In “The Daughters of the Late Colonel,” Constantia and Josephine, the adult daughters of a recently deceased colonel, must fend for themselves in a world without their father—their only beneficiary as well as the individual for whom they have provided for many years. After the colonel’s death, Constantia and Josephine’s lives are exposed as stunted and meaningless, since their sole purpose was to care for their elderly father: they have been forced to sacrifice their own futures for his wellbeing, and as women, they have not been chosen to carry on his business work. Even after his death, the colonel—an imposing, tyrannical man—continues to forcefully influence his daughters, since Constantia and Josephine imagine his continued presence in their home. As a symbol of patriarchy, the colonel both oppresses his daughters and provokes their fear, uncertainty, and passivity.
After the colonel’s death Constantia and Josephine imagine that their father still holds power over them, suggesting the profound impact the colonel, and more broadly, the patriarchy, have on the sisters and their lives. Constantia and Josephine worry that their father will disapprove of their funeral arrangements, since “neither of them could possibly believe that father was never coming back”—imagining instead that he “will never forgive” them for burying, and thus disempowering, him. Indeed, much of the narrative is consumed by the daughters’ fretting over the administration of their father’s death. Constantia and Josephine nervously discuss donating and organizing their father’s possessions, for instance, fearful that donating his timepiece and top-hat to family and staff members would displease him.
Though nonsensical—since he is dead, the colonel cannot be displeased by his daughters’ actions—this apprehension reveals Constantia and Josephine’s feelings of confinement and powerlessness in their own household, where their father’s memory continues to reign supreme. The daughters are even unable to clear out their father’s chest of drawers, since Josephine imagines that he is trapped in the wardrobe, “hidden away […] ready to spring.” Instead, Constantia and Josephine decide to “be weak” and abstain from settling the colonel’s belongings, thereby maintaining his spiritual presence in their apartment. The sisters are unable to take charge of the future and revert back to passivity, allowing their father to continue to manipulate them. As the male leader of the Pinner family, the colonel determines his daughter’s lives, influencing their behavior and emotions long after his own death. Mansfield thus suggests the far-reaching authority and impact of patriarchy.
In general, Constantia and Josephine are unable to discover a better standard of living after their father’s death, since as his female heirs—and as subjects in a patriarchal world—they have been overlooked and marginalized. While the colonel was living, his daughters cared obsessively for him, preparing the household and suffering through his violent fits of complaints: “there had been this other life, running out, bringing things home in bags, getting things on approval, discussing them with Jug […] arranging father’s trays and trying not to annoy father.” Yet without the colonel, his daughters feel empty and purposeless, grasping for a better life that they are ill-equipped to obtain. Neither daughter has ever married, though they imagine that they might have had their mother lived; ostensibly, they have remained single to their father’s advantage, since they helped him in his old age. In this patriarchal world, where women are both expected to provide for men and assume secondary roles, their prospects for richer, more independent lives without husbands are slim.
Nor have the sisters pursued employment, while their brother Benny has carried on the family business in Ceylon, and his son Cyril works in London. As women who lack practical experience with the outside world—they are unable to cook for themselves or keep up the house without the help of waitstaff—Constantia and Josephine have not been offered such opportunities.
While Constantia and Josephine wonder vaguely about a future without the colonel, they can’t imagine a world outside of their apartment and continue to concern themselves with the same domestic frivolities in which they participated while their father was alive. The daughters lack guidance: their only possible maternal stand-ins, the absent-minded, neurotic Nurse Andrews and their resentful maid Kate, are hardly nurturing. Instead, Constantia and Josephine are forced to submit to their father’s influence even after his death, fixating on the way that his “one eye” “glared at them a moment” before he died—as if to guarantee their perpetual submission to his will. Despite a moment of near-revelation at the end of the story, where the daughters seemed poised to begin a new life, they cannot move forward. Misguided, ignorant of the outside world, and crippled by anxiety—a direct result of their father’s patriarchal influence—Constantia and Josephine decide to remain in their apartment, unable to understand what it is they want in life or what sorts of futures they might be able to create.
“The Daughters of the Late Colonel” can therefore be read as a cautionary tale about the lasting, toxic influence of the patriarchy. Though no patriarchal figures directly interfere with the sisters’ day-to-day lives after the colonel’s death, their entire identities have been constructed and crystalized around male demands and male superiority. In this narrative, Mansfield seems to suggest that even when patriarchal figures fall away—when they die or depart, as Constantia and Josephine’s male relatives have—the result is confused, ineffectual, and feeble women who cannot understand their own roles in society or envision a future without men.
Though they recognize that a vibrant world exists outside of their own chaotic, disorganized home, Constantia and Josephine are unable to access this world and the fulfillment it might bring, forced instead to wallow in passivity and fear. Mansfield’s story responds to an era in which women—though faced with prospects of independence and fading male authority—continued to face difficulty in constructing identities and lifestyles free of patriarchal influence.
Patriarchy and Oppression ThemeTracker
Patriarchy and Oppression Quotes in The Daughters of the Late Colonel
Supposing father had wanted to say something—something private to them. Not that he had. Oh, far from it! He lay there, purple, a dark, angry purple in the face, and never even looked at them when they came in. Then, as they were standing there, wondering what to do, he had suddenly opened one eye. Oh, what a difference it would have made, what a difference to their memory of him, how much easier to tell people about it, if he had only opened both! But no—one eye only. It glared at them a moment and then… went out.
“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.
If mother had lived, might they have married? But there had been nobody for them to marry. There had been father’s Anglo-Indian friends before he quarreled with them. But after that she and Constantia never met a single man except clergymen. How did one meet men? Or even if they’d met them, how could they have got to know men well enough to be more than strangers? One read of people having adventures, being followed, and so on. But nobody had ever followed Constantia and her.
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?