The Jardins Publiques (Public Gardens) in a French town on an early autumn Sunday afternoon is the setting for ‘ ‘Miss Brill.” The air is still, but there is a “faint chill, like a chill from a glass of iced water before you sip,” so Miss Brill is happy to have worn her fur stole. The stole, in accordance to the fashions of the times, was constructed so that its fake eyes and nose could be attached to its tail, securing it around the wearer’s neck. It is the first time she has worn it in a while. When preparing for her stroll in the park, she gives it a “good brush,” “[rubs] the life back into the dim little eyes,” and teasingly calls it her “little rogue.”
Miss Brill watches the people in the park with delight. The band sounds ‘ ‘louder and gayer” to her than it has on previous Sundays. She listens to the concert from her” ‘special’ seat” and is disappointed when the other two people seated there do not speak. Her favorite pastime on Sunday afternoon is to eavesdrop on people’s conversations.
In one observation, Miss Brill notices that all the people sitting on the benches listening to the band are “odd, silent, nearly all old” and “looked as though they’d just come from dark little rooms or even—even cupboards.” As Miss Brill listens to the band and watches the children playing, her thoughts drift from the pupils to whom she teaches English, to the old man to whom she reads the newspaper four days a week.
As her exuberance grows, Miss Brill likens her position as that of an actress in a play. As dramas are acted out in the park, Miss Brill realizes that she is a character, too:’ ‘Even she had a part and came every Sunday. No doubt somebody would have noticed if she hadn’t been there.” She delights in the metaphor. The band, which had been taking a break, resumes playing. Miss Brill thinks that the ‘ ‘whole company” might begin singing along at any moment. They would sing something ‘ ‘so beautiful— and moving.” She feels a vague sense of community with the rest of the people in the park.
A young couple, well-dressed and in love, come and sit near her, and Miss Brill imagines them to be the hero and heroine of the play. She listens to their conversation, but instead of revealing dialogue that fulfills Miss Brill’s fantasy of theater, the girl makes fun of Miss Brill’s fur collar. The boy, trying to appease his girlfriend, says ‘ ‘Why does she come here at all—who wants her? Why doesn’t she keep her silly old mug at home?” The girl, snickering, compares the woman’ s fur to a dead fish, saying that it looks like a “fried whiting.”
Miss Brill’s reaction to the comments are not recorded. Instead, she forgoes her usual stop at the bakery on her way back to her “little dark room— her room like a cupboard,” where she sits silently for a long time. Finally, she unclasps her fur quickly without looking at it. As she places it back in the box, she thinks that she hears “something crying.”
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, Katherine Mansfield, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.