“Bliss” is written in a Modernist style, reflected in the focus on aesthetics throughout the story. Bertha herself is preoccupied with external appearances. Although this may come across as shallow, Bertha’s desire to make things beautiful is an attempt to express her feeling of “bliss.” Bertha is also interested in interpreting the appearance of others; as she watches guests interact at her dinner party, Bertha makes assumptions about their internal states based on their outward appearances. She assumes that, because she tries to communicate her feelings through her appearance, others are doing the same. However, events in the story contradict this assumption and Bertha is proved wrong about the motives of Pearl and Harry, whom she has assumed are loyal and innocent but who are really having an affair. Instead of trying to communicate their internal states, Pearl and Harry are in fact trying to disguise them through their outward performance. Combined with the discussion of aesthetics, theatre, and performance at the party, “Bliss” gives the reader the feeling that nothing is quite as it appears.
Bertha tries to use both her external appearance and the presentation of her home to communicate her feelings and personality to the people around her. For example, she has paid special attention to the appearance of her living room in preparation for the dinner party and has even ordered certain types of fruit to match the room’s décor. Although Bertha herself acknowledges that this does “sound rather far-fetched and absurd,” her attention to detail is in keeping with her interest in modernity and current artistic movements, which someone like Bertha, who has “modern, thrilling friends,” would likely be aware of. She is “in her present mood” of almost delirious bliss when she buys the fruit, and this suggests that Bertha is trying to communicate her internal state through her surroundings; indeed, since she has no other way to communicate her feelings of joy and beauty to others because of social constraints placed on her ability to openly express her emotions.
When Bertha sees the pear tree, which is white under the moon, “becalmed against the jade-green sky,” she thinks that this matches her outfit—“a white dress” and “a string of jade beads.” She notes that this “wasn’t intentional” but feels it is fitting because she views the pear tree “as a symbol of her own life.” This further suggests a correspondence between Bertha’s internal emotional state and her external appearance and presentation.
Although appearances initially seem to reflect reality, Mansfield complicates the concept of appearances at Bertha’s dinner party. There, Bertha misinterprets her guests’ behavior, emphasizing that not everything is what it seems. Throughout the evening, Bertha makes several assumptions about what Pearl is feeling based on the way Pearl presents herself. Interpreting the “strange smile” that Pearl gives Bertha across the table, Bertha decides that “the longest, most intimate look had passed between them,” and that Pearl “was feeling just what she was feeling.” Bertha also feels that she can read Harry’s moods based on his actions. When he offers Pearl a cigar, Bertha interprets from his manner that he is “bored” by Pearl and that he “really disliked her.” Similarly, when Harry goes to help Pearl with her coat, Bertha believes that Harry is “repenting his rudeness” towards Pearl and Bertha thinks affectionately how “simple” Harry is in some ways, like “a boy.”
Bertha’s assumptions about Harry and Pearl are wrong, however, and they are presenting themselves in this way—Harry as innocent and Pearl as friendly—with an ulterior motive. Pearl’s friendship with Bertha is possibly an attempt to get close to Harry, with whom she is having an affair, rather than a “sign” that she is in love with Bertha. This revelation highlights the idea that appearances can be deceptive and as well as Bertha’s naivety in assuming that everyone around her is attempting to be as honest and transparent as she wishes that she herself could be.
Ultimately, all the characters in the story—even Bertha—are merely putting on performances, as their appearances don’t reflect their inner states. Although Bertha describes her guests as “modern, thrilling” people, who are interested in “social questions,” they give little indication of this during the dinner, suggesting that this is merely a performance in keeping with fashion rather than a true reflection of their interests. During the party, Bertha describes her guests as a “decorative group” suggesting their superficiality and their lack of substance.
Much of the conversation at the party also notably revolves around theatre and performance—reflecting both Pearl and Harry’s performance (as a loyal friend and a loyal husband) to mask their infidelity. The idea of performance also corresponds with Bertha’s performance as a woman who is happy in her life. Although Bertha does feel a genuine sense of bliss, there are indications throughout the story that her happiness verges on desperation and hysteria. Indeed, her frequent repetition of how happy she is gives the impression that she is trying to convince herself that there is nothing wrong with her life, despite the repression of her desires and the problems in her marriage, which become obvious as the story progresses. The revelation of Harry’s infidelity with Pearl throws into doubt all of Bertha’s, and the reader’s, certainty about how the other characters feel and draws attention to the fact that, while Bertha wishes to be a frank, honest person, her own true desires are hidden beneath a veneer of respectability and her performance as a conventionally happy woman.
Aesthetics, Appearance, and Performance ThemeTracker
Aesthetics, Appearance, and Performance Quotes in Bliss
Although Bertha Young was thirty she still had moments like this when she wanted to run instead of walk, to take dancing steps on and off the pavement, to bowl a hoop, to throw something up in the air and catch it again, or to stand still and laugh at—nothing—at nothing, simply. What can you do if you are thirty and, turning the corner of your own street, you are overcome, suddenly, by a feeling of bliss—absolute bliss!—as though you'd suddenly swallowed a bright piece of that late afternoon sun and it burned in your bosom, sending out a little shower of sparks into every particle, into every finger and toe.
But in her bosom there was still that bright glowing place that shower of little sparks coming from it. It was almost unbearable. She hardly dared to breathe for fear of fanning it higher, and yet she breathed deeply, deeply. She hardly dared to look into the cold mirror—but she did look, and it gave her back a woman, radiant, with smiling, trembling lips, with big, dark eyes and an air of listening, waiting for something. . . divine to happen. . . that she knew must happen . . . infallibly.
When she had finished with them and had made two pyramids of these bright round shapes, she stood away from the table to get the effect—and it really was most curious. For the dark table seemed to melt into the dusky light and the glass dish and the blue bowl to float in the air. This, of course in her present mood, was so incredibly beautiful. . . . She began to laugh. "No, no. I'm getting hysterical." And she seized her bag and coat and ran upstairs to the nursery.
What Miss Fulton did, Bertha didn't know. They had met at the club and Bertha had fallen in love with her, as she always did fall in love with beautiful women who had something strange about them. The provoking thing was that, though they had been about together and met a number of times and really talked, Bertha couldn't yet make her out. Up to a certain point Miss Fulton was rarely, wonderfully frank, but the certain point was there, and beyond that she would not go.
Was there anything beyond it? Harry said “No.” Voted her dullish, and “cold like all blond women, with a touch, perhaps, of anemia of the brain.” But Bertha wouldn't agree with him; not yet, at any rate.
“No, the way she has of sitting with her head a little on one side, and smiling, has something behind it, Harry, and I must find out what that something is.”
“Most likely it's a good stomach,” answered Harry.
He made a point of catching Bertha's heels with replies of that kind . . . “liver frozen, my dear girl,” or “pure flatulence,” or “kidney disease”. . . and so on. For some strange reason Bertha liked this, and most admired it in him very much.
And she seemed to see on her eyelids the lovely pear tree with its wide open blossoms as a symbol of her own life. Really—really—she had everything. She was young. Harry and she were as much in love as ever, and they got on together splendidly and were really good pals. She had an adorable baby. They didn’t have to worry, about money. . .
“I'm absurd. Absurd!” She sat up; but she felt quite dizzy, quite drunk. It must have been the spring. Yes, it was the spring. Now she was so tired she could not drag herself upstairs to dress. A white dress, a string of jade beads, green shoes and stockings. It wasn't intentional. She had thought of this scheme hours before she stood at the drawing-room window.
And then Miss Fulton, all in silver, with a silver fillet binding her pale blond hair, came in smiling, her head a little on one side. “Am I late?”
“No, not at all,” said Bertha. “Come along.” And she took her arm and they moved into the dining-room. What was there in the touch of that cool arm that could fan—fan—start blazing – blazing – the fire of bliss that Bertha did not know what to do with. Miss Fulton did not look at her; but then she seldom did look at people directly… But Bertha knew, suddenly, as if the longest, most intimate look had passed between them—as if they had said to each other: “You, too”—that Pearl Fulton, stirring the beautiful red soup in the grey plate, was feeling just what she was feeling.
While he looked it up she turned her head towards the hall. And she saw . . . Harry with Miss Fulton's coat in his arms and Miss Fulton with her back turned to him and her head bent. He tossed the coat away, put his hands on her shoulders and turned her violently to him. His lips said: “I adore you,” and Miss Fulton laid her moonbeam fingers on his cheeks and smiled her sleepy smile. Harry's nostrils quivered; his lips curled back in a hideous grin while he whispered: “To-morrow,” and with her eyelids Miss Fulton said: “Yes.”
“Here it is,” said Eddie. “‘Why Must it Always be Tomato Soup?’ So deeply true, don't you feel? Tomato soup is so dreadfully eternal.”
“If you prefer,” said Harry's voice, very loud, from the hall, “I can phone you a cab to come to the door.”