Katherine Mansfield’s “The Garden Party” follows Laura, a teenaged daughter of the wealthy New Zealand Sheridan family, as her family throws a garden-party at their estate. The early summer day could be no more perfect, and neither could the family garden; after the story’s opening paragraphs assert this in the formal register of English nobility, Laura’s mother sends Laura, “the artistic one,” to tell four workmen where to set up the marquee (a large outdoor tent). Laura takes her breakfast outside and is astonished to find four polite, strapping men who speak with an urgency and directness unlike anyone from her own social class. They negotiate about the marquee’s location, the workmen begin setting it up, and Laura complains about the “absurd class distinctions” that keep her from socializing with such “extraordinary nice” men like these.
The telephone rings and Laura runs inside to answer it, briefly encountering her father and her brother Laurie on the way. She answers it, invites a family friend to lunch, and hears the piano being moved in the other room. Sadie, one of the Sheridans’ domestic servants, tells Laura that the florist’s deliveryman has arrived. They meet him at the front door and see trays upon trays of beautiful pink canna lilies, which Mrs. Sheridan ordered on a whim the day before when she saw them in a shop window. Laura complains that her mother promised the children control over the party this year, but Mrs. Sheridan convinces her daughter to overlook her interference. The story jumps to the drawing-room, where another Sheridan daughter, Jose, sings the mournful song “This Life is Weary” with a “brilliant, dreadfully unsympathetic smile” while the third, Meg, accompanies her on the piano.
Again, Sadie interrupts the narrative to announce another working character’s request: the cook wants the name flags for the sandwiches she has made. Mrs. Sheridan has not written the flags yet but tells Sadie that she has them before ordering Laura to write the names. She accuses the children of hiding the envelope where the guest list is written, but finds it behind the dining-room clock. Laura writes the flags and brings them to the kitchen where Sadie has another announcement: the cream puff deliveryman has arrived from Godber’s. The cook tells Laura and Jose to have a cream puff each, and they scarf them down even though they find it improper to eat sweets so soon after breakfast.
Laura heads back to the garden but first encounters Godber’s man telling the horrified servants about the death of Scott, a cart-driver, in an accident that morning. She decides that it would be inconsiderate to continue the party because Scott lives in a row of decrepit cottages just downhill from the Sheridans’ estate. She tells this to her sister Jose, who accuses Scott of drinking on the job and finds Laura’s concern for the poor ridiculous. Laura then approaches her mother, who cares even less: Mrs. Sheridan is amused and irritated at Laura’s concern once she realizes the death didn’t happen in their garden. Mrs. Sheridan gives Laura her hat to distract her; once Laura sees herself in her bedroom mirror, she suddenly starts to see Scott’s death as “blurred, unreal, like a picture in the newspaper.” Laura changes her mind about the party and goes to lunch.
After lunch, Laurie returns from the office and Laura goes to ask his opinion on stopping the party. After her brother compliments her hat, Laura decides not to bring up the accident after all and goes to the party, which Mansfield recounts in scarcely half a page. After it ends, the Sheridans convene in the marquee and Mr. Sheridan mentions Scott’s accident. Mrs. Sheridan, irritated that her husband also wants to ruin their fun, makes fun of Laura and then suddenly has an idea: they should send their leftovers to the Scotts. Laura finds this presumptuous but agrees to take the basket herself.
Laura heads down to the cottages, where she is horrified at the unsightly residents and ashamed at her own expensive clothes. She decides to turn back but realizes she has already reached the Scott house; she knocks and tells Em’s sister, who answers the door, that she simply wants to leave the basket and go. But Em’s sister brings her inside nonetheless and introduces her to the man’s crying widow, Em Scott, who thanks Laura for coming but does not understand why she would visit at all. Laura tries to run out the front door but instead walks through the door of Scott’s room, where his body lies under a sheet. Em’s sister assumes that Laura must want to see him and draws down the sheet. To her surprise, Laura finds the body peaceful and marvelous; she sees the man as dreaming, far removed from the suffocating constraints of social convention. But she does recognize the tragedy in his death and exclaims “forgive my hat” before running out of the house and meeting her brother Laurie on the road outside. He embraces and comforts her as she cries but does not understand that hers are tears of joy; Laura starts to explain what she has realized but cannot finish her sentence. “Isn’t life—” she says, and the story ends with the narrator’s insistence that Laurie “quite understood” and his entirely empty response: “Isn’t it, darling?”