Katherine Mansfield’s “Miss Brill” presents the interior monologue of a woman on a Sunday trip to the park whose pleasant illusions are shattered when reality infringes on her thoughts.
“Miss Brill” is set in the “JardinsPubliques,” the French term for “public garden,” or park. Miss Brill, through her name and the indication that she tutors students in English, is revealed to be a nonnative of France, and thus an outsider from the start. These factual references reinforce her emotional isolation, which she attempts to overcome by pretending that she is a cast member in a stage production. The pleasant weather, its crispness perfect for her fur collar, echoes Miss Brill’s good mood as she sits in the garden listening to the band and watching the people. When her illusion of understanding with the others in the park is shattered by the comments of the young couple, however, Miss Brill retreats to her “little dark room—her room like a cupboard.” This change of setting highlights the main character’s abrupt change in mood.
The primary symbol in “Miss Brill” is the main character’s fur stole. It assumes various lifelike traits, echoing the traits that characterize Miss Brill herself. She has “taken it out of its box that afternoon” just as Miss Brill has left her”room like a cupboard” for a walk in the park. It is given other human qualities: its nose “wasn’t at all firm,” and Miss Brill imagines its eyes are asking “What has been happening to me?,” and when placed back in its box at the end of the story, she thinks she hears it crying. The boy in the park criticizes Miss Brill’s appearance, suggesting that she should “keep her silly old mug at home.” Likewise, his girlfriend criticizes the fur, giggling that it looks “exactly like a fried whiting.” When Miss Brill takes the fur off at home, she does it “quickly; quickly, without looking,” perhaps symbolizing the way she failed to examine her own life or recognize how she appears to others.
“Miss Brill” is told in a third-person, stream-of-consciousness narrative, a common device in Mansfield’s works which serves to heighten the story’s psychological acuity and perceptive characterization. Though the narrative is third-person, the stream-of-consciousness technique allows the reader full access to Miss Brill’s thoughts, but nothing more than Miss Brill’s thoughts. Thus, the thoughts of others in the story are revealed by dialogue (such as the young couple’s), or they are not revealed at all (like the couple seated next to Miss Brill who do not speak). Likewise, the reader is privy to Miss Brill’s thoughts about her fur: “Dear little thing! It was nice to feel it again,” but is left to intuit much of Miss Brill’s character by what she does not realize. The stream-of-consciousness narrative reveals, for example, Miss Brill’s perception of the woman wearing an old ermine hat. Miss Brill slightly scorns the woman, calling her hat “shabby” and her hand a”tiny yellowish paw,” yet she fails to note that her own appearance is somewhat similar to the woman’s. Thus, part of Miss Brill’s character is revealed by what her stream-of-consciousness narration fails to address.
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, Katherine Mansfield, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.