Katherine Mansfield’s short story “The Garden Party” opens with frantic preparations being made for an afternoon garden party. The main character, Laura, is an idealistic and sensitive young girl. She is surrounded by her more conventional family: her sister, Jose, who, as the narrator tells us, “loved giving orders to servants”; her mother, Mrs. Sheridan, a shallow old woman whose world consists of having enough canna lilies; her father, a businessman; and her brother, Laurie, to whom she feels most similar in feeling and ideals. As many critics have remarked, Mansfield’s prose depicts an almost dreamlike world.
This atmosphere is compromised for Laura when she hears of the death of one of the laborers who lives in the cottages down the hill from her house. Struck by the inappropriateness of throwing a garden party when a neighbor has been killed, Laura immediately suggests that they cancel the party. The rest of the story is structured around Laura’s reconciliation of her concern for the dead laborer and her family’s reactions to his demise. Laura attempts to convince Jose of the necessity of canceling the party. Jose’s response is indicative of the family’s overall view of the impoverished laborers. She chastises Laura for her desire to cancel the party, saying, “You won’t bring a drunken workman back to life by being sentimental.” The narrator’s later description of the cottages reveals the family’s general hostility toward their neighbors.
After Jose’s rebuff, Laura attempts to convince her mother of the need to cancel the garden party. Laura’s relationship with her mother is a significant aspect of “The Garden Party.” Earlier, in greeting the workmen who were to put up the marquee, Laura had tried to mimic her mother in order to prevent the workmen from perceiving her as a child: ‘”Good morning,’ she said, copying her mother’s voice.” In the next moment of her conversation with the handymen, however, Laura attempts to distinguish herself from her mother’s perception of the working class.
At first, Laura is aghast at her mother’s reaction to the news of the dead laborer. Mrs. Sheridan worries only that the death occurred in the garden: ‘”Mother, a man’s been killed’ … ‘Not in the garden?’ interrupted her mother.” Mrs. Sheridan reacts to Laura’s suggestion like Jose does—she becomes annoyed and thinks that the idea of canceling the party is absurd. Giving her a black hat to wear for the garden party, Mrs. Sheridan hopes it will change her mind. At first Laura resists this appeal to her vanity, but once she’s left her mother’s room, she sees herself in a mirror and is soon overwhelmed by her own “charm.” Caught up in her mother’s comfortable vision of garden parties and black hats, Laura now perceives the laborer as a distant object of curiosity—like a picture in the newspaper—and no longer a reason to cancel a lovely afternoon garden party.
The party itself is not fully described in Mansfield’s story; the only impressions of it are given through snatches of conversation. From these moments it is apparent that the party has transpired as expected, with much made of Laura and her black hat: “Darling Laura, how well you look!” “Whata becoming hat, child!” and so on. Soon afterwards, however, the dead laborer once again disturbs Laura’s complacency. Mr. Sheridan brings up the “beastly accident.” Mrs. Sheridan suggests that Laura deliver some leftover food to the laborer’s widow. At first Laura doubts the appropriateness of such an action, but she is soon convinced by her mother. Almost perversely, Mrs. Sheridan insists that Laura go down to the cottages in her party garb.
Laura’s journey to the cottages is described as a journey into an anti-world. Rather than the fresh, airy, and ethereal Sheridan atmosphere, Saunders Lane is characterized by darkness, shadows, half-dressed children, and a sense of oppression. “Dark knots of people” are seen to stand outside the widow’s cottage. Laura soon feels the inappropriateness of her dress. She plans to quickly drop off the basket and rush from the disturbing scene.
Unfortunately for Laura, the widow’s sister will not allow her to escape so quickly. Laura meets the sorrow-ravaged widow—”her face, puffed up, red, with swollen eyes and swollen lips.” Although her mother has asked her not to look at the dead body, Laura allows the sister to take her to the corpse. Contrary to her expectations, she is struck by the peacefulness and beauty of the young man and by how inconsequential garden parties and lace frocks are to one who is caught up in a different and incomparable dream. Overwhelmed by the disparity between her world and this picture of peaceful death, Laura exclaims in a sob, “forgive my hat.”
Laura runs out and encounters her brother, Laurie. Sensing that Laura might be disturbed by her visit, he asks, “Was it all right?” Laura tries to explain her impressions to Laurie but realizes that this momentary sight of the transcendent is unexplainable. Laurie, however, understands what Laura has seen and in response to Laura’s unfinished exclamation “Isn’t life—” answers, “Isn’t it darling?” The story ends with the two sharing this impression of a world beyond parties.
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.