“The Garden Party” is also a coming of age story: Mansfield depicts Laura’s struggle between, on the one hand, her sense of duty to her family and her instinct to follow her mother and, on the other, her growing dissatisfaction with her sheltered upbringing and desire to explore a broader world. Mansfield treats adolescence as a half-step to independence: Laura begins to question the circumstances and expectations into which she is born, even as she remains completely dependent on them. Her ambivalence about her upbringing—and her mother in particular—grows throughout the story and reflects both the privileges and the limitations of the structure that a nuclear family can provide.
In particular, Mrs. Sheridan’s passive-aggressive style lets her pretend that the children are acting independently while she continues to influence them. Because she recognizes that her children are getting older, Mrs. Sheridan pretends to relinquish responsibility for the party: she insists throughout that the party is her children’s idea, even as she seems to do all the planning. She asks to be treated not as a host but “as an honoured guest,” pretending to defer to her children even as she effectively plans the whole party. After the party, she exclaims, “why will you children insist on giving parties!” Mrs. Sheridan tends to talk to her children in leading questions like “don’t you agree?” and “we should still be having our party, shouldn’t we?”; Laura strongly feels that she should not openly disagree with her mother, so Mrs. Sheridan gets to pretend that her ideas are her children’s while nevertheless making her children do her bidding.
While Mrs. Sheridan’s decisions covertly control most of the action in this story, this does not mean her only function is to retrench Laura’s dependence on her family. Even though Laura was the one who originally wanted the Sheridans to reach out to the Scotts, she only goes when her mother has “one of her brilliant ideas” and decides to send her with a basket of leftovers. Without her mother’s idea, Laura simply would never have gone. And, just before Laura departs down the hill, her mother calls out, “don’t on any account—” but decides not to finish her sentence. Presumably, her order would have had something to do with viewing Scott’s body, and readers are left to wonder whether Laura would have done so had Mrs. Sheridan finished her thought.
Laura’s dependence on her mother extends beyond the obvious situations where Mrs. Sheridan compels agreement, as Laura also tends to imitate her mother when dealing with adults. When she meets the workmen, she tries to “copy her mother’s voice” and “look severe and even a little bit short-sighted.” Likewise, on the phone with Kitty Maitland, Laura’s overly-formal, ornamented speech is indistinguishable from her mother’s. Even when she inadvertently copies her mother—namely, when she accidentally sees herself wearing her mother’s hat—she falls back in line with the family consensus. Laura had never before “imagined she could look like that,” which reflects her burgeoning maturity: she is on the brink of womanhood. Laura’s dinners with the “silly boys” of other wealthy colonial families and ecstatic reaction to the beautiful canna-lilies suggest that she is also undergoing a subtle sexual awakening around this time in her adolescence.
Despite all Mrs. Sheridan’s covert influence over Laura’s behavior, the reader’s window into Laura’s thought process reveals that she clearly begins to think beyond the constraints of her family’s conspicuous and limited lifestyle. If the force that binds Laura to her family’s way of thinking is her mother’s subtle manipulation, the force that leads Laura to think independently is her own curiosity. She begins to think for herself primarily by noticing things that she is not necessarily meant to see or hear; her own curiosity leads Laura to places and perspectives the rest of her family does not reach. This starts well before the day the story recounts: even though the cottages are “disgusting and sordid,” Laura and Laurie cannot resist sometimes exploring them “on their prowls.” Their curiosity consumes them despite their class instincts: “one must go everywhere; one must see everything.” In this vein, Laura learns about Scott’s death when she accidentally runs into the cream puff deliveryman telling the Sheridans’ domestic servants about it; she is the first in the family to find out. At the end of the story, Laura ends up visiting the Scotts’ house and viewing Mr. Scott’s dead body not because she wants to see the dead man’s body, but rather because she enters the wrong room in an attempt to flee the Scotts’ house. Once she sees his body, she is transfixed by its tranquility and reaches an epiphany that, unlike her earlier expeditions into the cottages, she can no longer share with Laurie. For Laura, growing up in the Sheridan family also, to some extent, means growing out of the Sheridan family.
Childhood, Family and Independence ThemeTracker
Childhood, Family and Independence Quotes in The Garden Party
“My dear child, it's no use asking me. I'm determined to leave everything to you children this year. Forget I am your mother. Treat me as an honoured guest.”
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.”
Godber's man wasn't going to have his story snatched from under his very nose.
"Know those little cottages just below here, miss?" Know them? Of course, she knew them. “Well, there's a young chap living there, name of Scott, a carter. His horse shied at a traction-engine, corner of Hawke Street this morning, and he was thrown out on the back of his head. Killed.”
“Dead!” Laura stared at Godber's man.
“Dead when they picked him up," said Godber's man with relish. "They were taking the body home as I come up here." And he said to the cook, "He's left a wife and five little ones.”
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.
“Oh, Laura!” Jose began to be seriously annoyed. “If you're going to stop a band playing every time some one has an accident, you'll lead a very strenuous life. I'm every bit as sorry about it as you. I feel just as sympathetic.” Her eyes hardened. She looked at her sister just as she used to when they were little and fighting together. “You won't bring a drunken workman back to life by being sentimental,” she said softly.
“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 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?
"Isn't life," she stammered, "isn't life—” But what life was she couldn’t explain. No matter. He quite understood.
"Isn't it, darling?" said Laurie.