Short Story #12: The Garden-Party by Katherine Mansfield

Title: The Garden-Party

Author: Katherine Mansfield

Short Story #12 out of 365

Rating: 3 Stars (out of 5)

Date Read: 1/5/2014

Book cover: Worlds Greatest Short Stories - Dover Thrift Ed
Source:  The World's Greatest Short Stories, Dover Thrift Edition, edited by James Daley.  The story can also be found on this website.


A rich family is planning for a garden-party in the afternoon.  The details of the day's arrangement have been left up to Laura, "the artistic one."  As she worries about proper appearance and such, she provides some guidance to the workers about how to arrange things--though in truth, it's their ideas that are most useful.  She finds them nice and romanticizes her interactions with them--believing she could learn to appreciate the working life.  Later on, it's reported that one of the people in the small row of shabby (and poor) houses nearby was accidentally killed and his wife and children are left to fend for their own.  Initially, this event upsets Laura to the point that she believes she should cancel the party.  Her sister and mother both scoff at the idea and find it silly.  Laura acquiesces and the party moves forward.  It goes successful and everyone has a good time.  Afterwards, when the father is present, the death of the neighbor is mentioned and Laura is lightly goaded about her previous idea.  It's then realized that there's lot of food and flowers and that it would be a nice gesture to share with the family.  Laura is assigned (after initial resistance to the idea) to bring it.  As she moves deeper into the impoverished area, she becomes increasingly fearful and uncomfortable with the surroundings.  By the time she arrives at the widow's house, it's all she can do but to run away.  She eventually finds herself with the widow and even the dead body before she escapes, feeling uncomfortable and unsure how to make sense of what she sees.  On her way home, she encounters her brother.  She is crying and ends by trying to make sense of life (and death).


I liked the contrast of Laura's romanticizing of hard-working life juxtapose with what it really is or the glimpses of it shown through the worker's death and the visit to the row of houses.  That Mansfield also makes Laura an "artist" speaks to the ways in which art and its representations of lower classes is problematic even when it is attempting to be noble or respectful.  Laura's descent into the poor neighborhood stands in contrast to the garden party with its innumerable flowers and tasty sandwiches.  Her fleeting desire to do something--even if it is only to cancel a party--quickly disappears and she is nearly embarrassed by the idea after the delightful party that she had ever thought of cancelling it in the first place.  Of course, the irony is that Laura's laments in some ways parallels exactly the same thing that Mansfield is doing with this story (providing a nobler view of the lower classes).  That is not to say that lower classes shouldn't be presented as respectful and noble but it's a challenge when trying to do as it can be hard to do so without appearing condescending, exploitative, or misrepresentative.  

For a full listing of all the short stories in this series, check out the category 365 Short Stories a year.

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