Miss Brill, sitting in the Jardins Publiques (Public Gardens) in a French town on a marvelously fine day, wears a fur coat. It is autumn. She touches her coat repeatedly, her “dear little thing”, which she had taken out of storage and “rubbed the life back into.” She imagines talking to the fur coat and the fur coat talking back to her. There is a band playing, which plays louder and more happily than it had last Sunday, and this is because “the Season” has begun. During this time the band is more daring and less self-conscious about its playing because few people are really listening, but Miss Brill listens and notes that the conductor wears a new coat. She tries to guess which note will come next; she finds that her guess is correct.
The way that Miss Brill talks to her coat – a decidedly odd thing to do – suggests to the reader that she might be crazy. Yet the precision of her observations quickly makes it clear that she isn’t really crazy, while the details about bringing her coat out of storage and “rubbing the life into it” clearly refer to Miss Brill herself as well. And so it becomes clear that Miss Brill is someone who has herself been in a kind of “storage” – who is intensely alone and lonely – and these trips to the park are what “rub the life into her.” Yet her loneliness seems not entirely evident to her, and she seems to intensely love this trip to the park, and to feel a kind of power in her connection to what’s going on. Whether it really is amazing that she can predict the next note, she feels that it is.
In her “special” seat in the stands there are only two people, a fine old man and a big old woman. Miss Brill is disappointed that they do not talk and she is unable to eavesdrop on them. Last week there had been an Englishman and his wife and they had had a dull argument about spectacles during which Miss Brill wanted to shake the woman for being silly because no spectacles seemed to please her.
Miss Brill doesn’t just sit in a seat. She sits in a particular, “special” seat. On the one hand, this shows how the park-going is a ritual for her. On the other, note her sense of her own specialness. Miss Brill is remarkably curious. She tends to insert herself into the lives of others, as she judges people for what she hears. Her disappointment at the old couple’s silence stems from her inability to connect with them in any meaningful way.
But Miss Brill consoles herself by looking at the lively crowd playing on the fields around the bandstand and noticing all its various activities, the little children who run around, then fall, then are helped up by their mothers. Every week Miss Brill also notices the people who are sitting on the benches and green chairs rather than playing or moving in the fields, but she finds them rather identical. “There was something funny about nearly all of them.” She describes them as “odd, silent, nearly all old”. They look as if “they’d just come from dark little rooms or even—even cupboards!”
Endlessly curious, Miss Brill pays very close attention to the world around her and notices the minute interactions people have with one another. Miss Brill’s observation of the people in the stands shows the distinction between those in the stands and those on the field. The people in the field are all differentiated and lively, whereas those in the stands are meek, lonely, old. In one way or another, Miss Brill notices, life has passed these people by. Yet at the same time that Miss Brill makes such acute observations, it is obvious to the reader that she has no such ability to observe herself. She, too, is in the stands. But she sees herself as different from those seated around her.
Miss Brill continues watching people from her seat. There is a general happy commotion. People react to each other pleasantly. A woman drops her bouquet of flowers and a little boy picks them up for her, after which the woman throws them away. Suddenly an ermine toque [which describes a type of white fur hat] and a gentleman in grey meet in front of her and begin making small talk. This woman used to have blonde hair, but now it has turned the same color as the ermine, which Miss Brill notices is “shabby”. Miss Brill wonders, “What would she do? What was going to happen now?” But the couple parts ways and Miss Brill notices a man who almost gets knocked over by four girls in their stead.
This part of the story begins to foreshadow the twist that Mansfield throws in the reader’s path later on. It turns out that not every human interaction that Miss Brill notices around her is a positive one. The boy’s kindness is not acknowledged, and in fact it is rebuffed. A man nearly gets knocked over. Nor are all the people glamorous: the ermine toque—the white hat that is the sole descriptor applied to a woman, as if to indicate the centrality of clothing to one’s appearance and even social position—turns out to be shabby. Again note how Miss Brill’s observations of others are so precise, while she has no such ability to recognize how she might appear to others.
Miss Brill thinks about how “fascinating” sitting and watching people is, how much she loves it. She compares it to a play and thinks that the sky looks like a stage prop. Then Miss Brill has an exciting idea that all the people around her “were all on the stage”. She thinks that everyone around her is not only the audience of the band, but that everyoneis also in fact part of the performance. “Even she had a part and came every Sunday.”It occurs to Miss Brill that if she were not there someone would notice.
Miss Brill is imaginative and optimistic about the way she sees the world. Though she has only spoken to her fur coat so far in the story, her idea of a kind of universal play displays her sense of deep connection between all people. And she asserts her own essentialness in this world as well—if all the world is a play, then every actor is important, is critical to the scene.
This theory explains for Miss Brill why she comes to the park at the same time each week – so as not to miss the performance – and why she feels a little shy when her students ask her what she does Sunday afternoons. She thinks of the old man she reads the newspaper to four days a week in the garden, and how he hardly pays attention to her, so much so that if he were dead she wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. But now she knows that she is an actress, and she imagines the old man guessing this. She imagines straightening up the newspaper in her hands as if it is her script. She imagines telling him, “Yes, I have been an actress for a long time.”
Miss Brill’s theory about the world and everyone in it being part of an elaborate stage production offers a rationalizationfor how she spends her life. She is frustrated by her employment, and her theory gives her a way to imagine that even as she is reading to him while he ignores her, that she is at the same time part of something greater than herself. Miss Brill’s self-delusion becomes more evident to the reader as she has these self-justifying, self-protective thoughts, which she does not recognize as self-justifying or self-protective.
The band pauses for a moment before continuing. Miss Brill is again reminded of a faint indescribable coldness or sadness to the music, one that makes her want to sing. It is as if everyone around her, “all the whole company”, will begin singing. She thinks of how all these separate people will join the singing together, and the people on the benches will provide “a kind of accompaniment”—something that would be beautiful.
This is the pinnacle of Miss Brill’s vision of connectedness. She wishes to express something that is close to her soul and that harmonizes with everyone else. Yet it is noteworthy that it is sadness in the music that makes her want to sing, and that her self-delusion remains on display as she imagines herself as singing in the primary group with the people on the field while the other people in the stands would be the “accompaniment.” And, of course, this moment on the brink of everyone singing never actually results in anyone singing.
A boy and girl sit down where the old couple was sitting earlier. Miss Brill notices how well they dress and guesses they are in love. She identifies them as the heroes of the play, and invents the detail that they had just come from the boy’s father’s yacht. Miss Brill listens to them talking, all the while “still soundlessly singing”.
The boy and the girl replace the old couple, indicating the way younger generations replace older. Miss Brill instinctively romanticizes them—she sees them as rich, glamorous heroes of the play, who are in love, because they dress nicely and because they are young, fitting the stereotype of romantic heroes in films and books. Miss Brill is attracted to their conversation and includes them in the all-inclusive theory she holds about humanity.
It turns out the boy and girl are having an argument. The girl complains that she cannot do what the boy wants. “Not here,” she says. The boy asks her why she cannot and conjectures that she won’t because “of that stupid old thing at the end there”. Clearly speaking of Miss Brill, he questions why she might have come. “Who wants her?” he asks. Then the girl makes fun of Miss Brill’s fur coat and compares it to a “fried whiting.”
Nonetheless, the boy and the girl, who seem so perfect at first, turn out to be arguing; and there is an implication in their words that perhaps the argument is sexual—the boy wanting something, the girl saying not here—and not Miss Brill’s romantic idealization of love. The boy, in anger, then lashes out at Miss Brill, and the two young people then unite against Miss Brill in mockery. It almost seems as if the way for them to resolve their argument is to turn against someone else. Miss Brill herself. Rejecting Miss Brill, they find a way to agree with each other. Yet in doing so they also break the romance of Miss Brill’s illusion of people united in a universal play, and of her own important role in that play. Through the eyes of the boy and girl, Miss Brill finds her sense of her own specialness punctured. Her beloved fur coat is actually shabby, not unlike the ermine torque.
Usually Miss Brill will buy a slice of honey-cake on the way home. It makes a big difference to her if there is an almond or not inside because it is “like carrying home a tiny present.” It’s something “that might very well not have been there.” When the “surprise” does come along, she usually walks home faster and feels happy. But today she doesn’t buy anything and goes straight to “her room like a cupboard” and sits on her bed. She puts the fur coat back into its box, which was left on the bed, and “without looking” puts it inside. “But when she put the lid on she thought she heard something crying.”
The climax of the story, the revelation to Miss Brill of how others see her, changes her. She can no longer delight in the small surprises that she waits for and thus manufactures for herself. The repetition of the “cupboard” image demonstrates that Miss Brill now sees herself as the boy and girl see her: as just another of the people in the stands, as “odd, silent, old.” Her fur coat, which before seemed to connect her to a time when it was new and she was younger, now becomes a symbol of her shame and loneliness. When she presses it back into its box she commits the same sort of rejection of which she is herself a victim. No longer can she believe the illusions of inclusiveness and grandeur that always accompanied her on the way back and forth from the park every Sunday. And the sound of crying that she hears suggests that she knows that in shutting away the fur coat she is committing also to shutting herself up in her “room like a cupboard,” in her lonely life.