Katherine Mansfield’s “Miss Brill” presents an afternoon in the life of a middle-aged spinster. On her usual Sunday visit to the park, she imagines the she and the people in the park are characters in a play. Contributing to her good mood is the fact that she is wearing her prized fur stole. Anticipating the conversation of two strangers who sit down next to her, Miss Brill’s vivacious mood is shattered by the couple’s ridicule for her and her fur. She returns to her tiny apartment and places the fur back in its box, imagining that she hears it crying.
Alienation and Loneliness
Though Miss Brill does not reveal it in her thoughts, her behavior indicates that she is a lonely woman. She thinks of no family members during her Sunday outing, instead focusing on her few students and the elderly man to whom she reads the newspaper several times a week. Even her name, Miss Brill, suggests an isolating formality; with the absence of a first name, the reader is never introduced to her on a personal level. Her fantasy, in which she imagines the people in the park as characters in a play connected in some psychological and physical way to one another, reveals her loneliness in a creative way. Yet, her manufactured sense of connection to these strangers is shattered when she is insulted by the young couple that sit next to her on the bench. When her fantasy of playacting is crushed by the conversation of the romantic couple, she is shown to be alienated from her environment— estranged and apart from the others in the park, to whom she only imagined a connection. Symbolically, this sense of alienation is heightened at the end of the story when Miss Brill returns her fur to its box quickly and without looking at it. This action is in stark contrast to her playful conversation with it earlier in the day, when she called it her “little rogue.” The final action of the story completes the characterization of Miss Brill as an alienated and lonely individual when she believes that she hears her beloved fur crying as she returns it to its box, just as she herself has returned to her “room like a cupboard.”
Appearances and Reality
Through the stream-of-consciousness narrative in “Miss Brill,” Mansfield creates a story in which the stark contrast between appearances and reality are manifest through the thoughts of the main character. At the beginning of the story, Miss Brill is perturbed by the old couple sitting on the bench near her. Their silence makes eavesdropping on their lives difficult. Yet, she does not realize that their behavior echoes her own silent existence. Similarly, Miss Brill notices that the other people sitting on chairs in the park are “odd, silent, nearly all old” and “looked as though they’d just come from dark little rooms or even—even cupboards!” The irony that she is one of these odd people who lives in a cupboard is not recognized. She also notices an old woman wearing a fur hat, which she calls a”shabby ermine,” bought when the woman’s hair was yellow. When the woman raises her hand to her lips, Miss Brill compares it to a “tiny yellowish paw.” While making fun of this woman in her own mind, the comparisons between the “ermine toque” and her own appearance go unnoticed. Later, when Miss Brill’s imagination concocts the metaphor of the park visitors as actors in a play, she thinks of them as connected to her in a harmonious way: “we understand, we understand, she thought.” Yet, the attractive couple whom she imagines to be the hero and heroine of the play are revealed through their conversation to not be part of this “appearance” of a stage play. In the reality of their cruel comments, they are not “members of the company” who “understand.” This strong illusion of playacting Miss Brill has envisioned has been dismantled through the harsh words of the boy and girl. In reality, they think of her not as a fellow actress, but as a “stupid old thing” whose fur resembles a “fried whiting.” The play—a metaphor which produced a moment of epiphany for Miss Brill— has taken place only in her mind. Thus, this contrast between appearance and reality in “Miss Brill” further illustrates the story’s theme of alienation— the idea that Miss Brill is separated and estranged from her environment.
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, Katherine Mansfield, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.