Even though Bertha Young is nearly thirty, she still sometimes feels the urge to “run instead of walk,” to skip on and off the pavement, or to play games like chasing a “hoop” or catching a ball, the way she used to do when she was a child. At other times she has the urge to just “stand still” and laugh for no reason at all. She wonders what a grown woman can do if she is still, periodically, overwhelmed by a feeling of “absolute bliss,” as though she has swallowed a piece of the sun and it shines inside her.
Bertha wishes to express her internal state, which is one of “absolute bliss,” through her actions and behavior. She feels a sense of delight that she associates with childhood and wishes that she had the freedom of a child to “run instead of walk” or laugh at nothing if she feels like it. As Bertha is a grown woman, she does not know how to express this feeling in a way deemed appropriate for an adult. The image of the sun shining inside Bertha also alludes to internal states being hidden behind external facades.
Bertha thinks that civilized society is “idiotic” because, if she were to act as she liked and express her feelings of joy, people would think her “drunk and disorderly.” She wonders why she has been given a body at all if she cannot use it any way she likes and instead must “keep it locked up in a case like a rare, rare fiddle.”
Bertha is frustrated because she feels that there is no way she can express the joy she is feeling without society condemning her behavior. As an upper-middle class woman in Britain in the early 1900s, Bertha’s life is defined by the rules of propriety. Expressions of emotion were seen as improper according to social conventions in this period, which also viewed women as weak and delicate. This is implied when Bertha describes her body as a “rare fiddle” locked in a case. This suggests the belief that women were fragile and needed protection.
Bertha arrives home and asks her maid if the fruit that she has ordered has been delivered. The maid tells her that everything has arrived, and Bertha says that she will arrange the fruit herself. She goes into the dining room and throws off her coat, unable to stand the “tight clasp” of it any longer.
The “tight clasp” of Bertha’s coat suggests the restrictions placed on Bertha, both literally (as in the tight, restrictive clothing that was fashionable for women in the early 1900s) and metaphorically (in her desire to express her joy and behave in ways which society would deem improper for a woman). The fact that she finds the clasp hard to bear suggests that Bertha longs to throw off restrictive social conventions.
Even though the room is cold, Bertha feels warmed by the feeling of bliss which is still burning inside her. She “hardly dares to breathe” for fear of “fanning” this feeling. As she looks at herself in the mirror, she feels a sense of anticipation and thinks that she has the look of a woman who is waiting for something “divine” to happen.
There is a sense of anticipation throughout “Bliss,” which builds until the story’s climax and suggests that some change is about to take place in Bertha’s life. Although Bertha is happy with her life, the “bliss” she feels is compared with a fire, which suggests that it can be destructive if it is not contained. She is waiting for something “divine” to happen which suggests a lack of fulfilment in her life as she is excited by the prospect of change or progression.
The maid brings in the fruit for Bertha to arrange. Bertha looks at the beautiful colors of the fruit, which she has chosen specifically to match the décor and the color of the carpet in the dining room. She thinks that this does seem like a rather “absurd” thing to do but remembers that, at the time, when she was choosing the fruit, it seemed like a totally sensible decision. When she has finished, she looks at the fruit and sees that it does match the carpet perfectly. In her excited and joyful mood this looks “incredibly beautiful” to her. She starts to laugh at the beauty of the scene but, afraid that she is growing “hysterical,” she hurries out of the room and rushes upstairs to the nursery.
Bertha’s preoccupation with aesthetics and with coordinating the décor of the room suggests that she is interested in artistic movements popular in the early twentieth century. The image of the fruit matching the carpet is reminiscent of the work of the French Impressionist painters, who were interested in painting scenes of everyday life and arranging compositions around shape and color. There is evidence that Bertha’s “bliss” borders on something “hysterical.” This suggests that Bertha’s joy is mixed with desperation and that she is not as happy with her circumstances as she tries to convince herself.
In the nursery, Nurse is feeding Bertha’s infant daughter, Little B, her supper. When the baby sees Bertha, she gets excited and the Nurse becomes visibly annoyed that Bertha has come in and interrupted them. Nurse tells Bertha what she has done with the baby that day and that, when she took Little B to the park, Little B played with a dog. Bertha wants to tell Nurse that it is “rather dangerous” to let Little B play with a “strange dog” but she is too timid. Watching Nurse feed the baby, Bertha feels like a “poor little girl” watching a rich child play with a beautiful doll. She wonders why she has bothered to have a child if that child is always to be looked after by someone else.
Although Little B is Bertha’s child, Bertha is treated like an intruder when she tries to involve herself in her daughter’s life. It was conventional in this period in Britain for upper and middle-class women to employ nannies to take on the responsibilities of childcare. Although Bertha conforms to this convention, she clearly wishes that she could take a more active role in caring for her daughter. Although Bertha is hugely privileged in some ways, and is Nurse’s employer, Bertha is not brave enough to question social convention and does not feel that she has any authority over how Little B is raised. She feels jealous of Nurse even though she is a servant because she is lucky to spend so much time with Little B.
Little B smiles at Bertha and Bertha is so delighted that she can no longer contain herself and begs Nurse to finish feeding Little B herself. Nurse is irritated and does not think that this is a good idea because she thinks it will overexcite Little B. Bertha insists however, and Nurse leaves the pair alone. Bertha enjoys feeding her daughter and finds that holding and playing with Little B gives her the same feeling of “bliss” that she has felt all day and that she does not know what to do with.
The fact that Nurse is irritated by Bertha’s request shows that Nurse views it as improper for Bertha to take an interest in her child. Even though Bertha is Little B’s mother, Nurse feels that childrearing should be beneath a woman of Bertha’s class and that Bertha is crossing class boundaries by asking to feed Little B. Nurse is also jealous of Bertha’s relationship with the baby, just as Bertha is jealous of Nurse. Bertha feels the sense of “bliss” again while holding Little B because, even though Bertha does not realize it, her “bliss” is connected with feelings of love.
Nurse re-enters the nursery and tells Bertha that someone is on the phone for her. Bertha hands Little B back over to Nurse, who takes the baby back triumphantly. It is Bertha’s husband, Harry, on the phone. He tells her that he will be late for the dinner party. Bertha wants to explain her feeling of “bliss” to Harry but feels that it would be ridiculous if she were suddenly to exclaim that it has been “a divine day.” Instead, she hangs up the phone and thinks again that civilized society is “idiotic.”
Nurse is pleased when she takes the baby back because she feels that social order has been restored and that she can resume her job caring for Little B while Bertha resumes her job managing the house. Bertha’s phone call with Harry demonstrates that social conventions affect Bertha’s relationship with her husband. She feels that she cannot openly share her “bliss” with him because he would view it as absurd or improper. However, Bertha believes that it is society, with its rules and restrictions, which is “idiotic,” not her own emotions.
The Youngs have people coming over for dinner. Bertha thinks about the guests she has invited: “the Norman Knights” and Eddie Warren. Mr. Norman Knight is an aspiring theatre director, his wife Mrs. Knight is interested in “interior decoration,” and Eddie Warren is a writer who has recently published some poems and whom it is currently fashionable to invite to dinner. Bertha has also invited a woman called Pearl Fulton, whom she has become friends with recently and “fallen in love with,” as she often does fall for “beautiful women who have something strange about them.”
The Youngs are clearly a fashionable couple who socialize in artistic and cultural circles. Mansfield herself, during her time in London, socialized in literary and bohemian circles and drew upon this experience writing “Bliss.” The observation that Bertha often falls in love with “beautiful women” suggests that Bertha is romantically and sexually attracted to women, although she does not know or admit this to herself.
Although Bertha has met Pearl several times and has had long conversations with her, Bertha still feels that there is a level of reserve about Pearl and that she has not really been able to get to know her. She feels that, although Pearl is “wonderfully frank” about some things, there is a “certain point” beyond which Pearl will not go. Bertha finds this quality mysterious in Pearl and wonders if there is anything more to Pearl’s character.
Bertha projects her own feelings of love and “bliss” onto Pearl and constructs the idea that Pearl is restrained by social convention, just as Bertha is, but has hidden aspects to her personality which Bertha wishes to uncover. This suggests that Bertha is fascinated by Pearl and wishes to make a genuine, emotional connection with her. It also suggests a hidden side to Bertha’s personality: her unexplored homosexual attraction to Pearl.
Bertha’s husband Harry feels that there is not, and that Pearl is, in fact, cold and dull. Bertha refuses to agree with him on this until she has found out for sure. She thinks that she can find something behind some of Pearl’s mannerisms, such as her habit of “sitting with her head a little on one side.” Harry thinks that there is a “good stomach” or “pure flatulence” behind it. Bertha admits that she likes Harry’s habit of contradicting her and of making irreverent jokes.
Harry’s jokes about Pearl undermine Bertha’s idealized image of the woman. While Bertha believes that Pearl is a mysterious individual with hidden depths, Harry satirizes this idea by suggesting that nothing lies behind Pearl’s manner except her physical body. This demonstrates that Harry is an irreverent person who undermines social conventions of etiquette. The fact that Bertha likes this quality in her husband demonstrates her desire to break with the rules of propriety.
Bertha goes into the drawing room and begins arranging the sofa cushions. As she does this, she is startled to find herself clutching one of the cushions to her chest and hugging it “passionately.” This action does not quell the feeling of “bliss” which is building in her chest but instead increases it.
This suggests Bertha’s attraction towards Pearl, which she has concealed even from herself. The fact that she is surprised to find herself hugging the cushions shows the reader that Bertha does not understand her own motives. This shows that she is a sexually naïve person and genuinely does not understand that her feeling of “bliss” is a feeling of love and sexual desire.
The window in the drawing room looks out over the garden. Bertha looks out of the window at the pear tree on the lawn and admires it against the dusky, “jade-green” sky. She notices that all its buds and petals are alive and looks down at the flowerbeds underneath it. In this flowerbed, she sees a grey cat slinking across the lawn, followed by a black cat. This image makes Bertha shudder.
The pear tree is a symbol of forbidden desire throughout the story. Even if Bertha understood her attraction to Pearl, or if her attraction was reciprocated by Pearl, it is likely that social convention would make it impossible for the women to openly have a relationship. Homosexuality was illegal in Britain until the 1960s and was viewed as sexually deviant for longer still. The image of the two cats symbolizes the fact that Bertha’s desires will not be fulfilled and that her sense of “bliss” will go unreciprocated. The fact that the cats make Bertha “shiver” suggests that she is aware of this on some level.
Bertha turns away from the window and paces the room. She feels overwhelmed by the scent of the garden coming in through the window and throws herself down on the couch. She feels that she is “too happy.” Closing her eyes, she seems to see a vision of the pear tree and thinks that it is a “symbol of her own life” with all its blossoms and petals open.
Bertha’s state here verges on manic or “hysterical” again and there is a sense that her happiness is, in fact, a type of desperation to escape her circumstances. Bertha feels that the pear tree represents her own life because, due to her position of privilege because of her class and financial status, she is free to spend her time however she wants.
Lying on the sofa, Bertha thinks about all the wonderful things that she has that should make her happy with her life. She thinks that she and Harry are very happily married, they have good friends, and a beautiful child, they are financially secure and have a lovely home and garden. Their friends are “modern” and bohemian and interested in cultural and “social questions.” It makes her feel “dizzy” and she suddenly feels exhausted and wonders how she is going to get herself ready for the evening. She notices that her outfit matches the garden outside with the green dusk and the white petals of the pear tree under the moon.
Bertha thinks about all the things in her life that should make her happy. Were she truly content, however, she likely would not have to remind herself of all the reasons that she should be. The fact that running through this list exhausts her also suggests that it is an effort for her to be happy and that her situation does not really bring her joy. Her outfit matches the pear tree and the garden because these things are symbol of her internal desires. Bertha is interested in expressing these internal desires externally.
Mr. Norman Knight and his wife, Mrs. Knight, arrive. Mrs. Knight is wearing a bright, orange coat decorated with a pattern of monkeys. As she enters the house, she tells Bertha that her coat has caused a stir on the train and that people were so shocked by the color and pattern of her coat that they stared at her on the journey. Mrs. Knight blames the commotion on the fact that the middle-classes are so “stodgy.” Mr. Knight agrees and thinks that it was very amusing when Mrs. Knight snapped at a woman on the train and asked her if she’d “never seen a monkey before.” Bertha thinks that Mrs. Knight does look like a monkey in her yellow dress, and that her earrings look like nuts.
Mrs. Knight is antagonistic towards “civilized” society and social conventions among the British middle-class. She rebels against them by dressing in a way that shocks people. This suggests that, like Bertha, Mrs. Knight wants her external appearance to match her feelings and beliefs. Under the spell of her “bliss,” Bertha feels that the whole evening is enchanted and, as part of this enchantment, she feels that Mrs. Knight really looks like she has been turned into a monkey in her yellow dress.
Eddie Warren arrives next and is very shaken by his experience with the taxi driver who brought him. He tells the group that he could not get the driver to stop the cab and that, in the moonlight, the driver looked sinister and “bizarre.” He says that he saw himself being driven away in a “timeless” taxi by an otherworldly taxi driver. When Mrs. Knight compliments Eddie Warren’s white socks, he tells her that they have grown whiter in the moonlight. Bertha feels that Eddie is a very attractive person.
The theme of transformation is continued with the arrival of Eddie Warren. He complains that the taxi driver has been transformed into a “bizarre” figure and that his socks have been made whiter by the moon. Moonlight is symbolic of this transformation and enchantment, which seems to have fallen across the party as a result of Bertha’s “bliss,” which transforms the world and everything in it for her.
Harry arrives and rushes upstairs to get dressed for dinner. Bertha knows that Harry is not really worried about being late but that he enjoys making a show of being “extravagantly cool and collected.” She feels that Harry has a love of being contradictory and for fighting even if there is no need for it and Bertha appreciates this quality in him.
This suggests that Harry is a person who worries about how he presents himself to the world. Bertha admires his contradictory nature because she wishes to rebel against social conventions and Harry symbolizes this rebellion for her.
Enjoying the company of her guests, Bertha almost forgets that Pearl Fulton is still to arrive. When Pearl does arrive, Bertha tells the other guests that Pearl uses taxis all the time. She does this with a knowing manner, which she finds that she often develops with her female friends. Harry says that Pearl will get fat if she never walks anywhere and always gets taxis.
Bertha’s comment about Pearl suggests that Bertha knows Pearl well or likes to think that she does. It suggests that Bertha feels that she and Pearl have an understanding and that she has insight into Pearl’s lifestyle that the others do not.
Pearl Fulton enters the party. Her outfit is all silver and she asks Bertha if she is late. Bertha says no and takes Pearl’s arm. When she does this, she feels the feeling of “bliss” return and strengthen.
Pearl’s silver outfit associates her with the moonlight, which has transformed the night outside just as Bertha’s love for Pearl has transformed the world for Bertha. The reader understands that Bertha’s feeling of “bliss” is caused by Bertha’s attraction to Pearl, because it intensifies when Bertha takes Pearl’s arm.
During the dinner, Bertha feels an inexplicable certainty that Pearl is feeling the same way that she is. The guests discuss theatre and Bertha thinks delightedly what a “decorative” group they make, like characters in a play. When Harry compliments the food, Bertha again feels almost overwhelmed with tenderness and joy. Everything in the world seems good to her and her thoughts keep on returning to the image of the pear tree in the moonlight. She thinks about these things as she watches Pearl peel an orange and her fingers look silver in the light.
The description of the group as “decorative” suggests that they are only important to Bertha on a surface level. They provide the scenery for Bertha’s real purpose for the evening, which is to spend time with Pearl. The fact that they are like “characters in a play” suggests that the evening has an unreal or illusory quality. Bertha’s fixation on the moon and the pear tree suggests that everything is transformed by her love for Pearl, like everything is transformed by the moonlight. The pear tree is symbolic of Bertha’s hidden desire for Pearl.
After dinner, the group retire to the drawing room and Mrs. Knight, whose nickname is “Face,” describes the burned down fire as a “nest of baby phoenixes.” Pearl asks Bertha to show her the garden and Bertha feels that this is a “sign.” Bertha takes Pearl to the window and the two women stand and look out at the pear tree under the moon. Bertha thinks the tree looks like a flame, stretching up into the sky, and almost touching the moon.
Mrs. Knight’s description of the fire suggests that the fire too has changed into something else. However, this is only a metaphor. This suggests that, although things seem to be undergoing a transformation, nothing has really changed, and the enchantment is illusory. Bertha believes that she can correctly interpret Pearl’s actions and takes Pearl’s question about the garden as a “sign” that Pearl wishes to be alone with Bertha. Rather than openly communicating her desire (which social convention forbids) Bertha shows Pearl the symbols of her desire: the moon and the pear tree. Bertha sees the tree like a flaming candle because she believes that Pearl understands her and will know how to interpret the symbols that Bertha is showing her, even though this may not really be the case.
Bertha loses track of how long she and Pearl stand by the window but feels that they share a connection; bathed in the “circle of unearthly light” coming through the window from the moon. She feels that they are like “creatures” from a different world and that both are under the spell of “bliss” which drops “treasure” and “silver flowers” on them. As Bertha thinks this, she believes that she hears Pearl say: “Yes. Just that.”
Bertha feels that she and Pearl have connected over the image of the garden and believes that this separates them from the others in the room. She feels that she and Pearl no longer belong to the restrictive, domestic world of social conventions and Edwardian morality but exist in their own world of “bliss” where these things do not matter. She even imagines that Pearl confirms this by whispering, “Yes. Just that,” in response to Bertha’s thoughts. However, as it is impossible for Pearl to read Bertha’s thoughts, this is left ambiguous and it is heavily suggested that this exchange only takes place in Bertha’s mind.
The light in the room is switched on, breaking the spell that Bertha feels she is under. The other guests are in the room and are making coffee. Mr. Knight is complaining that he never sees his daughter and that he will take no interest in her until she is an adult and has a suitor. Eddie Warren is talking about a play he wants to write for Mr. Knight’s theatre. Harry complains that modern playwrights are too “romantic” and that you can’t “put out to sea without being seasick and wanting a basin,” and that young writers should have the “courage of those basins.”
Mr. Knight self-consciously satirizes aspects of British society, such as his relationship with his daughter. This demonstrates that the Knights like to present themselves as cynical, unconventional people. However, the Knights give little evidence that they are actually interested in disrupting societal norms, even if they view them as shallow and unnecessary. Harry’s complaint about the idealization of life in fiction suggests that he is an honest person who wishes that other people would be honest too. However, this is undercut by the story’s ending in which it is revealed that Harry is unfaithful to Bertha and that his frankness is a performance.
Pearl sits down, and Harry offers her a cigar. Bertha watches and thinks that, from the way that he is talking to her, Harry is not only bored by Pearl but really dislikes her. Watching Pearl’s reaction, she believes that Pearl feels this too and is hurt by it. Bertha thinks that Harry is “quite wrong” about Pearl and that he would find her “wonderful” (just as Bertha does) if he got to know her.
Bertha is confident that she can interpret Harry and Pearl’s feelings correctly by reading their external appearances. Bertha’s assumption does not account for the fact that Harry and Pearl may be performing for the sake of propriety or in order to hide their true natures or motives.
As she thinks this, Bertha suddenly remembers that the guests will leave soon, and that she will be left alone with Harry. She has a moment of panic thinking about the bed which she and Harry share, before she realizes that, “for the first time in her life,” she “desires” her husband. She thinks that she has always been in love with him but that she has never loved him “in that way.” This troubled her when they were first married but Harry has been very kind about it and they have reached an understanding and are now “good pals.”
Bertha is panicked by the thought of being left alone with her husband. The “warm bed” is associated with a sexual relationship between husband and wife, and Bertha admits that she has never sexually desired her husband until this evening—when, importantly, her world has been transformed by Pearl’s presence. This suggests that Bertha is gay but is unaware of this. She dislikes sex with her husband but feels physically invigorated by Pearl’s presence and physical proximity. This suggests that her sexual attraction to Pearl is so strong that it even transforms her relationship with Harry temporarily.
Mr. and Mrs. Knight say that they need to leave to catch the last train and begin to say goodbye. Pearl and Eddie Warren agree to share a taxi. Pearl goes to get her coat from the hall and Harry follows her. Bertha thinks that he is trying to make amends for being rude to Pearl. Eddie asks Bertha if he can borrow a book of poetry which includes an “incredibly beautiful line”: “Why must it always be tomato soup?”
Bertha again demonstrates that she believes she can correctly interpret other people’s intentions by watching their behavior. Although Eddie Warren is thought of as a great writer in fashionable circles, his claim that “Why must it always be tomato soup?” is “incredibly beautiful” is ironic and suggests that Eddie has been transformed into a great writer by all the attention that he receives, rather than by his own talent.
Bertha says that she does have this book and goes to get it for Eddie Warren. As she comes back past the hall, she glances in and sees Harry take Pearl in his arms. He sees Harry mouth “I adore you” to Pearl and Pearl smiles up at him. Bertha sees Harry’s lips move into a “hideous grin” as he murmurs the word “tomorrow,” while Pearl nods in agreement.
Bertha’s certainty about Harry and Pearl’s motives and feelings, is completely undermined by this revelation. Both have been lying to her and performing, as a loyal husband or a kind friend, in order to trick her and fulfil their own desires. The use of the word “hideous” suggests the horror of this revelation for Bertha and how “hideous” she finds the prospect of Harry having a sexual relationship with Pearl.
Bertha returns to the drawing room and hears Harry say loudly that he can call Pearl her own cab if she’d like. Pearl and Eddie say goodbye and as Pearl takes leave of Bertha, she presses Bertha’s hand and says: “Your lovely pear tree.” Bertha watches them leave and thinks that Eddie and Pearl look like the grey cat and the black cat that she saw creeping across the lawn that evening.
Harry is strategically performing as a good host here, making his voice louder so that it will seem like he and Pearl have not spoken in the hall. The fact that Bertha references that pear tree may suggest that Pearl is aware of Bertha’s attraction her, and the significance of the tree in Bertha’s mind, but that she is prevented from acting on this by social convention. Or it may indicate that, although Bertha believed that the tree was significant, and that she and Pearl really had a connection, it is, in fact, incidental and Pearl has not understood her meaning at all. Bertha’s memory of the cats under the pear tree suggests the destruction of her hopes.
Harry goes to lock up the house and Bertha rushes to the window. She wonders what is going to happen next and looks out at the pear tree, which is as “lovely” and “still” as ever under the moon.
Bertha is so overwhelmed with emotion that she feels that something drastic will happen in the aftermath of her revelation about Pearl and Harry. She feels that some change must now occur because she has been in such a state of anticipation all evening. However, the pear tree is “lovely” and “still” under the moon. This suggests that the transforming power of Bertha’s “bliss” was just an illusion, as was her belief in she and Pearl’s connection, symbolized by the pear tree. The tree remains untouched, symbolizing the fact that Bertha’s hopes have come to nothing and that her sexual attraction towards Pearl remains unfulfilled.