On a beautiful summer morning, the Sheridan family’s gardener manicures their property in preparation for their garden-party later that day. As Mrs. Sheridan eats breakfast with at least two of her daughters, Meg and Laura, four workmen come to assemble the marquee (a large outdoor tent). Mrs. Sheridan insists that one of the children must decide where it should go and supervise the workers. She sends Laura, “the artistic one,” to do so.
Fittingly, Mansfield introduces the Sheridan family through a detailed description of their intensively-cultivated garden, which reflects the family’s superficiality and obsession with status. Mrs. Sheridan’s passive-aggressive parenting style is immediately clear through her insistence that the children plan the party, even though she will still control most of the details.
Laura is delighted to have this responsibility and heads outside with her breakfast of “bread-and-butter.” She meets the four workmen and is impressed by their tools. She approaches them nervously and tries to greet them as her mother would. Instead, she cannot find the right words and stutters “Oh—er—have you come—it about the marquee?” When one of the workmen smiles and answers warmly in the affirmative, Laura is relieved at his friendliness.
Laura imitates her mother in dealing with the unfamiliar men because her family is the only model she has for interacting with others. However, it’s notable that when she stops being herself and starts being her mother, she is literally unable to speak. This strongly suggests that Laura’s nature is incompatible with her mother’s behavior, which is also the behavior that is expected of Laura. This sets up Laura’s internal conflict over whether to be like her family or to be herself.
Laura suggests they set up the marquee on the lily-lawn. The workman disagrees, suggesting the marquee should go somewhere more obvious, where it can “give you a bang slap in the eye.” The narrator tells readers that Laura “did quite follow” the workmen; she suggests the corner of the tennis court but the workman thinks it would make more sense to put the band in front of the beautiful karaka trees. The narrator describes them in detail and wonders, “must they be hidden by a marquee?”
Laura is uncomfortable around working-class people, but she is fascinated by them. This contrasts with her family members, who have no doubts about their inherent superiority to their workers and servants; the rest of the Sheridan family feels perfectly comfortable ordering working-class people around and cares little about their experiences or perspectives. Even though the narrator suggests that she understands the workman’s “bang slap” comment, she clearly does not: a corner of the tennis court would be too inconspicuous. Laura’s desire to understand the workmen is undercut by her class background, which makes her unable to understand what they are actually saying.
The narrator answers her own question: “they must.” The workmen have already started assembling the marquee, and Laura’s worries evaporate when she is surprised to see one of them bend down and sniff a lavender plant. Deciding she prefers the “extraordinarily nice” workmen to the “silly boys” from her own social class that she generally dances and dines with, she laments the “absurd class divisions” that separate wealthy from working people. One of the men calls out “are you right there, matey?” Laura smiles back, eats her bread-and-butter and tries to signal her joy, feeling “just like a work-girl.”
The workman’s ability to appreciate the beauty of the lavender plant surprises and delights Laura, which again points to her difference from her family: she appreciates the lavender for its existence—its beauty and scent—while her family only cultivates the garden to show off their wealth. In this moment, her internal monologue diverges sharply from her external appearance: she is delighted even though the workmen wonder whether everything is quite alright with her, which suggests again that her inner life is quite different from how her circumstances make it appear. She tries to signal her sympathy with the working classes by eating breakfast outside, but the workers probably don’t understand the message she is trying to send. This also shows Laura’s shallow understanding of what makes a person working class.
Someone inside yells that Laura has a telephone call. She runs inside and encounters Mr. Sheridan and her brother Laurie, who asks her to see if his coat needs to be ironed. She gives him a hug and remarks how much she loves parties before heading to the telephone.
Laura is again called to family obligations, but it doesn’t seem to bother her, even though her family interrupted a pleasant experience outside. In this moment, it’s less clear that Laura’s inner life is out of sync with her family: she seems delighted to be around them, and she loves parties just as much as they do.
Laura answers the call from Kitty Maitland and, again imitating her mother’s voice, invites her over for lunch before the party. Mrs. Sheridan yells from upstairs for Kitty to “wear that sweet hat you had on last Sunday.” Laura relays the message, hangs up, and notices the subtle signs of activity in the house: the sound of workers moving the piano and the feeling of “little faint winds” blowing around the room.
Laura’s work-girl fantasy ends as she returns to fulfilling her real class position. Her ability to speak like her mother without stuttering here shows that Laura does have the potential to be at home in her life. Mrs. Sheridan’s comment about the hat shows her desire to control others and her concern with appearances, while Laura’s sensitivity to the blowing winds demonstrates that she finds beauty in the everyday and the ephemeral.
The doorbell rings; Sadie, one of the Sheridans’ domestic servants, answers it. Laura joins her to find that the florist has come with trays and trays full of beautiful pink canna lilies. Laura moans as she moves closer to “warm herself at that blaze of lilies,” which she feels “in her fingers, on her lips, growing in her breast.” She concludes that it must have been a mistake for the florist to send so many. Mrs. Sheridan walks in and affirms that she ordered them herself after seeing them in the florist’s shop window the day before and deciding that “for once in my life I shall have enough canna lilies.” Laura complains that her mother had promised not to “interfere” with the party planning, but her mother reprimands her and instructs the florist’s deliveryman where to put the lilies as he carries them inside.
Sadie is little more than a messenger, emptied of all emotion and personality. This reflects the family’s indifference to the humanity of working people, including the servants with whom they are intimately familiar. Laura’s sudden, involuntary and intensely physical response to the flowers suggests a kind of sexual awakening. Laura’s “artistic” sensibility again manifests in the way she is deeply moved by the beauty of the living things around her; indeed, whereas Mrs. Sheridan bought the excessive number of lilies so that she could finally have “enough,” Laura can appreciate them regardless of their quantity, so she thinks that there must have been a mistake. Mrs. Sheridan’s admission that she ordered the flowers reveals that she continues to run everything behind the scenes even as she professes to have no control over this year’s party.
The scene jumps to the drawing-room, where Hans, a servant, and Meg and Jose, two of the other Sheridan daughters, have finished moving the piano. Jose tells Hans to rearrange the room; ordering around the servants is her greatest pleasure. She tells Meg to play the piano so she can practice, in case she has to sing at the party. Laura and Mrs. Sheridan enter the room as Jose begins to sing a tragic song called “This Life is Weary.” During the most sorrowful part of the song, Jose suddenly puts on a “brilliant, dreadfully unsympathetic smile” and asks Mrs. Sheridan, “aren’t I in good voice, mummy?” before finishing the song.
Mansfield emphasizes the contrast between Jose and Laura, both through Jose’s pleasure at controlling the servants and in her inability to recognize the mournful content of the song she sings with delight. Jose performs primarily for her mother’s approval and breaks into a young child’s voice when she asks for it. Whereas Jose’s attitude reflects her mother’s obsession with hoarding beauty as a display of status, Laura continues to be the only Sheridan who can actually experience joy at beautiful things. Indeed, the notion that “This Life is Weary” would ever be an appropriate song for the garden-party suggests that the Sheridans and their guests are so sheltered from the suffering that poor people in their community experience that they would, like Jose, take pleasure in the song’s tune without recognizing or relating with what its words actually say.
Sadie interrupts to tell Mrs. Sheridan that the cook needs the “flags for the sandwiches.” Mrs. Sheridan says she will “let her have them in ten minutes,” but the children can tell that their mother doesn’t have them yet. Mrs. Sheridan tells Meg and Jose to finish getting dressed and tells Laura to write the names on the flags for her. Mrs. Sheridan also asks Jose to “pacify” the cook, of whom she admits she is “terrified.” After finding the envelope with the names behind the dining room clock, Mrs. Sheridan accuses the children of stealing and hiding it. She reads off the sandwich names: “cream cheese and lemon-curd,” then egg and olive, which she misreads as “mice.”
Mrs. Sheridan is unable to admit that she forgot about the sandwich flags because doing so would be an admission that the servants know better than she does. Likewise, she accuses the children of hiding the envelope because she cannot face the possibility that she was the one who lost it. Mrs. Sheridan also evades her own responsibility for the flags by making Laura write them. Her fear of the cook is peculiar given the arrogance with which she treats the rest of the servants. Perhaps this is because the cook (unlike Sadie, Hans and the deliverymen) is actually responsible for a significant component of the party’s success.
Laura brings the sandwich flags to the kitchen where Jose “congratulate[s]” the cook on the fifteen different kinds of sandwiches she has made. The cook simply smiles. From the pantry, Sadie announces that Godber’s man has arrived with Godber’s famous cream puffs. The cook orders Sadie to bring them inside and then begins arranging them for the party, including “shaking off the excess icing sugar.” Laura remarks that they remind her of the Sheridans’ past parties and Jose reluctantly agrees. The cook tells the girls to each take one, and while they realize it is improper to have “fancy cream puffs so soon after breakfast,” they nevertheless eat them in a hurry. Laura decides to head back to the garden to check on the workmen.
The cook is just doing her job, but Jose congratulates her as though making the sandwiches were some sort of meaningful personal accomplishment, which reflects her inability to understand that others have to work due to their economic status. As when Laura eats outside with the workmen, eating the cream puffs at the wrong hour means breaking the social conventions of food and drink (which the sandwich flags also symbolize). Mansfield’s voice comes through in Laura’s nostalgia for past parties – after all, the Sheridan estate and Laura’s character are based on the author’s own childhood. Again, Mrs. Sheridan sees excess as impressive: the cream puffs she ordered have so much icing that the cook has to remove some of it.
On her way outside, Laura encounters Godber’s man excitedly telling a story to Sadie, Hans, and the cook, who look horrified. Godber’s man tells Laura “with relish” that Scott, a cart-driver who lives in a cottage down the hill has died in a horrible accident, leaving his wife and five children to fend for themselves.
Scott’s accident soon precipitates the main conflict in the story. The servants’ reactions to the news suggest that they can empathize with Scott’s family because they are from a similar social class (even though their family is roughly the same size as Scott’s, the Sheridans prove unable to do the same). Godber’s man, however, delights at being the center of attention even though he brings tragic news. Unlike the servants, he is the emissary of a company that traffics in extravagance and presumably focuses on serving rich people who would care more about the intrigue of the story than the fate of Scott’s family. Like Laura in reverse, Godber’s man’s identification with the rich overtakes his actual identity as a worker.
Laura is astonished at the news and brings Jose aside to figure out how they are going to stop the party. Jose finds the suggestion that they cancel it for the Scotts’ sake “absurd” and “extravagant,” and the narrator explains why: the lane of decrepit cottages at the bottom of the hill, just across a road from the Sheridan house, are home to impoverished working families. The narrator proclaims that “they were the greatest possible eyesore, and they had no right to be in that neighbourhood at all.” The Sheridan children aren’t allowed to go there, but Laura and Laurie still like to explore the area because “one must go everywhere; one must see everything.” Jose claims she feels sympathy for Scott but complains that, “if you’re going to stop a band playing every time some one has an accident, you’ll lead a very strenuous life.” She then accuses Scott of being drunk; this infuriates Laura, who runs upstairs to tell her mother.
Mansfield introduces Laura’s central conflict with her family: whether they should go on with the garden party. Laura imagines the festivities from the Scotts’ perspective and worries that the Sheridans’ garden-party – which they are throwing for no special occasion whatsoever – would be insensitive to the mourning family down the hill. But Jose’s coldhearted response and the narrator’s description of the cottages demonstrate the disdain the rich feel for the cottage’s residents, whom the Sheridans see as intruding on what is rightfully their own neighborhood. Jose is incapable of feeling pity for poor workers, even though her family relies on servants from the same class, because she thinks the cottages’ ugliness makes them valueless. But Laura’s previous exploration of the cottages shows her boundless curiosity about ways of life beyond her own. She expects Mrs. Sheridan to exercise better judgment than Jose, reflecting her ongoing trust in her mother at this stage in the story.
To Laura’s astonishment, once Mrs. Sheridan realizes the death wasn’t in the garden, she has no more sympathy for the Scotts than Jose does. She is “amused,” suggesting that the Sheridans have no reason to worry about the Scotts. In fact, Mrs. Sheridan suggests that the true “accident” was merely their hearing about Scott’s death. Suddenly, Mrs. Sheridan puts her hat on Laura’s head and tells her she looks “such a picture,” offering a hand-mirror. Laura refuses to be distracted but Mrs. Sheridan, running out of patience, calls her daughter unsympathetic for planning “to spoil everybody’s enjoyment” at the party.
Mrs. Sheridan, like Jose, only looks out for her own family’s welfare and paints the Sheridans as the true victims of Scott’s death; she snaps back into an emotionless stoicism as soon as she realizes the worker’s death hasn’t tainted her perfect garden. Mrs. Sheridan speaks in ways that probably seem ironic to Laura and the reader. For instance, Laura is worried that the guests’ enjoyment will spoil the Scotts’ mourning process, but Mrs. Sheridan suggests that Scott’s death will “spoil everybody’s enjoyment” of the garden-party. Laura’s disappointment with her mother’s lack of sympathy escalates the tension between them that has been building in the story so far, chiefly through Mrs. Sheridan’s continued attempts to control the party despite her request to be treated as a guest. The hat is another of these attempts: Mrs. Sheridan tries to distract Laura from her concern by pointing out how beautiful she looks in the hat.
Laura storms out and heads to her own bedroom, where she accidentally glimpses herself in the mirror wearing her mother’s hat. She is surprised by how “charming” she looks and begins to change her mind about stopping the party. She thinks of Mr. Scott’s family but suddenly it feels “blurred, unreal, like a picture in the newspaper.” She decides to forget about it until after the party and goes to lunch.
For the first time in the story so far, Laura actively disobeys her mother by refusing to look at herself in the hand-mirror and leaving to her own bedroom. But she then accidentally sees herself wearing the beautiful hat, exactly as her mother intended a few sentences before, and suddenly she transforms back from a class-conscious empath into a self-conscious aesthete like Mrs. Sheridan. As soon as she begins to act on her principles and break away from her mother’s control, in other words, Laura gets drawn straight back into Mrs. Sheridan’s plan to undermine her independence. Just after Mrs. Sheridan calls Laura “a picture” in the hat, Scott transforms into “a picture” when Laura sees herself in the mirror. When she refocuses on outward appearances, chasing beauty rather than morality, Laura forgets her concern for the Scotts’ wellbeing and her anger at her mother’s passive-aggressive control. In both cases the decontextualized “picture” loses all emotional depth.
After lunch, the band sets up in the corner of the tennis court and Kitty Maitland remarks that they look like frogs in their green outfits. Laurie returns from the office and heads inside to get dressed. Laura suddenly remembers Scott and heads inside to ask his opinion, but decides not to mention it when he compliments her hat.
Mansfield uses Kitty Maitland and Laurie’s exaggerated personalities to satirize the presumptuousness of the Sheridans and their social class. Laura remains in line with her family’s superficiality, but she does briefly remember the cart-driver’s death when she sees Laurie in work clothes, which suggests that the same powerful beauty that Mrs. Sheridan uses to coax her daughter into agreement can also give Laura a way out of her family’s mindset. However, Laura decides not to mention Scott when Laurie compliments her hat, which represents her family’s values triumphing over her conscience yet again.
The party begins: guests arrive, stroll around the garden, and compliment Laura, who glows with joy and helps greet the attendees. She asks her father if the band can get drinks. Suddenly, the party is over and Laura and Mrs. Sheridan bid the guests goodbye. Mrs. Sheridan declares the party successful, but complains that she is exhausted because her children always “insist on giving parties.” The family convenes in the marquee.
Mansfield’s incredibly spare description of the Sheridans’ party flashes by in an instant, just like the ephemeral pleasures that fill the evening. Unlike Laura, who can find lasting fulfillment in the ephemeral beauty of a gust of air or vibrant flower, the party’s guests consume the garden’s beauty and keep moving on. Mrs. Sheridan, despite earlier relinquishing the role of host, nevertheless takes it on during the goodbyes and even brings Laura with her. Nevertheless, Laura’s enjoyment does not prevent her from recognizing the band’s labor and looking out for them by asking her father to get them drinks and presumably also a moment of rest to enjoy those drinks. After the party, the Sheridans end up convening in the marquee; as a literal shelter built for them by the workmen, the marquee reflects the sheltered nature of the Sheridans’ lives, in which working people provide absolutely everything for them.
Mr. Sheridan brings up Scott’s death, about which he heard from another source. Mrs. Sheridan complains that Laura wanted to stop the party. Mr. Sheridan laments the tragic accident, which the narrator finds “tactless;” Mrs. Sheridan has nothing to say. Then, she has “one of her brilliant ideas” and decides to send the leftover food from the party in a basket for “that poor creature” and his family. Laura questions her idea but goes along with it, fetching the basket which her mother then fills with food. Mrs. Sheridan tries to send Laura with some arum lilies too, because “people of that class are so impressed by arum lilies,” but takes them back when Jose remarks that their stems might damage Laura’s clothes. Finally, Mrs. Sheridan calls out “don’t on any account—” but declines to finish her sentence, deciding instead to “not put such ideas into the child’s head.”
Mrs. Sheridan only has her idea when her husband mentions the accident, which suggests that she may take his input seriously (unlike the children’s). However, his comment initially bothers her, which suggests that Mrs. Sheridan sends the basket only signal to the rest of her family that they have done their good deed and need not keep worrying about the Scotts. She takes credit for the family’s goodwill toward the Scotts even though she still puts her party and friends first: she sends a basket of leftovers as an afterthought and tries to “impress” the Scotts with beautiful lilies. As during the party, her instinctual way of interacting with others is to signal her own family’s wealth, even though the extravagance of what she sends would more likely embarrass or offend the Scotts than comfort them. She continues to appear incapable of truly expressing sympathy for their pain, and her agreement that she should not risk damaging Laura’s frock by sending the flowers after all shows that the Sheridans continue to prioritize their own outward appearances above all else. Laura again disagrees with her mother’s judgment but nevertheless cannot translate that disagreement into action; instead, she dutifully does what her mother asks. Mrs. Sheridan’s decision not to finish her final line, in addition to paralleling Laura’s stutter, expresses her expectation Laura will disobey her. Given Mrs. Sheridan’s tendency to say the opposite of what she ends up doing (most notably in her insistence that she will take a backseat to the party planning) her unfinished order suggests that she may be more self-aware than she previously seemed.
As the sun begins to set, Laura leaves the garden and starts down the road, but all she can think about is the successful party. Once she gets to the cottages, she suddenly notices how much her clothing stands out and worries that the residents are staring. She decides “it was a mistake to have come; she knew all along it was a mistake.” But since she is already at the Scotts’ house, which has a “dark knot of people” congregating outside, it’s too late to go back. The crowd quiets down and confirms that the house is indeed the Scotts’. Laura anxiously knocks, wishing she could just leave, and decides to drop the basket and go.
As Laura heads to the cottages, she finds herself unable to rediscover the sympathy she previously felt for the Scotts; her mind is fixated on the pleasures of the garden-party, which reinforces the Sheridans’ tendency to prioritize their own happiness at the expense of feeling for others. Once she arrives, Laura is intensely uncomfortable in the lower-class neighborhood, even though she intellectually understands that class is socially constructed and arbitrary. Those earlier realizations happened inside the Sheridan home’s gates; among the cottages, for the first time, Laura realizes that social differences are based in concrete economic inequalities that she cannot surmount with her imagination alone. Also for the first time, she finds herself ogled rather than the ogler: she feels like she stands out and learns what it is like to be aestheticized rather than treated with humanity. Nevertheless, she manages to make it to the Scotts’ door, again fulfilling her mother’s wishes against and above her conscience.
Suddenly, the door opens and a woman tells Laura to come in against her protests. Throughout, Laura continues to stutter and is left unable to fully express her desire to leave the basket and leave. The woman who opened the door introduces Laura to her sister, Em, who is crying and looks as though she doesn’t understand why Laura is there. Laura tries to run back out the front door but stumbles into the room where Scott’s body lies. Em’s sister figures that Laura wants “a look at ‘im” and removes the sheet that covers the body.
Although Laura comes to express her family’s condolences, her inability to finish a sentence ends up inverting the expected social obligations: the Scott family ends up comforting the crying Laura, and Mansfield does not tell us whether she leaves the basket after all. Even here, the poor end up serving the rich as Em’s sister leads Laura around the house and shows her Scott’s body when she seems to want to see it. Laura’s preoccupation with her own guilt prevents her from feeling or expressing empathy for the mourning Em.
Laura is overcome with a sense of tranquility at the sight of Scott’s dead body—she sees him as sleeping, “given up to his dream,” far beyond the niceties of “garden-parties and baskets and lace frocks.” Despite marveling at the body, however, she realizes that “all the same you had to cry” and lets out “a large childish sob.” She feels she has to say something and blurts out, “forgive my hat” before letting herself out of the Scotts’ house.
Laura’s anxiety gives way to a perverse fascination with Scott’s corpse, which she sees as “dream[ing]” because she cannot bring herself to see it as a corpse. Her earlier sense of outrage at Scott’s death has disappeared and plays no part in her reaction to the body. Her confrontation with death is, like Jose’s song, limited to the aesthetic; her earlier class consciousness has mysteriously faded. Even her obsession with her own hat suggests that she is too afraid of judgment to sincerely give her condolences. As with the hat when she first tries it on, the visual shock of Scott’s body limits Laura to her own perspective; she sees its beauty but not the horror its beauty masks. When she does cry, it is not because she sincerely feels pained at the circumstances of Scott’s death but rather because she feels “you had to.” She cries in order to fill a social obligation, just as the most of her family members’ displays of emotions are mere unfelt performances.
Laura walks past the rest of the cottages, where she encounters Laurie on the road that separates the rich from the poor in their neighborhood. Laurie says that their mother was worried and tries to comfort Laura as she cries. He assumes the visit must have been “awful,” but Laura replies that it was “marvelous.” She begins, “isn’t life—”, but cannot bring herself to finish the idea. But “no matter,” the narrator tells us, “he quite understood.” The story ends with Laurie’s reply: “isn’t it, darling?”
Laura and Laurie meet on the road that separates rich from poor. Laurie’s assumption that Laura must be horrified by what she has seen reflects the Sheridan party line: concern for family members who have been exposed to poverty rather than for people suffering it. The narrator pretends that Laurie “quite understood” even though he clearly does not, which reflects Laura’s increasing distance from her family as well as the Sheridans’ tendency to insist that they know best even when they are incompetent. Ultimately, however, Mansfield does not say precisely what Laura has realized, perhaps in an attempt to let the reader’s response determine the story’s meaning—much as Laura’s response to Scott’s body determines its meaning for her. It is clear that Laura has learned something about class, life and death on the day of the garden-party; however, at the end of the story she is left caught between her family’s world of superficial images and the world of authentic suffering that the Scotts represent, unable to fully communicate with either side but nevertheless privy to both.