This chapter consists of the short story “The Garden Party” by Katherine Mansfield. The story opens to a description of gorgeous summer weather, with hundreds of flowers blooming—a “perfect day for a garden party.” Four men put up a marquee, helped by the “artistic” Laura, whose mother Meg remains at the breakfast table with her freshly washed hair in a turban.
The presentation of this short story aims to test the reader’s ability to interpret literature based on Foster’s advice, and indeed, Foster has placed many clues throughout the book that should help the reader figure out the literary devices Mansfield uses. Note that the blooming flowers, for example, signify spring, new life, and excitement.
Laura attempts to speak to the men in an authoritative way, but doesn’t quite manage it, and they respond to her in an informal manner, eventually choosing the location of the marquee themselves. One of the workmen pauses, bends down and smells a sprig of lavender, and Laura wishes that the men she knows were more like him. In her mind, she blames “these absurd class distinctions.” She feels that the workmen behave more naturally and wishes she herself was free of “stupid conventions.”
It is obvious from this passage that Mansfield is exploring class tensions, and perhaps criticizing the secluded, naïve attitude of the upper class toward working people. However, there are also more subtle layers of meaning at work. Note that Laura’s attempt to speak authoritatively is not just a class issue, but suggests that she is on the cusp of adulthood.
The telephone rings for Laura, and she runs into the house to get it. Here, she encounters her father and her brother, Laurie, whom she squeezes with excitement over the coming garden party. On the phone, Laura invites her friend Kitty to lunch. After hanging up, she pauses and listens to the noises of the house, which she feels is vibrant and “alive,” and feels overwhelmed with affection for it.
Much like the garden, the house is depicted as buzzing with life, almost like an organic landscape filled with wildlife. To the pessimistic reader, the level of excitement and joy signals that something terrible will likely soon take place.
The doorbell rings; it is the florist. Suddenly the house is filled with enormous pink lilies, which seem “almost frighteningly alive.” Laura thinks they must have been ordered by mistake, but it turns out it was the doing of her mother, Mrs. Sheridan. On learning this, Laura throws her arms around her mother and gently bites her ear.
In the living room, Meg, Jose, and Hans are ordering the servants to move furniture around. The narrator claims that Jose loved being bossy with the servants, and “they loved obeying her.” Jose plays a few notes on the piano and sings a song that begins “This life is weary, a tear––a sigh,” reveling in the sound of her own voice. Mrs. Sheridan asks Laura to help her copy out the names of the guests, and she asks Jose to “pacify cook,” saying that she is “terrified of her this morning.”
Clearly, the Sheridan family has deep faith in the rightness of the existing class system, so much so that they project their own feelings of satisfaction onto their servants. Of course, it does not take a particularly deep reader to realize that the notion that the servants “loved obeying” Jose is a naïve fantasy maintained by the Sheridans.
Once these tasks are done, the cream puffs are delivered. The narrator describes Laura and Jose as being “too grown-up to really care about such things,” but notes that they are delighted anyway. Despite knowing they shouldn’t, both girls eat a cream puff. Suddenly, the man who delivered the cream puffs informs the girls that there was an accident, and a man was killed. It was a local man who was thrown out of his horse-and-cart when the horse was frightened by a steam engine.
This passage makes clear that both Laura and Jose are caught in the ambiguous period between childhood and adulthood, a period that is frequently represented within works of literature. Their childish sides are symbolized by their joyous eating of the cream puffs; however, this moment of innocent pleasure is brought crashing down by the news of the dead man.
Laura, horrified, wonders how they will cancel the garden party, but Jose is shocked by the idea. The narrator describes the “disgusting and sordid” cottages where the dead man lived. Although they are near to the Sheridan’s house, the inhabitants are all very poor and the Sheridan girls are forbidden from going there. Still, Laura is horrified to think of how the dead man’s mother will feel knowing that a garden party is taking place on the same day her son has died. Although Jose claims to be sympathetic, she is clearly frustrated and tells Laura she’s being “sentimental.”
Recall Foster’s advice that one way to gauge the political orientation of a work of literature is by observing how the main character dissents from the mainstream views held by those around him or her. Here, Mansfield provides a classic example of such political signaling. While the rest of Laura’s family are decidedly unsympathetic to the dead man, she is overwhelmed with empathy and sorrow.
Laura goes to tell her mother about the dead man. She hopes that her mother will react differently to Jose, but Mrs. Sheridan also considers it absurd that they would stop the party. She tells Laura that “people like that don’t expect sacrifices from us.” She gives Laura a hat to wear, and although she still feels uneasy about the accident, Laura decides to put off thinking about it until later and admires herself in the mirror.
Once again, a member of the Sheridan family projects their own delusional views onto members of the working class. Meanwhile, by giving Laura the hat, Mrs. Sheridan distracts Laura and bestows on her a symbolic gift—the gift of adult female beauty.
After lunch, Laura decides to tell her brother Laurie about the accident, hoping he will react differently. Before she does, however, he pays her a compliment on her hat, and Laurie decides not to say anything. Soon the guests arrive and move about the Sheridans’ garden “like bright birds.” They all compliment Laura on her hat and tell her she looks beautiful.
Mansfield continues to use natural symbols in her description of the house and garden. Once again, Laura is distracted from thinking about the dead man by the positive attention she receives for her hat.
Once the party is over, Laura’s father mentions the man who died, and says that he had a wife and six children. Mrs. Sheridan decides to make up a basket of the leftover food to send to the grieving widow, but Laura is unsure if this is a good idea. She instructs Laura to take the basket to the man’s cottage, at first including lilies—“people of that class are so impressed by arum lilies”—before deciding against it when Jose points out they would ruin Laura’s dress.
Mrs. Sheridan’s statements about the working class are comically horrifying, a fact that discourages the reader from sympathizing with her. The threat the lilies pose to Laura’s dress, meanwhile, emphasizes the idea that the flowers represent sexuality. The potential stain on Laura’s dress is perhaps akin to the blood that sometimes appears when women lose their virginity.
As Laura walks toward the cottages, she feels disconnected from the reality of the man’s death; instead, she cannot stop thinking about the wonderful garden party. She walks quickly through the crowds of people and arrives nervously at the house of the dead man. A woman answers the door, and insists that Laura comes in, even as Laura expresses reluctance. Mrs. Scott, the widow, is sitting by the fire, and at one point turns to Laura to reveal a red face distorted and swollen from tears.
There is a clear contrast in this passage between the vibrant, warm afterglow of the garden party and the dark, dirty, miserable landscape of the cottages. Indeed, the man’s widow’s face is presented in an almost gothic fashion, particularly when she dramatically turns from the fire to reveal her red, distorted face.
Laura tries to leave, but the woman who answered the door—who is Mrs. Scott’s sister—insists that she see the dead man’s body. Upon seeing it, Laura thinks that he looks serene and happy, far away from earthly activities like garden parties. She lets out a sob and rushes out into the street, where she encounters Laurie. He comforts her, and she tries to express her feelings to him, saying “Isn’t life… isn’t life—.” However, she is unable to say anything more, and the story ends with Laurie saying “Isn’t it, darling?”
The ending of the story is simultaneously dramatic and anticlimactic. When Laura is forced to see the dead man’s body, we expect it to be as horrifying as the village; the fact that he seems serene and happy is thus an ironic subversion of our expectations. The story ends on a deliberately ambiguous note, leaving the reader to draw their own conclusions.
With the story over, Foster provides some biographical information on Katherine Mansfield. Originally from New Zealand, she married an Englishman and spent her adult life in England, where she was a friend of D.H. Lawrence. She died young of tuberculosis, and published “The Garden Party” the year before her death.
Although it hardly tells us all we need to know about the story, Mansfield’s biography does provide some useful clues. Note that she was an outsider in England, that she was attached in some way to the Modernists, and that she died fairly soon after “The Garden Party” was written.
Foster encourages the reader to read carefully, employing the strategies that have been laid out thus far in the book. He then quotes from the reactions of students of his who also read the story. Most began by noticing the class tensions between the rich family throwing the garden party and the poor family who live in the cottages. A history major points out that the central dilemma of the story is whether or not to have the party, and that the way the characters react reveal the “indifference of the dominant class of people to the suffering of others.” Laura’s feelings are ambivalent; she hopes Laurie will provide her with an answer, but finds that “there are no answers, just shared perceptions of reality.”
Observing the class tensions present in the story is certainly a good way to begin. It frames the story in a political context, and points to a symbolic explanation for the struggles and dilemmas that Laura encounters. However, this interpretation remains somewhat surface-level. After all, the class tensions in the story are very apparent; the characters refer to them explicitly several times. An analytic reading, while not denying the importance of class, would likely delve deeper to see what else is going on.
Foster then includes the reaction of another student, who argues that the story is about the way that people “insulate themselves” from others, and explains how this theme is portrayed through different symbols. The prevalence of birds, for example, suggests that the Sheridans perceive themselves as existing on a higher plane, gazing down at the lower classes with an elitist attitude. Laura is like a baby bird being taught to fly by her mother; she is not yet fully mature, but her trip to the cottages symbolizes her first independent “flight” away from home. However, the result is that she learns to inhabit the “loftier perspective” of her family, dismissing her earlier concerns.
This analysis has gone a step deeper than the reading that focused on class tensions. The student has identified the prevalence of bird imagery and linked it to the theme of Laura’s initiation into the adult world. They have even managed to connect the symbol of the bird to the “lofty,” snooty attitude of the Sheridan family. This is a good example of analyzing one symbol in order to synthesize multiple themes.
Foster explains that although this is not exactly how he would interpret the story, it is an excellent analysis. He argues it is important to note that the responses above focus on the “phenomena” of the story, meaning the things that actually happen. While there is nothing wrong with this, readers also need to pay attention to the “noumenal level of the story, its spiritual or essential level of being.”
The fact that this is not the reading Foster himself favors does not make it any less valuable. The decision to focus on the phenomenal versus the noumenal level of the story is, in many ways, a matter of preference. A phenomenal reading requires more analysis of symbol, whereas noumenal will likely rely more on intertextuality.
While the responses thus far have focused on the “party” element of the story’s title, Foster prefers to consider the previous word: garden. He points out that the weather is described as perfect, and that the overall impression of the garden is more ethereal than earthly. He also advises the reader to pay close attention to the descriptions of food, and to the hat Laura wears, which is symbolic of her mother’s power. Note also the description of Laura’s journey to the cottages, which is filled with imagery of darkness and smoke. Foster argues that this represents a descent into hell, and that Laura is a version of the Greek mythic character Persephone.
Foster’s attention to the word “garden” is important. The garden party is at the center of the story, so it is easy to forget that the event around which the story revolves could have been anything—a feast, a tea party, a ball. Clearly, there is a significant reason why Mansfield chose to set the party in the garden. Foster’s argument that the story is a version of the Greek myth of Persephone may seem like it is coming out of nowhere, but as he explains, this is not necessarily the case.
To support his claim, Foster points out that Persephone’s mother is Demeter, the Greek goddess of agriculture and fertility. Mrs. Sheridan’s associations with the garden, flowers, and food certainly make her a good Demeter figure. Meanwhile, note the fact that the Persephone myth explores the state of being on the cusp of female adulthood, and the associated knowledge of the realities of the world, including sex and death. The story thus explores this moment of initiation—the departure from childhood innocence into adulthood—in the context of class tensions and familial dynamics.
Although this is certainly not the only correct reading of the story, Foster makes a convincing case for the similarities between the Persephone myth and “The Garden Party.” Note that, while this interpretation enriches and deepens our understanding of the story, it is by no means necessary in order to understand the text, and even to analyze it in a scholarly way. As Foster says, it is simply a “bonus.”