“The Garden Party” emphasizes the stark division between working-class people and economic elites in a deeply unequal society—in this case, early 20th century New Zealand. As she follows the wealthy Sheridan family on the day of their extravagant party, Mansfield critiques this society's division between elites who get the privilege of leisure time and the disposable laborers whose work makes leisure possible.
All the characters in the story belong unambiguously to one or the other class; as they set up for the party, the Sheridans’ “work” (if it can be called that) merely consists of telling actual laborers what to do. The family has a gardener who manicures the property all morning and three domestic servants who fulfill the Sheridans’ every demand. A florist and a fancy cream-puff shop send delivery men with their goods, and a band comes to perform at the party. The Sheridans are surrounded by workers they pay to set up their party, but readers have no indication of where their own money comes from. Laughably, the Sheridans insist on micromanaging the workers’ every move, even while they lack the expertise and energy to do so effectively. One Sheridan sister, Meg, “could not possibly go and supervise the men” setting up the marquee because she is too busy relaxing, drinking coffee, and waiting for her hair to dry.
Furthermore, despite that the Sheridans do very little to prepare for the party, they delegate their tasks to others and then take all the credit for the party’s success. For instance, when Sadie asks Mrs. Sheridan whether she has the name-flags for the fifteen different kinds of sandwiches cook has prepared, Mrs. Sheridan lies that she does have them and then asks Laura to write them; meanwhile, Laura’s sister Jose “congratulate[s]” the cook for making fifteen different kinds of “exquisite” sandwiches, as though doing so is an accomplishment rather than her job. Later, when Mr. Sheridan takes a sandwich, he thanks Laura. This is the only thank-you that any Sheridan utters in the entire story, and it is entirely misattributed. The guests laud the Sheridans as they leave the party—“‘Never a more delightful garden-party…’ ‘The greatest success…’ ‘Quite the most…’” (the most what scarcely matters)—but the domestic servants, hired workmen and delivery people who are actually responsible for the party’s success get no credit.
The Sheridans’ disregard for their own workers echoes their indifference about Mr. Scott’s death. The story is set around the turn of the 20th century, and Scott is said to have died when his horse “shied at a traction-engine” and threw him out of his cart—in other words, Scott is killed when the march of technological progress makes his kind of work outmoded, when the horse sees the technology that makes its work obsolete. The death of Mr. Scott’s job precipitates his actual death. Mrs. Sheridan sees his death as natural and unremarkable: she suggests that, “if some one had died there normally,” the party would go on without a hitch. Mrs. Sheridan has no sympathy for working people whose death she does not hear about; she interprets Laura’s sympathy as a response to the way Scott dies rather than the horrific circumstances in which his family is left.
Despite the mutual dependence between the Sheridan family and their servants—the Sheridans need the servants because they are incapable of caring for themselves and the servants need wages from the Sheridans in order to survive—Mrs. Sheridan, since she does not work, can forget that labor is embedded in broader social relations and, unlike Laura, does not even begin to think about her own power to mitigate the family’s suffering. Curiously, Laura’s father, who goes “to the office” with Laurie earlier on in the story, does pity the Scotts; his reaction is surprisingly similar to that of Sadie, Hans and the cook, who clearly understand the indignation workers face on a daily basis and can empathize with the horrific injustice of Scott’s death. But Laura is also not immune to her family’s prioritization of wealth over work: when she sees Scott’s body, she thinks, “this is just as it should be.” This echoes her mother’s indifference to Scott’s death, not because Laura is herself indifferent, but rather because she sees his death as reflecting the proper order of things. As in virtually every colonial and contemporary society, the poor die poor, unrewarded for a life of labor at the feet of wealthy capitalists who own, do not work, and imagine themselves inherently superior to working people in order to sustain the indifference toward human life that in turn sustains the institution of labor in the first place.
Work and Leisure ThemeTracker
Work and Leisure 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.”
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.
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.