Innocence and Experience
“The Garden Party” traces the psychological and moral growth of Laura Sheridan. The story presents her adolescent confusion regarding the social values of her family and her awakening to a more mature perception of reality after her exposure to poverty and death at the carter’s cottage.
Laura’s self-consciousness regarding her own youth and inexperience is evident whenever she encounters members of the working class. When sent to supervise the workers who have come to set up the marquee, she regards them as “impressive” because they carry their tools and work in shirt sleeves. In her initial dealings with them, she attempts to play the role of her mother—the adult— but soon loses her composure: ‘ ‘Laura wished now that she had not got her bread and butter, but there was no place to put it and she couldn’t throw it away. She blushed and tried to look severe and even a little shortsighted as she came up to [the workers].” Copying her mother’s voice, Laura says greets the workmen but soon feels that she sounds “affected” and is ashamed.
This lack of assurance affects her at various moments in the narrative, particularly when she is called upon to make adult responses to events which are outside her childhood environment and experience. Her initial idealization of the workmen’s natural camaraderie changes to feelings of unease and discomfort when she sees the real conditions of the working-class community—their poverty and their claustrophobic, dark kitchens. When she learns of the death of the carter and wants to cancel the party as an appropriate gesture, she is seduced by the hat her mother gives her and the privileged world the hat symbolizes. The sophistication of her more assured sisters and mother, who have no problem justifying the convenient pleasures of their lifestyle, contrasts sharply with Laura’s awkward attempts to do the right thing by canceling the garden party.
Although Laura’s responses are frequently childish, there are significant moments of growth in her character. She is always conscious, for example, of the limitations inherent in her class-conscious world and is open to alternate experiences even when she cannot always respond maturely to them. For example, she is genuinely concerned for the carter’s widow. Her desire to cancel the garden party in order to spare the widow the sounds of revelry at her sad time is a sign of maturity in its consideration and empathy.
The theme of journey is used in this story to illustrate Laura’s rite of passage from childishness to maturity. As the story progresses, Laura moves from the interiors of the Sheridan home, with its abundance of domestic detail, to the sunlit garden and, later, to a region beyond this enclosed and protective space of primary identity. This journey starts in gathering darkness as Laura crosses the road to where the lane becomes ‘ ‘smoky and dark.” She enters the cottage, travels down a “narrow, dark passage” to the claustrophobic kitchen, past the grief-stricken widow with “swollen eyes and swollen lips,” to look upon the calm beauty of the face of the dead carter at the culmination of the journey. At the end of the passage, Laura gains an insightful vision of life and death.
Dream and Reality
Illusion and reality are central themes in “The Garden Party.” The world of the Sheridans is consistently characterized as part of a dream that suppresses and excludes the working-class world. The sorrows of the real world are present here only in the pretty song that Jose sings before the garden party.
Laura buys into these upper-class pretensions. When she endorses the rituals of the garden party, for example, the reality outside of the party seems to be an illusion to her: “She had a glimpse of that poor woman and those little children, and the body being carried into the house. But it all seemed blurred, unreal, like a picture in the newspaper.” Even when Laura travels beyond the confines of the Sheridan garden, the dream continues as she carries the sensations of the party with her—”It seemed to her that kisses, voices, tinkling spoons, laughter, the smell of crushed grass were somehow inside her.”
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.