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Katherine Mansfield's Miss Brill: Summary and Analysis

Katherine Mansfield's Miss Brill: Summary and Analysis

An old lady stuck between the illusion of the real and fantasy world, who views the world as her center stage and creates entertaining characters out of loneliness, encounters the harsh truth of being just a spectator. This article underlines the fascinating summary and analysis of the world of 'Miss Brill' written by Katherine Mansfield.
Mary Anthony
In honor of Katherine Mansfield's literary works, New Zealand has dedicated an award category for aspiring short story writers in the BNZ Literary Awards every year. The BNZ Literary Awards were formerly known as the Katherine Mansfield Awards.

Short stories give a slice of life without explaining too much and with a few sketched characters from the canvas of writer's mind. The way of storytelling in short stories is entertaining and precisely drive a point into the minds of readers. In this short story, the author Katherine Mansfield depicts the colorful life of 'Miss Brill' an elderly woman who relishes her Sunday with animated characters she observes in the park. She draws a thin line between the illusionary world and the reality that she lives and tries to overlook the loneliness that her life creates.

'Miss Brill': Summary

The story starts on a bright Sunday morning in Paris when old Miss Brill is getting ready for her weekly ritual of going to the park and spending her day sitting and enjoying the people and weather. She particularly looks forward to this recreation on her weekends as she can dress up in her exotic old fur. Even though its charmingly warm outside, she chides her fur and calls it names thinking of it as a fox around her neck biting its tail.

She arrives at the park and takes her usual special seat while enjoying the occasional band playing in the background. Two strangers were sharing her seat today. An old man dressed in velvet coat, his hands clasped over a huge carved walking stick, and an old woman knitting on her embroidered apron. They were engrossed in their own worlds and not speaking to each other. Miss Brill grew a little disappointed, she loved to eavesdrop and hear what people were discussing and this old couple didn't seem much exciting to her. She reminisced about the Sunday that had gone by and how an Englishman and his wife had shared her special space. They were also not that interesting as the wife talked animatedly about getting new spectacles and the husband giving in suggestions much to the wife's disapproval. Miss Brill shook her thoughts and concentrated on the other people in the park, to her everyone seemed odd.

She saw two grave-looking peasant women passing by, a pale-faced nun, a beautiful young lady dropping bunch of violets on the ground. As she looked on, the young lady met up with a stern looking gentleman who was puffing cigarette into her face. He didn't seem to care about the conversation the young lady made with him. After a while they broke off and carried away in their own way with the band music playing up like a march. The old couple sitting beside her left shortly and she noticed how the old man hobbled his way home.

Miss Brill sat fascinated with the fact that there were so many interesting characters to notice and made stories in her head about each of them. She thought of it like a play and her being the center of it all. Just then a young romantic couple made their way to her special seat, they laughed and talked along very much to the pleasure of old Miss Brill. Then the young man asked his lady for a kiss to which she declined with a mock. Angry, the young man whispered a rude comment on how an old lady shared their space without having any company in the park. The young lady mocked Miss Brill further and called her fur hideous. For the first time there was silence in Miss Brill's world.

On her way home, Miss Brill walked silently past her favorite bakery from where she usually used to buy honey-cake, she used to get delighted if she found an almond in it. But today was just a gloomy day she didn't feel like buying any special almond treat honey-cake. She reached home and slumped into her dark space. Then opened a box and laid her fur to rest. She thought she heard a cry, a silent cry of her soul.

'Miss Brill': Analysis

The center theme of the story revolves around Miss Brill, a shy old English school teacher and the world that she has created for herself. Miss Brill, to escape from her lonely abode visits the park every week to seek a much-needed social contact. The ratted old fur is symbolic to her looking elegantly dressed for the occasion, it's her way of looking pretty and glamorous in the old age. The park is symbolic to life, while in the park she encounters many people from different age groups each of them telling a different story. They depict various relational stages in life from small children to old couple. The band playing in the background symbolizes the change of scene in the play like an orchestra for the in-between scenes she creates in her mind. Miss Brill's love to listen to strangers' conversations shows that she is lonely and doesn't have anyone real to converse with.

It is her time-honored recreational activity to watch and hear people converse about their lives, she feels empowered like a director creating their painted characters and assuming the untold stories between them. She is enraged by their pessimistic attitude towards life and wants them to be interesting, just like how she imagines them to be. She tries to find a sense of companionship in all the characters that she sees in the park. The bakery is symbolic to a pleasure retreat and the discovery of an almond in her honey-cake is like magic to her. It makes her happy and she always looks forward to enjoying the small pleasures in life.

She is jolted back to the harsh reality that she shuns away from, when a young couple make mockery out of her existence. In reality she is lonely and the world that she lives in does not see old lonely woman as an attractive companion. Something deep within her is already crying due to a feeling of brokenness, but to the world outside her she is a cheerful old woman with bright tales in her head.

The story talks about human emotions and the generation gap that generally old people experience in their life, many of them are left alone by their children and have no one to talk or spend time with. Hence they live in a world that is filled with imagination.

'Miss Brill': Theme

The author depicts the life of a woman living alone in a society that constantly appraises companionship, it is very similar to the life that the author Katherine Mansfield led. She gives the character a common name 'Brill'; which is a New Zealand fish without any culinary specialty. She weaves the character in a fantasy world delaying to accept the truth of living the life of an exile. After the harsh criticism by the young couple, the character refuses to acknowledge her pitiful condition and chooses to live in the shrill echoes of her fantasy.

About the Author

Katherine Mansfield Beauchamp Murry (14 October 1888 - 9 January 1923) was an eminent and talented modernist writer of short fiction. She was born and brought up in colonial New Zealand and wrote under the pen name of Katherine Mansfield. During the period from 1898 to 1899, her first stories appeared in the High School Reporter and the Wellington Girls' High School magazine. In 1903, she left New Zealand and traveled extensively from London to continental Europe. It was only in 1906 she began writing short stories when she returned to her homeland. Her first paid writing work was for Native Companion (Australia). She spent the last days of her life in Georges Gurdjieff's Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man in Fontainebleau, France, for her treatment for extrapulmonary tuberculosis, she spent her days writing constantly. She died on 9 January, 1923 due to her illness. Most of her works including volumes of short stories (The Dove's Nest in 1923 and Something Childish in 1924), a volume of Poems, The Aloe, Novels and Novelists, and collections of her letters and journals were published after her death.

The short story though humorously written depicts the darker human emotions in life. The quest to stay optimistic in a difficult world and the need to find companionship is brilliantly portrayed.