Constantia and Josephine are in charge of their household and must assume positions of leadership after the colonel’s death, yet they are utterly dependent on each other and the assistance of their cook, Kate. Even though Kate is both rude and potentially spying on her bosses, Constantia and Josephine feel unable to fire her and cannot decide whether she is valuable to them or not. Indeed, the sisters seem unable to make sound judgments about other people in their lives and their own actions toward these people in general. They regard their surroundings with ambivalence, as if incapable of independently forming their own opinions. Constantia and Josephine are crippled by overthinking, contributing to the story’s anticlimactic mood and circular structure: by the end of the story, the sisters seem as paralyzed and helpless as they were at the beginning.
Mansfield begins the narrative by describing Constantia and Josephine’s indecisiveness after their father’s funeral: “even when they went to bed it was only their bodies that lay down and rested; their minds went on, thinking things out, talking things over, wondering, deciding, trying to remember where…” By trailing off mid-sentence, Mansfield mirrors the sisters’ own confused thoughts and habits. From the outset, Constantia and Josephine seem more capable of overthinking and ruminating about situations than acting on them. The sisters choose to wait until the next day to decide the recipient of their father’s top-hat (“‘We can decide to-morrow,” [Josephine] sighed’”), and they cannot bring themselves to ask Nurse Andrews—the nurse who helped their father before his death—to leave, though her presence becomes a “bother.”
Josephine and Constantine also debate about firing Kate, insisting that they are not as dependent on her as they were before their father’s death. Yet Constantia admits that she has “never been able to quite make up [her] mind” about Kate’s trustworthiness. She has laid traps for their maid before in order to catch her stealing, yet Constantia has been unable to decide whether any displaced items she ever found were actually Kate’s fault. Josephine, too, feels ambivalent about Kate’s culpability, and Constantia’s own suspicions feed into Josephine’s: “Now you’ve put the doubt into my mind, Con, I’m sure I can’t tell myself.” Kate continues to prove instrumental to the household, since neither woman can fend for herself; thus, their judgments about her are tempered by their reliance on the skills she provides.
In general, the sisters are conflicted and equivocal about their decisions regarding the household and family affairs. They constantly postpone necessary actions instead of confronting them directly, and their dependency on Kate and each other—they make no choices without involving the other and constantly share opinions—contribute to their shared stasis in the household. At the story’s pivotal moment, in which Constantia and Josephine decide to “settle” their father’s things in his room, both sisters are unable to face the challenge, creating an anticlimax. Here, tension builds and goes unresolved. In spite of their timidity about their father’s belongings, Constantia and Josephine enter his room and attempt to clear it. Yet the sisters cannot open their father’s wardrobe, and Constantia decides instead to lock the closet, preventing either of them from opening it and organizing his possessions.
Though this action is “one of the amazingly bold things that she’d done about twice before in their lives”—since Constantia locks in their father’s ghost, which Josephine imagines residing in the closet—it also prevents the sisters from coming to any resolution about their father’s death or gaining any closure by settling his possessions. In the end, Constantia and Josephine decide to be “weak”: “Let’s be weak—be weak, Jug. It’s much nicer to be weak than to be strong.” The sisters allow themselves to be given over to paralysis, unable to act with conviction in a situation that demands boldness and concerted effort. Though Josephine initially seems determined to work through their father’s possessions, Constantia convinces her otherwise; they continue to depend on each other’s mindsets, inhibiting their own propensity for decision-making.
By the end of the story, however, both women seem to be close to overcoming ambivalence, since they begin to reflect on their own desires and feelings, suggesting a potential for independent action. “What was it she was always wanting? What did it all lead to? Now? Now?” Constantia asks herself, lost in thought about her life before their father’s death and considering a more independent future. She begins to address her feelings with Josephine—“Don’t you think perhaps—”—but is cut off by Josephine’s own address: “‘I was wondering if now—’ she murmured.” The sisters seem to have discovered an ability to think independently, free of each other’s influence. By vocalizing their thoughts, they appear to be one step closer to acting decisively—leaving their home behind, perhaps, or altering their own lives in some other way. Yet both sisters forget what it is they were going to say, ending the story on another anticlimactic note and implying that neither woman has changed since the beginning of the narrative: they are trapped helplessly in states of doubt, irresolution, and inactivity.
Mansfield’s characters often face challenges that they cannot confront directly, failing to undergo profound changes they seem primed for. Constantia and Josephine are no exception, since they cannot break free from anxiety to perform actions that will improve their household—and their future lives. Hesitant and unfailingly ambivalent, they continue to interpret their surroundings without confidence, creating a narrative that depicts indecision as a never-ending cycle.
Ambivalence and Dependency ThemeTracker
Ambivalence and Dependency Quotes in The Daughters of the Late Colonel
“But—but it seems so weak,” said Josephine, breaking down.
“But why not be weak for once, Jug?” argued Constantia, whispering quite fiercely. “If it is weak.” And her pale stare flew from the locked writing-table—so safe—to the huge glittering wardrobe, and she began to breathe in a queer, panting way.
“Why shouldn’t we be weak for once in our lives, Jug? It’s quite excusable. Let’s be weak—be weak, Jug. It’s much nicer to be weak than to be strong.”
“I say, Auntie Con, isn’t your clock a bit slow? I’ve got to meet a man at—at Paddington just after five. I’m afraid I shan’t be able to stay very long with grandfather.”
“Oh, he won’t expect you to stay very long!” said Aunt Josephine.
Constantia was still gazing at the clock. She couldn’t make up her mind if it was fast or slow. It was one or the other, she felt almost certain of that. At any rate, it had been.
How did one prove things, how could one? Suppose Kate had stood in front of her and deliberately made a face. Mightn’t she very well have been in pain? Wasn’t it impossible, at any rate, to ask Kate if she was making a face at her? If Kate answered “No”—and of course she would say “No”—what a position! How undignified! Then again Constantia suspected, she was almost certain that Kate went to her chest of drawers when she and Josephine were out, not to take things but to spy.
Until the barrel-organ stopped playing Constantia stayed before the Buddha, wondering, but not as usual, not vaguely. This time her wonder was like longing. […] There had been this other life, running out, bringing things home in bags, getting things on approval, discussing them with Jug, and taking them back to get more things on approval, and arranging father’s trays and trying not to annoy father. But it all seemed to have happened in a kind of tunnel. It wasn’t real. […] What did it mean? What was it she was always wanting? What did it all lead to? Now? Now?