The Garden Party and Other Stories

The Garden Party and Other Stories is a 1922 collection of modernist fiction by New Zealand author Katherine Mansfield. The author is an extremely descriptive writer, more interested in people than plots. I’d describe her prose as literary impressionism, to a fault. Stories such as Bank Holiday contain only impressions and lack even a character to attach ourselves to. The best stories, however, describe the internal psychology of her characters, and in a short paragraph, she is able to convey a whole backstory and psychology of a person. 

The author uses an interesting mix of third-person limited and omniscient perspectives to describe settings and shift between the thoughts of various characters. Perhaps the greatest testament to the author’s talent is how smoothly she can segue from describing a magnolia tree to the thoughts of a woman under it without jarring breaks in the narrative.

A few of the themes of this collection:


The author came from a privileged background in New Zealand and moved to England as a young woman to attend Queen’s College. However, unlike a lot of fiction from the era, she does not focus on people exclusively from the upper class. Stories such as Life of Ma Parker and The Lady’s Maid explore the lives of the underclass, and how they relate to the upper classes. Often they misunderstand each other, such as the gentleman in Life of Ma Parker who asks his maid, Ma Parker, about the funeral of her grandson. He believes that lower classes set great store by funerals, but Ma Parker believes that the gentleman didn’t care about her grandson at all, since he asked about the funeral and not the boy. Laura in The Garden Party initially tries to maintain a distance from the workingmen who come to help set up for the party, but she is charmed by them and realizes the class distinctions are not that meaningful.

The author also believes that the upper classes live a sheltered life, comparable to living in the Garden of Eden. The Garden Party tells the story of the wealthy Sheridan family hosting their annual garden party. Near the Sheridans is a neighborhood of cottages, which are considered an eyesore; the children are forbidden to go there. The daughter Laura is shaken to hear that a young man from the cottages is killed in an accident - the first time she is taken out of the wealthy world of garden parties to the reality of death. Laura wants to cancel the party, but the rest of her family considers that a silly notion. Instead, after the party, Laura has the idea of bringing leftover food to the grieving family. She leaves the Eden of her manor to visit the cottages, and in the process, she becomes an adult.

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.


Many of the characters in the author’s stories are lonely and distant from their friends and family. To me, this seems like the most painful kind of loneliness. In Marriage à la Mode, the main character, William, is constantly badmouthed by his wife’s friends, who seem to freeload off them. At the same time, William is the cause of his isolation; he has moved his family to the countryside while he works in London. Perhaps his wife is lonely, only seeing her husband on weekends. Her friends serve as a surrogate husband. Later in the story, he writes a love letter to his wife, but she makes fun of it to her friends. She thinks about replying to her husband, but she decides to go to her friends instead. The ending implies that the gulf between them will only grow. 

Another source of loneliness is unrequited love. In The Music Lesson, Miss Meadows, a music teacher, is informed that her fiancé is breaking off their engagement. There are some hints that her fiancé is gay; he mentions in the letter that he is disgusted by the idea of getting married. Miss Meadows considers quitting to avoid the shame of having been jilted. Normally close to her students, she takes out her pain on them, insisting they sing mournful songs without expression. 

Every note was a sigh, a sob, a groan of awful mournfulness

Inability to Express Oneself

One reason the characters are lonely is that they are unable to express themselves authentically. Sometimes, it is that their loved ones will not understand them. Sometimes, it is an attitude of “stiff upper lip” that prevents them from expressing themselves. In Life of Ma Parker, Ma Parker desperately wants to be alone to cry, but has nowhere to go and be alone:

But to have a proper cry over all these things would take a long time. All the same, the time for it had come. She must do it. She couldn’t put it off any longer; she couldn’t wait any more … Where could she go? ‘She’s had a hard life, has Ma Parker.’ Yes, a hard life, indeed! Her chin began to tremble; there was no time to lose. But where? Where? She couldn’t go home; Ethel was there. It would frighten Ethel out of her life. She couldn’t sit on a bench anywhere; people would come arsking her questions. She couldn’t possibly go back to the gentleman’s flat; she had no right to cry in strangers’ houses. If she sat on some steps a policeman would speak to her. Oh, wasn’t there anywhere where she could hide and keep herself to herself and stay as long as she liked, not disturbing anybody, and nobody worrying her? Wasn’t there anywhere in the world where she could have her cry out – at last? Ma Parker stood, looking up and down. The icy wind blew out her apron into a balloon. And now it began to rain. There was nowhere.

Sometimes the characters are simply at a loss for words. Laura in The Garden Party cannot express her feelings about the day’s events:

‘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.

Overall, I think I would enjoy a more plot driven collection of short stories more than experimentalist, descriptive fiction. But her ability to capture a moment is incredible, and I enjoyed reading the collection overall.

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