Mansfield’s story is as much about class division as it is about characters’ awareness of that division. While “The Garden Party” demonstrates how elite prejudice against working-class people helps sustain an unequal society, it also shows how encounters across class lines can change (at least some) people’s social understanding. In other words, meeting people from other classes can help people develop a consciousness of class difference and, therefore, empathy for those of different classes. However, the story is not particularly optimistic: in it, Mansfield also shows how class prejudice can limit understanding even when the privileged are well-intentioned, and that their identification with and empathy for the disadvantaged are often insufficient to meaningfully affect the material conditions that structure class differences.
Mansfield emphasizes and parodies the sharp social divide between rich and poor by depicting the Sheridans’ often absurd prejudice against working-class people and their inability to imagine the perspective of lower-class people. After learning of the death of the cart-driver Mr. Scott, one of the Sheridan daughters, Jose, accuses Scott of being drunk during the accident. She suggests that he must be responsible for his own death and, therefore, that the Sheridans should not concern themselves with it. It is clear as Jose makes this argument that her primarily goal is to get to enjoy her family’s party, rather than have it stopped by the “inconvenience” of some poor person’s death. Mrs. Sheridan similarly argues that the Sheridans should not stop the party because “people like that don’t expect sacrifices from us.” In fact, she is “amused” when Laura suggests putting off the party out of concern for the Scotts. Mrs. Sheridan, like Jose, cares only about the garden party, not about Scott’s death. When Mr. Sheridan mentions the tragedy, she considers him “tactless” and complains that it “nearly ruined” the Sheridans’ plans.
The omniscient third-person narrator also reinforces the Sheridans’ prejudices, even as Laura begins to move past them. The narrative voice can be seen as carrying the force of social convention, butting in to remind the reader whenever anyone behaves “improperly.” When a deliveryman arrives with cream puffs from Godber’s, for example, the narrator is the one who explains their significance: “Godber’s were famous for their cream puffs. Nobody ever thought of making them at home.” When the cook offers some to Jose and Laura, the narrator interjects, “Oh, impossible. Fancy cream puffs so soon after breakfast. The very idea made one shudder.” Mansfield makes the Sheridans’ social codes explicit through the narrative voice, and these codes extend to the family’s views of the poor. It is the narrator who first condescendingly describes the cottages where the Scotts live, explaining that the structures sit “far too near” to the Sheridans’ house and are “the greatest possible eyesore” because they are “disgusting and sordid.” The narrator sides with the neighborhood and against the cottages on the grounds that the cottages “don’t fit” and are in fact intrusions on the neighborhood, which ought to stay wealthy. The Sheridans and the narrator alike take working-class residents as an unsightly imposition, feeling disgust rather than pity. The Sheridans—and society at large—ultimately do not see the poor as people. The omniscient narrator’s alignment with the Sheridans demonstrates just how powerful social conventions can be, particularly when it comes to blaming the poor for their own plight. The narrator also reflects Laura’s tacit understanding of the expectations and attitudes she wishes to escape, as well as the social forces that will align against her should she ever truly try to escape them.
However, unlike the rest of her family, over the course of the story and due in part to the jolt of Mr. Scott’s death, Laura begins to develop an awareness of her privilege and tries to consider the world from working-class characters’ perspectives. Her transformation starts when she watches four workmen put up the marquee. She is struck by how directly and informally they speak, and when she sees one of the workmen bend down to smell a lavender plant, Laura starts to “wonder for him caring for things like that” and decides that “she would get on much better with men like these” than the “silly boys” of her own class background. Laura recognizes that wealthy New Zealanders keep things, like the garden, for show and not for experience; she appreciates the way that the workers seem to live in, experience, and enjoy the real world, rather than holding it as property for status’s stake. Laura laments the “absurd class distinctions” and “despises” the “stupid conventions” that block her from spending time with people like the workmen; despite recognizing the restrictions class divisions put on her, she paradoxically decides that “she didn’t feel them. Not a bit, not an atom…”
But the main development in Laura’s class consciousness is, of course, her response to Scott’s death: she insists that the Sheridans cancel the party to respect the Scott family’s mourning process. She recognizes the Scotts as “nearly neighbours,” which contrasts with the narrator’s suggestion that such a poor family is not welcome in the neighborhood at all. At the end of the story, when Laura visits the Scotts’ house, she again becomes caught between her actual class status and her sympathy for the less fortunate families that live down the hill. She is incredibly self-conscious about her trip, worrying that her expensive clothes betray her class status and hoping that she can leave as soon as possible because she believes her appearance might offend them. Like her realization that the workmen appreciate beauty, Laura’s realization that “garden-parties and baskets and lace frocks” could not possibly matter to the dead Mr. Scott demonstrates her understanding that certain human experiences transcend class lines. Death figures as a great equalizer, one that lets her imagine she is no longer bound by the frivolities of her class.
However, while Laura tries to identify with working-class people’s perspective, the story portrays her as ultimately unable to overcome the blinders of her class position. In part due to the workmen’s comfortingly informal speech, Laura literally does not understand them, even as she begins to identify with the working class: one of the workmen says that “you want to put it somewhere where it’ll give you a bang slap in the eye, if you follow me” and Laura thinks instead that the man is referring to the bangs in her hair. When they respond that she should choose a more “conspicuous” spot, she completely ignores their advice and suggests putting it in the corner of the tennis court, near the band. Laura stutters when interacting with the workmen and the Scotts—she literally cannot communicate with them, which suggests her inability to understand their experience. When she visits the Scotts’ house, Laura’s predominant feeling is guilt, not sympathy; she only felt the latter from the comfort of her home. Her ecstasy at seeing Scott’s body is only followed later by a recognition that, next to the deceased’s wife and sister-in-law, “all the same you had to cry,” and Laura nevertheless speaks out of guilt rather than empathy: “forgive my hat.”
And yet, in addition to failing to build a mutual understanding with the Scotts, the awareness that Laura does gain causes her to lose connection with her own family—she ends up caught in the middle, unable to communicate with either side. At the end of the story, Laura and her brother Laurie, who speaks with the caricatured formality of English gentry, have their own misunderstanding. Laura stutters here, too, asking “isn’t life—” and, before she can complete the idea, Laurie interjects “Isn’t it, darling?” Laurie believes he understands what Laura is thinking and preempts her words, but the implication that they are not actually thinking the same thing suggests a growing gulf between the two siblings. Laura believes she understands life for the Scotts but does not; Laurie believes he understands Laura’s epiphany but he also does not.
Empathy, Understanding, and Class Consciousness ThemeTracker
Empathy, Understanding, and Class Consciousness Quotes in The Garden Party
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.
“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.
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.