A large part of the narrative tension in “Bliss” derives from the fact that Bertha Young, the thirty-year-old protagonist, feels a great sense of joy that she wishes to express. However, the constraints of the society in which she lives, and the rigid constraints placed on women in this society in particular, prevent Bertha from expressing her titular “bliss.” Mansfield extends her argument against the repression of homosexuality to show how Betha’s entire life is strictly organized according to the rules of propriety, which defined social convention during Britain’s Edwardian period. Despite Bertha’s best efforts to surround herself with unconventional people and a spirit of individualism, social convention is too large and powerful to topple, and her life is rigidly structured around the conventions of middle-class womanhood.
Bertha’s antagonism towards the constraints of polite society is evident early in the story, as these constraints prevent her from expressing the strong emotion that she feels. Bertha feels that “although” she is thirty, she still has moments when she wants to “run instead of walk, to take dancing steps on and off the pavement […] or to stand still and laugh at—nothing—at nothing, simply.” The use of the word “although” suggests that these expressions of joy are inappropriate for an adult woman and go against the grain of expected behavior. Bertha thus feels a sense of constraint because she cannot freely express herself and her own sense of joy. She is disdainful of social convention and thinks “how idiotic civilisation is” as it places restrictions on emotional freedom. Bertha feels this constraint so strongly that is manifests physically: she cannot “bear the tight clasp of” her coat and wonders “what is the point of having a body” if it is to be kept like a “rare, rare fiddle […] locked in a case.” This suggests that social constraints infringe on Bertha’s freedom and prevent her from doing what she wants with her own body.
Although Bertha’s life is very privileged in some ways, she is barred from fully experiencing certain parts of life because of social attitudes toward women in this period. Women of Bertha’s class were viewed as physically and mentally fragile and discouraged from partaking in strenuous activities or from engaging with serious social or emotional questions. Bertha’s comparison of herself with a rare instrument in a case reflects the idea that she needs to be physically protected from the world.
This notion is further developed when Bertha goes to see her child, Little B, who is taken care of by Nurse. Although this arrangement was common in this period—most wealthy households employed a nurse or nanny so that rich ladies would not have to undergo the physical aspects of childcare—Bertha feels cut off from the experience of raising her child and questions societal conventions when she wonders, “why have a baby if it has to be kept—not in a case like a rare, rare fiddle‚ but in another woman’s arms?” Bertha loves the physical sensation of caring for her daughter, and it fills her with “bliss” to see the baby’s “exquisite toes as they shone transparent in the firelight.”
Despite this, Bertha is too timid to challenge the nurse. She hardly dares to ask if she can feed Little B and fails to criticize the nurse for introducing Little B to a strange dog. This demonstrates that Bertha has little sense of her own authority or responsibility for her child, and by extension has little authority in or control over her own life. Instead she feels like a “poor little girl,” particularly when she sees the nurse caring for Little B and is envious of her because of the nurse’s connection with the baby. She is only given access to a superficial side of motherhood and this makes her feel like a child playing with toys, or like a toy herself, “kept in a case.” This emphasizes how women of Bertha’s class were viewed as childlike and fragile, and that physical processes like nursing and childcare were viewed as jobs for lower-class women.
The fact that women in the story are frequently compared with inanimate objects further underscores the objectification of women’s bodies in the period and the tendency to view upper class women as beautiful or decorative rather than as full human beings. Although Bertha wants to rebel against this objectification, she is not quite brave enough to openly break with the constraints placed on women in the period. Bertha and Pearl are in a similar position in that both are objectified throughout the story. The use of the name “Pearl” itself suggests that women are like precious jewels—decorative and rare, to be guarded or “kept in a case.” Yet Bertha seeks a tangible connection with Pearl because she is desperate to see beyond Pearl’s decorative surface, which she believes “has something behind it.” This reflects Bertha’s desire to understand Pearl in more than just a superficial or idealized way.
Bertha also demonstrates her desire to rebel against gender roles in society through her choice of unconventional friends, like Mrs. Knight. Mrs. Knight demonstrates her unconventionality through her fashion sense—drawing attention to herself by wearing a bright orange coat decorated with monkeys, which makes people stare on the train. Bertha, however, is not depicted as a bold character and, instead, only internally wishes to disrupt conventions. This is evident in her timidity in front of the nurse and the fact that, even though she “wishes to run instead of walk,” she refrains from doing so. However strong her moments of bliss, at the end of the story she remains prisoner to the expectations placed on all women at the time.
Women’s Roles and Social Constraint ThemeTracker
Women’s Roles and Social Constraint 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.
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?
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.
She stood watching them, her hands by her side, like the poor little girl in front of the rich little girl with the doll. The baby looked up at her again, stared, and then smiled so charmingly that Bertha couldn’t help crying: “Oh, Nanny, do let me finish giving her her supper while you put the bath things away.”
“Well, M'm, she oughtn't to be changed hands while she's eating,” said Nanny, still whispering. “It unsettles her; it’s very likely to upset her.”
How absurd it was. Why have a baby if it has to be kept—not in a case like a rare, rare fiddle-but in another woman's arms?
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 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.
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.
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.