“The Garden Party” suggests that beauty is a double-edged sword: it is as much a worthwhile source of pleasure as a way for the privileged Sheridans and their associates to detach themselves from the suffering that surrounds them. In this story, social elites become so focused on the surface appearance of things that they seem to lose a normal range of human emotion; they position themselves as viewers of, rather than participants in, the world.
The Sheridans, for instance, carefully cultivate their garden as an aesthetic space; from the start, the reader is told that the conditions are “ideal” for a garden-party. The weather, flowers, and lawn are divine, the sky is “veiled with a haze of light gold,” the roses apparently know their impressiveness, and “the green bushes bowed down as though they had been visited by archangels.” This contrasts with the cottages’ gardens, which have “nothing but cabbage stalks, sick hens, and tomato cans.” For the poor, a garden is for growing food, a way to eke out a living, whereas for the Sheridans a garden is about consolidating and packaging beauty for the sake of social recognition.
But beauty, although a luxury, still has a strong hold over the Sheridans and other characters of their class. It is provocative and distracting; they respond to it instinctively, with involuntary physical outbursts and mental associations rather than deliberate contemplation or analysis. When the florist’s man delivers a ridiculous amount of canna lilies, for instance, Laura feels their beauty physically: “she crouched down as if to warm herself at that blaze of lilies; she felt they were in her fingers, on her lips, growing in her breast.” Likewise, when Laura catches a glimpse of her own beauty in her bedroom mirror, her sympathy for the Scotts begins to fade and she gives into the temptation to prioritize the immediate pleasure of the garden-party over her conscience. But, two paragraphs later, when she sees Laurie still in work clothes, she recalls the world outside the party and suddenly thinks of Scott’s death; Laurie’s own sudden and forceful reaction to Laura’s beautiful hat, however, leads her to immediately forget Scott again.
Mansfield’s description of the party itself is entirely a series of disjointed surface details: strolling couples look at the garden, people compliment Laura’s appearance, and the guests’ happiness is a contrived performance rather than genuine feeling: “what happiness it is to be with people who are all happy, to press hands, press cheeks, smile into eyes.” One of the Sheridans’ guests, Kitty Maitland, sees the band and “trills” her only line, “aren’t they too like frogs for words? You ought to have arranged them round the pond with the conductor in the middle on a leaf.” While she is a minor character, Maitland is also the only named guest in the story and, accordingly, the reader’s only window into the Sheridans’ social circle. Her concern with the band focuses on their appearance—and how they ought to be arranged for the most striking visual effect—even though they are there to play music (which is never described). Whereas Laura worries whether the band needs a drink, for Maitland the band is purely a thing to look at and their beauty deprives them of humanity.
But Laura is not immune to this pattern of aestheticizing the poor: when she sees Mr. Scott’s body, Laura does not see him as dead, but rather perceives “a young man, fast asleep” whose expression says “Happy… happy… all is well.” She thinks his body is “wonderful, beautiful,” and the tranquility of his lifeless body prevents Laura from feeling the sense of tragedy and injustice that she ought to at his death. She blurts out “forgive my hat” because she remains so distracted by the fact that she looks out of place in the cottages that she forgets the deep sense of tragedy she originally felt when she heard about his accident. She sees the poor worker’s body as a kind of art, the same way her family sees their garden. At the end of the story, it is unclear whether Laura has returned to an appreciation of the tragedy; when she says “isn’t life—” to her brother as she leaves the Scotts’ cottage, her inability to express her thought suggests that life, death, and the struggle to survive poverty are far more consequential than the cultivated surface beauty of the Sheridan family’s lives and garden.
The other Sheridans’ indifference to death suggests that Laura has learned something they might never experience. Jose and Mrs. Sheridan are unable to conceive Scott’s death as a real tragedy that happened to a real person and affects a real family. Analogously, when Jose sings the song “This Life is Weary,” because everyone is so preoccupied with the quality of her voice, nobody seems to notice that the song is actually about death and suffering. Jose sings with “a brilliant, dreadfully unsympathetic smile,” and the song’s last lines (“This Life is Wee-ary / Hope comes to Die / A Dream—a Wa-kening”) foreshadow the story’s conclusion, where Laura sees Scott’s death as a dream and then experiences her own sort of awakening. It also emphasizes the way that the rest of the Sheridans never awaken from this dream. Their inability to see past superficial beauty makes them monstrous and leads them to miss out on real, spontaneous experiences that are valuable in themselves rather than orchestrated for show. For instance, Mrs. Sheridan tries to send Laura to the Scotts’ house with arum-lilies because she thinks it will impress them—she tries to send beauty instead of sympathy or condolences. (Jose then suggests that the flower stems might damage Laura’s clothes, so Mrs. Sheridan decides not to send them at all because preserving her daughter’s beauty is more important.) The beauty of surface appearances repeatedly seduces the Sheridans, distracting them from the reality of death.
Beauty, Refinement and Detachment ThemeTracker
Beauty, Refinement and Detachment Quotes in The Garden Party
And after all the weather was ideal. They could not have had a more perfect day for a garden-party if they had ordered it.
He bent down, pinched a sprig of lavender, put his thumb and forefinger to his nose and snuffed up the smell. When Laura saw that gesture she forgot all about the karakas in her wonder at him caring for things like that the smell of lavender. How many men that she knew would have done such a thing? Oh, how extraordinarily nice workmen were, she thought. Why couldn't she have workmen for her friends rather than the silly boys she danced with and who came to Sunday night supper? She would get on much better with men like these.
There, just inside the door, stood a wide, shallow tray full of pots of pink lilies. No other kind. Nothing but lilies radiant, almost frighteningly alive on bright crimson stems.
"O-oh, Sadie!" said Laura, and the sound was like a little moan. She crouched down as if to warm herself at that blaze of lilies; she felt they were in her fingers, on her lips, growing in her breast.
“This Life is Wee-ary,
A Tear—a Sigh.
A Love that Chan-ges,
This Life is Wee-ary,
A Tear—a Sigh.
A Love that Chan-ges,
And then... Good-bye!”
But at the word "Good-bye," and although the piano sounded more desperate than ever, her face broke into a brilliant, dreadfully unsympathetic smile.
"Aren't I in good voice, mummy?" she beamed.
“This Life is Wee-ary,
Hope comes to Die.
A Dream—a Wa-kening.”
The little cottages were in a lane to themselves at the very bottom of a steep rise that led up to the house. A broad road ran between. True, they were far too near. They were the greatest possible eyesore, and they had no right to be in that neighbourhood at all. They were little mean dwellings painted a chocolate brown. In the garden patches there was nothing but cabbage stalks, sick hens and tomato cans. The very smoke coming out of their chimneys was poverty-stricken. Little rags and shreds of smoke, so unlike the great silvery plumes that uncurled from the Sheridans' chimneys. Washerwomen lived in the lane and sweeps and a cobbler, and a man whose house-front was studded all over with minute bird-cages. Children swarmed. When the Sheridans were little they were forbidden to set foot there because of the revolting language and of what they might catch. But since they were grown up, Laura and Laurie on their prowls sometimes walked through. It was disgusting and sordid. They came out with a shudder. But still one must go everywhere; one must see everything. So through they went.
“It's only by accident we've heard of it. If some one had died there normally—and I can't understand how they keep alive in those poky little holes—we should still be having our party, shouldn't we?”
Laura had to say “yes” to that, but she felt it was all wrong.
“Mother, isn't it terribly heartless of us?" she asked.
“Darling!” Mrs. Sheridan got up and came over to her, carrying the hat. Before Laura could stop her she had popped it on. “My child!” said her mother, “the hat is yours. It's made for you. It's much too young for me. I have never seen you look such a picture. Look at yourself!” And she held up her hand-mirror.
The band struck up; the hired waiters ran from the house to the marquee. Wherever you looked there were couples strolling, bending to the flowers, greeting, moving on over the lawn. They were like bright birds that had alighted in the Sheridans' garden for this one afternoon, on their way to—where? Ah, what happiness it is to be with people who all are happy, to press hands, press cheeks, smile into eyes.
And the perfect afternoon slowly ripened, slowly faded, slowly its petals closed.
The lane began, smoky and dark. Women in shawls and men’s tweed caps hurried by. Men hung over the palings; the children played in the doorways. A low hum came from the mean little cottages. In some of them there was a flicker of light, and a shadow, crab-like, moved across the window. Laura bent her head and hurried on. She wished now she had put on a coat. How her frock shone! And the big hat with the velvet streamer—if only it was another hat! Were the people looking at her? They must be. It was a mistake to have come; she knew all along it was a mistake. Should she go back even now?
There lay a young man, fast asleep—sleeping so soundly, so deeply, that he was far, far away from them both. Oh, so remote, so peaceful. He was dreaming. Never wake him up again. His head was sunk in the pillow, his eyes were closed; they were blind under the closed eyelids. He was given up to his dream. What did garden-parties and baskets and lace frocks matter to him? He was far from all those things. He was wonderful, beautiful. While they were laughing and while the band was playing, this marvel had come to the lane. Happy... happy... All is well, said that sleeping face. This is just as it should be. I am content.