Miss Brill


Katherine Mansfield

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Miss Brill is a middle-aged woman who spends her days as a teacher for children and as a reader for an old man who hardly recognizes her existence. Every Sunday she wears her shabby fur coat to the French public park called Jardins Publiques. She speaks to the coat as if speaking to another person—an act that becomes the reader’s first indication of her true loneliness and alienation. Miss Brill sits in the stands watching and listening to the band and to the people who sit around her in the stands and play on the grass nearby. All the things she sees and overhears fascinate her, and she is so curious as to eavesdrop on people without their knowing. This week however, a fine old man and a big old woman sitting near her do not speak, and she notices how the people in the stands with her all look kind of the same, all of them “odd, silent, nearly all old.”

Continuing to eavesdrop on people nonetheless, she sees a gentleman in grey and a woman who is identified by her clothing: an ermine torque. This couple makes small talk while Miss Brill thinks of what they might say, what might happen, even as she realizes the woman’s hat is “shabby”. However, the couple does not satisfy her, because they part ways before anything meaningfully interesting can be said. Immediately she notices an old man who nearly gets knocked down by a group of young girls. At this point Miss Brill marvels at how “fascinating” her eavesdropping is, and she begins to develop a theory that encompasses everyone in front of her. She thinks that everyone is “all on the stage”, and that everyone here is an actor. She believes that she herself also plays a role in this play, an important role that would be missed were she not there to play it. She thinks about telling the old man to whom she reads: “Yes, I have been an actress for a long time.”

A boy and a girl take a seat in the stands, replacing the fine old man and big old woman. The boy and the girl look wealthy and in love, but are in the middle of an argument. Soon the two of them notice Miss Brill and wonder aloud why anyone would desire her presence in the park, call her a “stupid old thing”, make fun of her old fur coat, and compare it to a “fried whiting” (a cooked fish). Miss Brill leaves soon after, not buying her usual slice of honey-cake on the way. When she arrives home, she puts her fur coat into its box “without looking,” but “when she put the lid on she thought she heard something crying.”