Katherine Mansfield’s short story “Bliss” chronicles a day in the life of thirty-year-old Bertha Young. Bertha’s feeling of “bliss” in the story comes from her attraction to Pearl Fulton, a woman she has recently become friends with. Although Bertha is married, she comes across as sexually naïve and has never “desired” her husband. Not coincidentally, she feels sexually attracted to him “for the first time in her life” on the night of the dinner party when Pearl is present and when Bertha is in the throes of “bliss.” Due to the conventions of the early twentieth century, in which homosexuality was neither legal nor socially acceptable and was rarely discussed in polite society, Bertha’s sexual desire towards Pearl is depicted ambiguously and in terms of forbidden desire. This reflects the repressive nature of propriety in this period and Mansfield’s criticism of a society in which people are forced to conceal feelings of love and desire for the sake of social convention.
Bertha’s attraction to Pearl is not explicitly referenced in sexual terms. However, Bertha’s homosexuality is implied by the fact that she does not feel sexual attraction towards her husband, Harry, and the fact that her attraction to Pearl induces such a physical response. Bertha feels a “little air of proprietorship” toward Pearl “that she always assumed with her women finds,” suggesting that she is possessive of Pearl in the way one might be over a lover. Bertha’s excitement about the dinner party is also explicitly linked to Pearl’s attendance: she feels that she has “fallen in love with” Pearl, “as she always did” with “beautiful women,” and the “fire of bliss” that Bertha feels all day leading up to the party is increased by physical contact with Pearl. When Pearl takes Bertha’s arm, Bertha wonders, “what there was 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?” This physical sensation is contrasted with Bertha’s coldness towards Harry, which is evidently something they have already accepted as part of their marriage. Bertha even becomes panicked by the idea of being left alone with her husband and the thought the of “the dark room” and “the warm bed.” This suggests that Bertha avoids having a sexual relationship with Harry—a sharp contrast from the glut of warm feelings and excitement she feels in Pearl’s presence, underscoring Bertha’s carefully concealed homosexuality. Indeed, she notably feels the first pangs of desire towards her husband only while she is immersed in the “bliss” brought on by Pearl’s presence, suggesting this sudden desire for Harry is really just displaced longing for Pearl.
The story, in turn, is implicitly critical of a society that represses these relationships and desires. Mansfield herself had relationships with women throughout her life and wrote about her female lovers. It is likely that Bertha reflects Mansfield’s own struggles as a homosexual woman in Edwardian society, who would have been forced to hide her relationships with women. Mansfield’s belief that homosexuality is natural and beautiful is reflected by Bertha’s feelings of “bliss” and by Pearl’s association with natural, beautiful things like the moon. The moon is associated with femininity in mythology, and silvery moonlight infuses the night outside the dinner party—making Eddie Warren’s socks appear whiter and seeming to transform his taxi driver into something otherworldly, just as Pearl’s presence transforms the world for Bertha by intensifying her emotional response to ordinary things and suffusing everything with a sense of “bliss.”
Pearl is also associated with the “silver” pear tree in Bertha’s garden, which the two women gaze at in the moonlight and which Bertha views as a “symbol of her own life” with its “wide open blossoms.” This suggests that Bertha is open to new possibilities—that is, homosexuality—in a way that “idiotic civilisation” is not. The fact that she and Pearl seem to share a moment of mutual understanding, “caught in the circle of unearthly light” of the moon shining on the pear tree, suggests the potential reciprocation of Bertha’s feelings and supports the idea that the two women belong to a different world, separate from that of the heterosexual domesticity that so limits their sexual desires.
Of course, given that homosexuality was not openly acknowledged in society in the Edwardian period and homosexual relationships often existed on the fringes of mainstream culture, Bertha has no frame of reference in which to think about her desire for Pearl, other than as something which must be concealed or expressed in an ambiguous way. The image of the pear tree is thus further symbolic of forbidden desire as it relates to the biblical story of the Garden of Eden, in which Adam and Eve were forbidden from eating fruit from the Tree of Life (but sinfully did so anyway). Although Bertha’s life is very free in some ways because of her upper-middle class status and material wealth, the pear tree symbolizes the limitations in her life; the tree itself remains out of reach beyond the window, reflecting the social difficulty that Bertha would face being openly gay in this period and society.
Even if Bertha did openly recognize her desire for Pearl as sexual, this is not something that would be accepted in Edwardian society. The fact that Bertha’s desires remain mysterious and unexplained, even to herself, suggest the total repression and denial of homosexual desire by British society. Bertha’s frustration with her situation is suggested by the story’s ending. While Bertha is desperate for some progression in her relationship with Pearl, the story’s ending is anti-climactic, and Bertha’s desire remains unfulfilled. The still, untouched quality of the pear tree outside and Bertha’s unanswered question of “what is going to happen now?” underscore Bertha’s lingering lack of fulfillment. Rather than reaching a climax, Bertha’s bliss remains unreciprocated and unexpressed, and the story suggests that this will continue as long as society represses certain sexual desires and emotional states.
Sexuality and Desire ThemeTracker
Sexuality and Desire Quotes in Bliss
Oh, is there no way you can express it without being “drunk and disorderly.” How idiotic civilization is! Why be given a body if you have to keep it shut up in a case like a rare, rare fiddle?
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.
The windows of the drawing-room opened on to a balcony overlooking the garden. At the far end, against the wall, there was a tall, slender pear tree in fullest, richest bloom; it stood perfect, as though becalmed against the jade-green sky. Bertha couldn't help feeling, even from this distance, that it had not a single bud or a faded petal. Down below, in the garden beds, the red and yellow tulips, heavy with flowers, seemed to lean upon the dusk. A grey cat, dragging its belly, crept across the lawn, and a black one, its shadow, trailed after. The sight of them, so intent and so quick, gave Bertha a curious shiver. “What creepy things cats are!” she stammered, and she turned away from the window and began walking up and down. . . .
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.
At that moment Miss Fulton “gave the sign.”
“Have you a garden?” said the cool, sleepy voice. This was so exquisite on her part that all Bertha could do was to obey. She crossed the room, pulled the curtains apart, and opened those long windows. “There!” she breathed. And the two women stood side by side looking at the slender, flowering tree. Although it was so still it seemed, like the flame of a candle, to stretch up, to point, to quiver in the bright air, to grow taller and taller as they gazed—almost to touch the rim of the round, silver moon. How long did they stand there? Both, as it were, caught in that circle of unearthly light, understanding each other perfectly, creatures of another world, and wondering what they were to do in this one with all this blissful treasure that burned in their bosoms and dropped, in silver flowers, from their hair and hands.
At those last words something strange and almost terrifying darted into Bertha's mind. And this something blind and smiling whispered to her: “Soon these people will go— The house will be quiet—quiet. The lights will be out. And you and he will be alone together in the dark room—the warm bed.”— She jumped up from her chair and ran over to the piano. “What a pity someone does not play!” she cried. “What a pity somebody does not play.”
For the first time in her life Bertha Young desired her husband. Oh, she'd loved him – she'd been in love with him, of course, in every other way, but just not in that way.
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.”
Miss Fulton held her hand a moment longer. “Your lovely pear tree!” she murmured. And then she was gone, with Eddie following, like the black cat following the grey cat.
“I'll shut up shop,” said Harry, extravagantly cool and collected.
“Your lovely pear tree—pear tree—pear tree!” Bertha simply ran over to the long windows.
“Oh, what is going to happen now?” she cried.
But the pear tree was as lovely as ever and as full of flower and as still.