Katherine Mansfield’s short story “The Garden Party” employs a style that is distinctly modern in its use of impressionistic detail and stream-of-consciousness narrative method. These stylistic features also characterize the works of Virginia Woolf, Dorothy Richardson, and other innovative writers of the 1920s and 1930s.
The narrative begins in ‘ ‘the middle of things”— in media res. The narrative voice describes the scene in a casual and immediate manner which at once establishes an intimacy with the reader— “And after all the weather was ideal. They could not have had a more perfect day for the garden party if they had ordered it.” The almost confidential presentation of such objective facts establishes the narrative voice as the central consciousness of the story—one that perceives and interprets experience and that also, for most of the story, melds with the character of Laura. As the reader is made privy to authorial confidences and interpretation, an appeal is made to identify with Laura’s and the narrator’s point of view. The reader is drawn into this “central” consciousness gradually, gaining access to Laura’s sensibility through constant access to her perception and emotional responses. Most often, the alternation between a third-person narrative voice and Laura’s own perception is demonstrated in single sentences, the transition occurring without narrative markers. A prime example of this happens before Laura meets the workmen who are to put up the marquee: “Away Laura flew, still holding her piece of bread and butter. It’s so delicious to have an excuse for eating out of doors, and besides she loved having to arrange things,” or “His smile was so easy, so friendly, that Laura recovered. What nice eyes he had, small, but such a dark blue!”
This technique of focusing on the thoughts of a central consciousness is referred to by literary critics as stream of consciousness. Using this method to achieve a more truthful presentation of reality, Mansfield, like other modernists, saw it not as something independent of one’s perceptions but rather as constituted by each individual’s particular perceptions. In the “The Garden Party,” for example, Laura’s perceptions are immediately made available, frequently overwhelming what few realities reach the reader through a different source than the main character. At the start of her journey down to Saunders Lane, for example, her thoughts are filled with ‘ ‘the kisses, voices, tinkling spoons, laughters, and the smell of crushed grass”—memories of the party which at first obscure the actual journey down to the carter’s cottage.
Appropriately, the linear narrative of the events surrounding the Sheridan garden party leads up to the climactic conflict of Laura’s consciousness. Again, her perceptions at this climactic moment are articulated by the narrative voice, which almost speaks for her, moving from a third- to a first-person point of view. “There lay a young man fast asleep— sleeping so soundly, so deeply, that he was far far away from them both. Oh so remote, so peaceful… . What did garden parties and baskets and lace frocks matter to him? He was far from all of those things. He was wonderful, beautiful. While they were laughing and while the band was playing, this marvel had come to the lane.”
Symbolism and Imagery
Mansfield’s descriptive language in this story presents a richly textured, suggestive world. Colors, shapes, and textures become a medium through which the scenes of the story acquire significance. The story begins with an impressionistic presentation of the interiors and gardens of the Sheridan home. The garden itself is presented as a space glowing with color and filled with the warmth of the roses, yellow karake fruits, and lilies. These fruits and flowers symbolize the mood of ethereal beauty that characterizes the Sheridan home. This sense of luminous calm is suggested perhaps most clearly by the following image: “And the perfect afternoon, slowly ripened, slowly faded, slowly its petals closed.”
This scene of light and air visibly darkens as Laura leaves the brilliant garden to walk down the hill to the worker’s cottages. The somber mood and lack of hope for the villagers is illustrated by the shade as Laura nears Saunders Lane. Similarly, the soft rustling breezes of the garden and the comfortable domestic chatter of the Sheridan house are replaced by silence and the ominous hum that Laura hears as she approaches the worker’s neighborhood—”How quiet it seemed after the afternoon…. A low hum came from the mean little cottages. In some of them there was a flicker of light, and a shadow, crablike, moved across the window.”
The shadows intensify as Laura approaches the carter’s cottage and is led through a “gloomy passage” by a “woman in black.” Within the obscured interior of the cottage, Laura is exposed to death in the form of the young laborer, and the epiphany that she experiences as she looks upon the calm beauty of the dead face suggests a radiant revelation in this final setting.
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.