like the bread and butter episode, this piece of Sheridan life reveals to her the almost unsurmountable disjuncture between her life and the lives of these workers.
The hat also functions to create another moment of insight for Laura when she is alone with the body of the laborer. When Laura enters the Scott home, she is immediately confronted with the sorrow-ravaged face of the laborer’s widow. Although Laura tries to escape as soon as it is possible, the widow’s sister insists that she view the now-peaceful body of Mr. Scott. Laura is soon overwhelmed by the peacefulness of the expression on the laborer’s face; particularly she is overcome by the remoteness of his appearance. “He was given up to his dream. What did garden-parties and baskets and lace frocks matter to him? He was far from all those things. He was wonderful, beautiful. While they were laughing and while the band was playing, this marvel had come to the lane.” Laura feels that she can not leave Scott without saying something that would indicate the affect that he has had on her— “She gave out a loud, childish sob … ‘Forgive my hat,’ she said.”
Although her plea is undoubtedly comical and absurd, it also carries within it a significant moment of understanding. As we have seen, the hat has heretofore functioned as a prime signifier of the division between the two worlds—earlier, the hat had caused Laura to forget the tragedy just down the hill. By apologizing for her hat, Laura is also apologizing for what it represents—class snobbery, selfishness, and the almost unsurmountable psychological and social division between the world of the laborers and the world of the Sheridans. The hat, then, here facilitates a moment of connection—of class similarity—through its very significance as a symbol of division and antimony. The story concludes with Laura meeting her brother, Laurie, in Saunders Lane. Her demeanor with him indicates that she has been touched by the universality of death and life—both know neither class borders nor garden parties.
Ira Mark Milne (Editor), Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 8, Katherine Mansfield, Published by Thomson Gale, 2000.
Jennifer Rich, “Overview of ‘The Garden Party,”‘ in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2000.