Katherine Mansfield 1920
By the time of her death, Katherine Mansfield had established herself as an important and influential contemporary short story writer. Her appeal can be traced to her focus on psychological conflicts, her oblique narration, and her complex characters that seem to be on the brink of a major epiphany.
One of her finest short stories, “Bliss,” serves as prime examples of these defining qualities. The protagonist of the story, Bertha, experiences a sense of rapture as she reflects on her life, which later turns to disappointment and resignation as she discovers that her husband is having a love affair with her friend.
Mansfield’s Bliss, and Other Stories, published in 1920, secured the author’s literary reputation. While readers and critics at the time generally lauded the short fiction collection, a few reviewers objected to its controversial subject matter—infidelities, discussions of sexuality, cruel and superficial characters. Today “Bliss” is one of Mansfield’s most frequently anthologized stories and still resonates with modern readers.
Katherine Mansfield Beauchamp was born to a wealthy family in Wellington, New Zealand, on October 14, 1888. She was educated in London and decided early on that she wanted to be a writer. She studied music, wrote for the school newspaper, and read the works of Oscar Wilde and other English writers of the early twentieth century.
After three years in London she returned to New Zealand, where her parents expected her to find a suitable husband and lead the life of a well-bred woman. However, Mansfield was rebellious, adventurous, and more enamored of the artistic community than of polite society.
She began publishing stories in Australian magazines in 1907, and shortly thereafter returned to London. A brief affair left her pregnant and she consented to marry a man, George Bowden, whom she had known a mere three weeks and who was not the father of her child. She dressed in black for the wedding and left him right after the ceremony.
Upon receiving word of the scandal and spurred on by rumors that her daughter had also been involved with several women, Mansfield’s mother immediately sailed to London and placed her daughter in a spa in Germany. During her time in Germany, Mansfield suffered a miscarriage and was disinherited. After returning to London, Mansfield continued to write and was involved in various love affairs.
In 1911, Mansfield published her first volume of stories, In a German Pension, most of which had been written during her stay at the German spa. That same year she fell in love with John Middleton Murry, the editor of a literary magazine. Although they lived together on and off for many years, her other affairs continued.
Together Mansfield and Murry published a small journal, the Blue Review, which folded after only three issues. However, the experience led to friendships with members of the literary community of the day, including D. H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf. In 1918, Mansfield was granted a divorce from Bowden, and she and Murry married.
Stricken with tuberculosis in 1917, Mansfield became very ill. She continued to write, publishing her collections Bliss, and Other Stories and The Garden Party, and Other Stories in 1920 and 1922 respectively. The title story of the former collection, “Bliss” garnered much critical success, both in England and the United States. Its success established Mansfield as a major talent.
Her short fiction received favorable critical attention, and she continued to write even after her health forced her to move to Fontainebleau in France. Though she was separated from Murry for long periods towards the end of her life, it was he who saw that her literary reputation was established by publishing her last stories and her collections of letters after she died of a massive pulmonary hemorrhage in January, 1923, at the age of thirty-four.
“Bliss” opens with Bertha Young reflecting on how wonderful her life is. As she walks home, she is overwhelmed by a feeling of bliss; she feels tremendously content with her home, her husband, her baby, and her friends.
At home, she begins to prepare for a dinner party she is having that evening. She reflects on the guests that will be arriving soon: Mr. and Mrs. Knight, an artistic couple; Eddie Warren, a playwright; and Pearl Fulton, Bertha’s newest friend. Bertha wishes that her husband, Harry, would like Pearl; he has expressed some misgivings over the women’s burgeoning friendship and Bertha hopes they will eventually become friends too.
As Bertha waits for her guests, she looks out on her garden. Her enjoyment of a pear tree with wide open blossoms, which she sees as representing herself, is ruined by two cats creeping across the lawn. Bertha meditates on how happy she is and how perfect her life is. She goes upstairs to dress, and soon thereafter her guests and husband arrive for dinner.
The group moves into the dining room, where they eat with relish and discuss the contemporary theater and literary scene. Bertha thinks about the pear tree again. She also senses that Pearl shares her feelings of bliss, and she is simply waiting for a sign from the other woman to show her recognition of the empathy between them.
After dinner, as Bertha is about to make the coffee, Pearl gives her the sign by asking if Bertha has a garden. Bertha pulls apart the curtains to display the garden and the pear tree. Bertha imagines that Pearl responds positively to the tree, but she is not sure if it really happened.
Over coffee, the group talks about a variety of topics. Bertha perceives Harry’s dislike for Pearl and wants to tell him how much she has shared with her friend. She is suddenly overcome by a feeling of sexual desire for her husband. This is the first time she has felt this way, and she is eager for the guests to leave so she can be alone with Harry.
After the Knights leave, Pearl and Eddie are set to share a taxi. As Pearl goes to the hall to get her coat, Harry accompanies her. Eddie asks Bertha if she has a certain book of poems. Bertha goes to retrieve the book from a nearby table. As she looks out into the hallway, she sees her husband and Pearl embrace and make arrangements to meet the next day. Pearl reenters the room to thank Bertha for the party. The two guests leave and Harry, still cool and collected, says he will shut up the house. Bertha runs to the window to look at the pear tree. She cries ‘“Oh, what is going to happen now?’” but outside the pear tree is just the same as ever.
Pearl Fulton is Bertha’s enigmatic new friend in the story. With her indirect way of looking at people and her half-smile, she appears distant and mysterious. Although Bertha acknowledges that she and Pearl have not had a really intimate conversation, on the night of the dinner party Bertha senses an intimate attachment between them. This feeling of attachment is confirmed when Bertha discovers that Pearl is having an affair with her husband, Harry.
Mrs. Knight and her husband are guests at Bertha’s dinnerparty. Though she is “awfully keen on interior decoration,” Mrs. Knight dresses herself in wild clothing and resembles a giant banana peel.
Norman Knight is about to open a theater that will show thoroughly modern plays.
See Norman Knight
Eddie Warren is an effeminate playwright. He is described as always being “in a state of acute
distress” and over the course of the evening complains about his taxi ride to the party.
Bertha, a young housewife, is the main character in the story. Despite the fact that the story is told from her perspective, readers learn few concrete details about her. She appears to enjoy a fairly leisurely life, as she and her husband are financially comfortable. However, though she claims she and her husband are “pals,” her home life would seem not as ideal as she views it; her marriage lacks passion, and the nanny clearly keeps her at a distance from her young daughter.
Bertha’s most notable characteristic is her inexplicable state of happiness. As the story opens, she is pleased with all life offers her. During her dinner party, she seems to find joy in almost everything she sees: the lovely pear tree in the garden, which seems to represent both herself and Pearl Fulton; her smart and cosmopolitan friends; the bond she is forging with Pearl. She even sexually desires her husband for the first time in her life and looks forward to spending the rest of the evening alone with him. By the end of the story, however, this world in which Bertha finds such pleasure is shattered when she discovers that her husband is having an affair with Pearl.
Harry is Bertha’s husband. He provides a good income for his family, enjoys good food, and has a zest for life. However, his most notable characteristic is his duplicitous nature: while he declares to Bertha that he finds Pearl Fulton dull, he is secretly engaged in a love affair with her. In fact, during the dinner party, he pretends to dislike Pearl. Yet he risks exposure of the affair when he embraces Pearl in the hallway while his wife is in the next room.
Marriage and Adultery
The themes of marriage and adultery are central to “Bliss.” Bertha believes (or makes herself believe) she has a fulfilling, complete marriage. Although she characterizes her husband as a good pal, she still contends they are as much in love as they ever were.
The climactic event of the story—Bertha’s realization of Harry’s affair with Pearl—proves that her husband does not share his wife’s contentment. As Harry’s affair demonstrates, he is not happy with the lack of passion in their marriage. Harry’s actions reveal his duplicitous nature: not only has Harry been hiding the affair from his wife, he also pretends to dislike Pearl in order to cover it up. The risk that Harry takes in kissing Pearl in his own home, as well as his method of hiding his true feelings, indicate the likelihood that he and Pearl share a very strong connection.
Change and Transformation
Change and transformation are subtle themes in the story. Bertha’s extreme sense of bliss, along with her new feelings of desire for her husband, show that she is undergoing a profound change in her life. She wonders if the feeling of bliss that she had all day was actually leading up to her increased attraction to her husband. At the end of the story, she wants nothing more than for the guests to leave so she can be alone with Harry.
Bertha’s transformation into a sexual being is abruptly halted when she sees her husband kissing Pearl Fulton. She realizes that she can no longer look at her world as perfect, nor can she move forward to a new relationship with Harry. When she runs to the window to look at the pear tree she finds that it is “as lovely as ever and as full of flower and as still.” This is a clear sign that the change Bertha has undergone will be brought to an abrupt halt, for the pear tree—which is seen to represent Bertha— remains exactly the same.
The concept of modernity is an important aspect of the story. Bertha constantly characterizes the elements of her life—her relationship with her husband and her friends, for instance—as being thoroughly modern. However, Bertha’s view of modernity would seem to be a liking for things that are shallow, superficial, and duplicitous. She has rationalized her poor sexual relationship with her husband as “being modern” because they are such good pals. Thus, in Bertha’s mind, a modern marriage needn’t be based on love or attraction but simply on the bonds that would make two people friends.
Her view of the modern marriage hurts her relationship with Harry as he experiences dissatisfaction at the state of their relationship. Even Bertha and Harry’s philosophy of raising children is perceived as modern. Bertha seems to spend little time with her daughter, instead entrusting her to a jealous nanny; moreover, Harry claims to have no interest in his daughter.
Bertha’s friends are also considered thoroughly modern—but they appear utterly ridiculous. Mrs. Knight is described as a cross between a giant monkey and a banana peel. Her modern ideas for decorating—including french fries embroidered on the curtains and chairbacks shaped like frying pans— seem distasteful and ugly. Plays and poems mentioned by the guests seem dismal and pseudo-intellectual, and the satire reaches a high point in Eddie Warren’s lauding of a poem that begins, “Why Must it Always be Tomato Soup?” The guests and their interests, rather than seeming “modern” and “thrilling,” seem merely excessive and absurd.
Point of View and Narration
The story is told from a third person, limited point of view. This means that readers are privy to only Bertha’s perspective. In “Bliss,” all events are filtered through Bertha, and her overexcited way of viewing the world forms the story’s narrative technique. That the narration is studded with questions, interjections, and exclamations only emphasizes Bertha’s perspective.
Bertha’s emphatic and constant reassurances of how happy she is also serves to emphasize the fact that she may be hiding something from herself. Clearly, she is not truly as content with her life as she claims to be. The facts presented by the narrative reinforce this idea. For instance, Bertha spends very little time with her child. Her lack of meaningful activity also demonstrates the hollowness of her life. When she draws up a list of all the things she has—money, a nice house, modern friends—she ends with the pathetic inclusion of a “wonderful little dressmaker” and “their new cook [who] made the superb omelettes.” Bertha’s narration demonstrates the incompleteness of her life, though she cannot acknowledge it.
Satire is the use of humor, wit, or ridicule to criticize human nature and societal institutions. Indirect satire, as found in “Bliss,” relies upon the ridiculous behavior of characters to make its point. Bertha describes her friends as “modern” and “thrilling” people, yet they are presented as ridiculous figures. Mrs. Knight resembles some kind of monkey, wearing a dress reminiscent of banana peels. The most notable characteristic of Eddie Warren, who appears to be a writer, is his white socks and his affected way of speaking.
Although these people aspire to be sophisticated and artistic, their conversation reveals how little regard they truly have for an aesthetic sense of beauty. Mrs. Knight, an interior decorator, wants to design the room of a client’s home around a fish-and-chip motif. The poems and pieces of literature enjoyed by Eddie Warren border on the grotesque. Truly, Bertha’s friends seem to have no idea of true artistry; instead, they wrap themselves up in what they believe to be fashionable talk about artistic ideas.
It is also clear that the group is more about talk and less about creating art. She thinks “what a decorative group they made, how they seemed to set one another off.” In Bertha’s mind, as in the group itself, the image of oneself as an artistic person is more important than actually being one.
Topics for Further Study
- Read another of Katherine’s Mansfield’s London stories, such as “Marriage a la Mode.” Then compare Mansfield’s use of satire and imagery in the stories, as well as her presentation of characters and relationships. Which story do you think is more successful? Why?
- In “Bliss,” Mansfield mentions several poems and plays. Locate and read one of these “modern” poems and plays of the early 1920s. How does this poem or play relate to the themes of Mansfield’s story? Does it add to your understanding of that era? In what way?
- J. F. Kobler wrote, “A first-time reader of a Mansfield story may have similar feelings of bliss while experiencing the story and may well not understand their source.” Write a paragraph describing your initial reactions after reading “Bliss” for the first time.
- Mansfield drew on her intimate knowledge of the bohemian London art scene to write “Bliss.” Based on this story, what are your perceptions of the scene and the people who populated this segment of society?
The most important and complicated symbol in “Bliss” is the pear tree: it represents different people at different times throughout the story. First and foremost, it represents Bertha because she believes that “its wide open blossoms [are] as symbol of her own life.” When Bertha first notices the tree, she is intent on pursuing the belief that her life is full and rich, open to wondrous possibilities.
Later on in the story the pear represents Pearl Fulton. Like the pear tree, Pearl, dressed in silver, emits a shimmery, ethereal glow. Thus both Pearl and Bertha—who are actually rivals—are connected to each other by association with the pear tree.
However, the pear tree also takes on a masculine identity in its phallic description: “it seemed, like the flame of a candle, to stretch up, to point, to quiver in the bright air, to grow taller and taller” under the gaze of the women. In this manifestation, the pear tree can be seen as representing Harry, who further unites the two women.
In addition, the pear tree seems to be reaching toward the moon, which previously had been identified with Pearl. Thus Harry’s sexual desire, which Bertha now wants for herself, is clarified as reaching toward Pearl, not Bertha.
Post-World War I Art
In the aftermath of the devastation of World War I, artists expressed their shock at the horrors of war and their disillusionment with modern society. Art that emerged in the post-war period showed a marked departure from past forms as artists rejected traditional ways of expressing their ideas. For instance, James Joyce’s novel Ulysses (1922) experimented with a stream-of-consciousness narrative. Poets often abandoned traditional rhyme and meter. Playwrights such as Bertolt Brecht saw the theater more as a classroom than as a place of performance. In his plays, characters would step out of their roles and directly address the audience.
The Bloomsbury Group
In the 1910s, and 1920s, London was a hubbub of literary and artistic activity. At the center of this activity was the Bloomsbury group, one of London’s foremost intellectual and artistic circles. Members of this group rejected conventional ideas on religious, artistic, social, and sexual matters. Bloomsbury members included writer Virginia Woolf, painter Vanessa Bell, novelist and essayist E. M. Forster, art critic Roger Fry, and economist John Maynard Keynes. Attendees at the regular Thursday night meetings included such British literary luminaries as George Bernard Shaw and William Yeats.
In 1917, Leonard Woolf established the Hogarth Press, which went on to publish Sigmund Freud’s works in English, T. S. Eliot’s poetry, and Mansfield’s short stories, among other pieces. The Bloomsbury group also set up the Omega Workshop, which lasted from 1913 to 1919. At the workshop, painters applied their ideas of abstraction and decorated ordinary objects, such as screens and chairs, in what today would be called modern design. Through their artistic work and ideas, the members of the Bloomsbury group were influential practitioners of twentieth-century modernism.
The British Economy
In 1920, Britain headed into a cycle of economic depressions, which were to last until World War II. Unemployment quickly reached 1.5 million, where it remained for most of the decade. A government committee was appointed to find remedies for this depressed economic situation; unfortunately, some of the remedies the committee recommended were ignored in light of pressure from other economic interests. As a result, the situation did not significantly improve throughout the decade.
The Modern British Woman
World War I had forced many women to join the ranks of male workers. At the outset of the war, the British government actively set out to recruit women as men went to war. Millions of British women entered government departments, factories, and private offices. They worked in many capacities, from clerical jobs to manufacturing.
Such increased employment and economic opportunities were important factors in women’s emancipation. By 1918 the Franchise Act gave all women over the age of twenty-eight the right to vote (all men over the age of twenty-one were given this right by the same law). Soon the first British female sat in the House of Commons. However, women did not have equal voting rights as men until 1928, when the Representation of the People Act, known as the “flapper act,” was passed.
As in the United States, young British women used fashion to reflect their changing status in society: shorter skirts and bobbed hair became the rage amongst young women in both countries. Despite these advances, most married women remained dependent on their husbands, and working women were paid less than men for equal labor. Women were not promoted to positions of power, such as judges, corporate CEOs, or managers.
Some women publicly decried this inequality. Beatrice Hastings wrote feminist articles published in the New Age in which she frankly discussed such topics as the sexual subjection of women to their husbands or the refusal of British universities to grant degrees to women. Laws passed in 1919 and 1923 also gave women rights equal to those of men in cases of divorce.
Compare & Contrast
- 1920s: Between 1910 and 1920, the number of divorces in Britain tripled, from about 600 to 1,700. The Matrimonial Causes Act of 1923 made it easier for a wife to obtain a divorce. This legislation allowed a woman to divorce her husband without having to prove cruelty or desertion in addition to adultery.
Today: With the advent of the Divorce Reform Act, which passed in 1971, divorce could be obtained by either party without grounds. Like in the United States, divorce is common in modern-day Great Britain.
- 1920s: By 1918, as part of the Franchise Act, British women over the age of twenty-eight had the right to vote. Yet it was not until 1928, with the passage of the Representation of the People Act, that women were given equal rights in terms of voting.
Today: For a few decades, several women have held important political positions in Great Britain. The most powerful of these women was Margaret Thatcher, who served as the country’s prime minister from 1979 to 1990.
- 1920s: About ten percent of British people own their own homes.
Today: Approximately two-thirds of British people own their own homes. Owner-occupied homes are the most prevalent form of housing.
- 1920s: At the beginning of the decade, women make up about thirty percent of the British workforce. This number drops as Britain undergoes an economic crisis later in the decade.
Today: Women make up more than 44 percent of the British workforce.
Modern British Society
British society underwent significant changes in the 1910s and 1920s. By 1914 the discrepancies between the lifestyles of the rich and poor were far less evident. Fewer people had servants, poorer people had access to the same goods as the wealthy, and middle-class society came to hold greater political power. More people owned homes that had the comforts of electricity and modern plumbing. The workweek was reduced in 1918 from 56 hours to 48 hours. Working-class people also saw improvements as new forms of recreation—particularly dance halls and talking films—enhanced their leisure hours.
The story “Bliss” was first published in The English Review in 1920. Later that year, it became the title story for Mansfield’s second collection, Bliss, and Other Stories. The story (and the volume) helped solidify Mansfield’s reputation as an important contemporary writer.
Many early reviewers lauded the collection and Mansfield’s unique narrative voice. Conrad Aiken, in a review for Freeman, called Mansfield “brilliant” and remarked upon her “infinitely inquisitive sensibility.” Several reviewers drew a parallel between Mansfield’s work and that of the Russian writer Anton Chekhov. …