Art and Experience
“Mrs. Bathurst” explores, among other things, the relationship between experience and its artistic representation through language. The central story of the tale is told second-hand, by Mr. Pyecroft, with help from Sergeant Pritchard. Readers must evaluate the relative positions of all of the narrators in the story in order to understand that each of their perspectives on the story is only one of many. Mr. Pyecroft addresses this issue when he says, ”I used to think seein’ and hearin’ was the only regulation aids to ascertainin’ facts, but as we get older, we get more accomodatin.'” In other words, he realizes that his narrative, like many, relies on lived experience reconstructed through language, and that there is always room for discrepancy between what actually happened and how events are later remembered.
Moreover, since details of the central plot in “Mrs. Bathurst” are provided by three of the four characters who are actually present in the story— Mr. Hooper, Mr. Pyecroft, and Sergeant Pritchard— the plot becomes the product of a collective effort, one which does not always come together seamlessly to form a coherent whole. The identity of the two corpses found by Mr. Hooper, for instance, is left uncertain and ambiguous, as is the actual outcome of the story of Mr. Vickery’s and Mrs. Bathurst’s affair.
Appearances and Reality
Closely related to the theme of art and experience in the story is that of appearance vs. reality. Early on in the story, for instance, a local girl throws a Bass beer over a wall to Sergeant Pritchard because she mistakes him for someone else. Mr. Pyecroft jokes that, ”Its the uniform that fetches ’em, an’ they fetch it,” emphasizing the importance of Pritchard’s appearance.
Perhaps the central image that expresses this theme is the cinematic footage of Mrs. Bathurst. The cinema was a relatively new artistic medium at the time when “Mrs. Bathurst” takes place (1904) and the power of the projected movie image was regarded as, in some ways, uncanny and mysterious. Vickery’s fascination with the cinema and its ability to reproduce an image of Mrs. Bathurst leads him to go to Phyllis’s Circus, where the movie is showing, and then to desert his ship in order to see it an additional time.
The story’s conclusion also reinforces the theme of appearances and reality, as Mr. Hooper tells the other three men how he has recently discovered the charred corpses of two tramps, and how one of the corpses had false teeth. This same corpse had tattoos on his arms and chest, which Mr. Pyecroft verifies were on the body of Mr. Vickery. Though this would seem to confirm that the corpse was that of Mr. Vickery, readers are by no means certain that it is.
Love and Passion
Mr. Vickery’s and Mrs. Bathurst’s affair is the central subject of the narrative. The love and passion that they share is not conventional, however, since Mr. Vickery is already married. Mr. Vickery believes that Mrs. Bathurst has come to search him out in England when he sees her image on a movie screen in Cape Town, South Africa.
Less is known about Mrs. Bathurst’s behavior and motivations since most of the story concerns Mr. Pyecroft’s knowledge of Mr. Vickery. Some critics view Mr. Vickery’s desertion of his ship, and his search for Mrs. Bathurst (or at least her image), as a sign of his undying love for her. Others perceive his actions as evidence of a guilty conscience or tormented soul, perhaps based on his cryptic admonition to Mr. Pyecroft that “I am not a murderer, because my lawful wife died in childbed six weeks after I came out.” Nevertheless, there is clearly more to the relationship between Mr. Vickery and Mrs. Bathurst than is revealed by Mr. Pyecroft’s narrative.
Fate and Chance
“Mrs. Bathurst” raises many important questions about fate and chance. Accidents and coincidence pervade the story, from the chance encounter of the narrator and Mr. Hooper, to the random image of Mrs. Bathurst that captures the fascination of Mr. Vickery. Other coincidences include the meeting of the narrator and Mr. Hooper by Mr. Pyecroft and Sergeant Pritchard, who happen to be on the same deserted bay in South Africa at the same time, as well as Mr. Hooper’s accidental discovery of the charred corpse of Mr. Vickery. These episodes seem random and accidental, but become part of a larger order when combined together. The abundant mistakes and coincidences in the story make the reader question the role of fate in literature and life.
It is possible to talk about the theme of alienation in relation to “Mrs. Bathurst” from a number of perspectives. To begin with, the story takes place on a single brake-car that is resting on an isolated beach in South Africa, making the physical setting of the story difficult to locate. Moreover, all four of the men who converse are in some way absent from the place they should be—Mr. Hooper must repair a broken railway car, the narrator has missed his rendezvous with the ship he is supposed to visit, and Mr. Pyecroft and Sergeant Pritchard are either deserters from their ship or waiting for it to be repaired.
Furthermore, Mr. Vickery and Mrs. Bathurst are separated, yet engaged in the futile but passionate pursuit of one another. The cinematic image of Mrs. Bathurst, which Mr. Vickery watches in Cape Town, is an important symbol of this alienation, since the image itself must stand in for Mrs. Bathurst. In broader terms, Kipling’s story points to the alienation not only of a society that is recovering from war, but also to that of the modern world in general, where larger urban populations and advances in technology tend to alienate individuals from various social structures.
Ira Mark Milne (Editor), Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 8, Rudyard Kipling, Published by Thomson Gale, 2000.