Perhaps Jacob and Charlie can read the following on the coach back from Cambridge? Hope you had a good day!
From page 51 onwards is quite pertinent...
In “The Garden-Party” the narrator focuses most closely on Laura’s consciousness. Unlike Monica and Rosemary (of “Revelations” and “A Cup of Tea,” respectively), Laura is not treated ironically. The reader can sympathize with her struggle to overcome her family’s conditioning, and to see members of the working class as individuals worthy of the same consideration given to their upper class counterparts. Pamela Dunbar points out that:
The concern in the story is whether the daughter Laura will in maturing grow into a replica of her superficial and insensitive mother, or whether her own better nature—evident in her less prejudiced (though sentimental) attitude towards the workmen […] will prevail. (167-8)
After her initial encounter with the workmen she concludes that workmen are “very nice” (535)—a warning sign that she might lump all workmen into one category just as easily as the other members of her family do. Although this would, of course, be a more positive category, it still denies an entire group of people the agency to be human: to be an individual rather than a representative of a “type.”
Mansfield captures the moment when Laura separates herself from her upper class upbringing and imagines being a member of the working class:
It’s all the fault, she decided […] of these absurd class distinctions. Well, for her part, she didn’t feel them. Not a bit, not an atom […] Just to prove how happy she was, just to show the tall fellow how at home she felt, and how she despised stupid conventions, Laura took a big bite of her bread-and-butter as she stared at the little drawing. She felt just like a work-girl. (536)
In pointing out the fact that there are class distinctions that cause a “fault,” Laura demonstrates that on some level she does feel them. Similarly, her need to act a part separates her from the workmen. She proves how happy she is by trying to act in a manner that she thinks will mark her as a work-girl. Again, if one is truly at home, there is no need to act deliberately, or to modify one’s behavior. Laura is role-playing the part of a work-girl in this passage. But she as quickly slips out of this identity when, a moment later, she is called back into the house to talk on the phone with a friend (537). On the phone she switches back into the role of the socialite before a party, conveying her mother’s comment to her friend concerning which hat the friend should wear to the party.
There is true sentiment behind Laura’s momentary self-identification as a member of the working class, however, as we discover when she hears about the death of a poor young father. Her first reaction is one of horror; her only concern is how the Burnells can stop the preparations for the garden party (541). Her sister calls her “extravagant” (541), and her mother twists the situation to suit her own interests, calling Laura unsympathetic and claiming that “[people] like that don’t
expect sacrifices from us” (543). Her mother effectively distracts her attention with a hat that is “made for [her]” (543). This hat reminds us of the hat that Rosabel sells to the girl with red hair in the early story “The Tiredness of Rosabel.” This hat stands for an identity that Laura can appropriate. Much as the hat “suits” Rosabel, Laura’s image is positively changed when she puts on the hat: “the first thing she saw was this charming girl in the mirror, in her black hat trimmed with gold daisies […] Never had she imagined she could look like that […] And now she hoped her mother was right” (543). She does not immediately recognize that the girl in the mirror is herself—just as the death of the man down the road has divided her feelings, so it seems to have split her image of herself. She is unsure of how she ought to feel, since her immediate reaction is ridiculed and unaccepted by her family. Laura seems capable of occupying two different roles, depending upon how she acts and dresses. In this scene she switches from sympathizing with the dead man’s family to identifying with her mother’s point of view. She does not feel like a work-girl now: she sees what a pretty picture she makes (literally) in the hat. By putting on the hat she has stepped back into the role of an upper class girl. This hat, moreover, is trimmed in gold—a sign of the richness of the upper class identity it represents. Laura can acquire this identity from her mother, and likewise adopt her mother’s attitude that she is a different sort of people from the working class. Dunbar suggests that Laura’s mother “symbolically hands on her own values and lifestyle” (169). When her brother, Laurie, comments on the hat, she “[doesn’t] tell him after all” about her qualms.
He says the hat makes her look “stunning,” and that it is “absolutely topping” (544)—her brother clearly approves of the hat and the perspective it represents.
Besides putting on a class identity, we might question to what extent Laura puts on her womanhood in this scene. She is not a cute little girl, but a “charming girl.” This is, after all, her mother’s hat—Laura seems to step into the role of a woman of society by wearing the appropriate costume. With this comes the possibility of being seen as a sexual being. Her mother facilitates this transition, almost as if this were a coming of age.
There are hints, however, that Laura is not completely swayed by her family’s class sensibilities: she wants to offer the workmen a drink, and she questions her mother’s decision to send leftovers to the bereaved family (544-5). She finds it “curious” that she “[seems] to be different from” the rest of her family (545). Even after “putting on” the identity of her mother, there is something that does not mesh with her mother’s perspective. As she brings the food to the poor family, she feels her difference from the people who live down the lane: “How her frock shone! And the big hat with the velvet streamer—if only it was another hat! […] It was a mistake to have come” (546). The clothing is now stunning in a negative sense, as it prevents her from fitting in. The upper class is generally expected to have the appropriate clothes or costume for each situation; here Laura breaks the rules of both etiquette and her class by wearing a party dress to a funeral. This is interesting, as Laura has previously wavered between a work-girl and her mother’s girl. Here she seems caught in the middle: not in agreement with her mother, but out of place in the working class context.
As the story ends, it is difficult to discern which of these two roles Laura adopts. Laura cries over the dead man, and says to his body only: “Forgive my hat” (548). She has worn the wrong thing, which carries meaning beyond the initial faux pas. This hat, previously the sign of her family’s wealth, is a source of shame—she seems to be asking forgiveness for a lifestyle and perspective that keeps class distinctions so clear and sharp. We might also read this plea for forgiveness as upper class guilt, which, much like original sin, is passed down from one generation to the next by the mere act of being born. Laura is guilty in some way for the death of this man. The hat is also the presumably expensive object that distracts her before the garden party. We might therefore interpret the hat as a symbol for all the lovely things that literally blind the upper class from seeing the problems of the lower class (we might remember that it is not wearing the hat, but rather seeing the mirror image of herself in the hat, that distracts Laura most effectively).
Laura’s thoughts on her clothing indicate her feeling that, without the hat and dress, she would fit in to some degree. She is not in fact unable to relate to or fit in with the members of the working class. There is an aspect of performance to class: one dresses and plays a part that demonstrates one’s class. Class is therefore not an inherent quality, but rather a learned construction. This realization expands her previous sentiment that she can feel like a work-girl.
If we compare this story to “The Tiredness of Rosabel,” Mansfield seems to be proposing that the crown makes the queen. The only thing separating Rosabel from the rich girl in the shop, or Laura from the workmen, is a hat. The
idea that we all have the potential to be the queen is a democratic ideal that subscribes to the belief that all people are created equal. The disparity between this ideal and the reality presented in Mansfield’s stories thus points out the structure by which this inherent equality is broken down and negated: capitalism and socioeconomic class. Rosabel’s story does not have a Cinderella ending, nor does Laura somehow become a workgirl. The system is not changeable, although Laura seems to be affected by seeing its consequences.
For a moment Laura is made aware of the reality of all death, and of the pain this particular man’s death has caused—yet she sees the body as “wonderful, beautiful” (548). Jayne Marek, in an essay on this story, has identified Laura’s vision of the body as a projection of “her own wishes on the dead face in order to create an artificial peace in which her mind can rest” (39). This reading seems accurate in light of the fact that this man’s death is anything but wonderful—his family is in poverty and grief. The only good that could result for the man is an escape from poverty and worries, but this does not console the reader. The rationalization is too similar to the reassurances offered by various religions to the toiling classes: behave now and after death you will be rewarded. Laura’s perception of the dead body’s beauty in fact serves to reinforce the vision of the world that she inherits from her family. She imagines the sleeping face’s words to her: “All is well, said that sleeping face. This is just as it should be. I am content” (548). Laura’s ascribed thoughts seem a convenient way to reconcile one’s feelings of guilt for enjoying a garden party all day while this man was laid out; she imagines that he is content in death, and that no changes need to be made to
the current system. That this man’s death, and by extension the world in which it happens, is “as it should be,” is rightly disturbing.
Mansfield creates an ambiguity in this scene that rightly gives the reader pause in reconciling Laura’s actions. Laura cries but finds the body beautiful; she asks the corpse to forgive her hat, but seems to conclude that all is “as it should be.” She tells her brother that her experience was “marvelous,” and seems on the edge of completing a grand epiphany: “‘Isn’t life,’ she stammered, ‘isn’t life—’ But what life was she couldn’t explain” (549). Sherry Lutz Zivley has identified this as a moment at which Laura “has no language with which to complete her statement” (75). Laura’s language—what Zivley identifies as a sociolect of the upper class, “provides [Laura] with no way of describing death” (74). Although Laura has failed to communicate her experience, the narrator continues: “No matter. He quite understood” (549). But this does not necessarily mean that Laurie understands his sister. Mansfield’s third-person narrators are often entrenched in the consciousness of one character, relying upon his or her thoughts to describe the scene. The fact that Laurie answers in the tone and diction of their mother seems to point to a disparity between their perspectives (“‘Isn’t it, darling?’ said Laurie” (549)).
Thus far in the story, Laurie has been the genteel and more grown up male counterpart to Laura. When no one else agrees with Laura’s perspective on the man’s death before the party, Laurie is the moral sounding board that she plans to question. Interestingly, in this prior scene, he effectively prevented Laura from speaking about the death by complimenting her hat (544). With his final line of
dialogue, he again cuts off Laura’s words. Given Laurie’s actions throughout this story, we must conclude that he neither wordlessly understands Laura, nor that he already holds a similarly sympathetic viewpoint toward the lower class. Marek has read Laurie’s response as seemingly placatory, but actually concealing his “true opinion” (40) by “[sealing] off the rapport Laura thought she had, by implication denying the rapport she felt at the dead man’s house” (40). Such a reading seems accurate, in that Laurie anticipates that Laura experienced something awful when he questions her (“‘Was it awful?’” (548)). When she does not comply with his expectation, he seems to shut her off by agreeing with her before she has actually said anything meaningful. From what we see of Laurie, he is complicit in the economic system that privileges their family. He does not go with Laura to the house—he only comes to fetch her because their mother is “getting anxious” (548). Moreover, he does not approach the house, but waits in shadow at the corner of the lane. His complacency results in a seeming apathy toward Laura’s experience in the bereaved home. It is telling that he does not even wait for Laura to articulate what she means—he avoids hearing it by preemptively agreeing with Laura.
Laura has had her epiphany, and seems to have some sort of unique sympathy despite class distinctions. But her view of the working class is comparable to that of the literary gentleman in “Life of Ma Parker”—there is something “beautiful” in the dead man and something “very nice” about workmen. Laura sentimentalizes the working class, and seems to categorize the group in a similar (although more positive) manner. Laura is a step closer than
Mansfield’s other characters to becoming an individual of the upper class who possesses an ability to transcend class distinctions.