Katherine Mansfield was one of the few writers in English who managed to establish a reputation based entirely on the form of the short story. This article explores Mansfield’s short story ‘Bliss’, illustrating in particular how the author employs symbolic imagery as a means of lampooning her characters. Mansfield is considered a literary modernist. In her writing, she arrived at a unique prose style that used associated imagery within an integrated symbolic language. The ‘tall, slender pear tree in full bloom’ (p. 177), is possibly the central image of ‘Bliss’.
In this story, Mansfield uses images as an effective means of satire. Seen from Bertha’s perspective, Mrs. Norman Knight’s pretentious coat, adorned with a frieze of monkeys, seems to enhance the woman’s apelike appearance. This particular image is later reinforced when she describes Mrs. Norman Knight as “crouching before the fire with her banana peels” (p. 180). She also laughably alludes to the recurring image of the moon in Eddie Warren’s ridiculous ‘huge white silk scarf’ (p. 179) and matching white socks.
Bertha is satirized through the colors of her outfit that evoke the earlier description of the pear tree: ‘A white dress, a necklace of jade beads, green shoes and stockings… She had thought of this scheme hours before standing in front of the He drew. room window’ (p.178). Although images are frequently used in aesthetic art, Mansfield clearly uses them for instructional purposes, since satire is largely seen as an instrumental device. Through her complex figurative associations, she highlights Bertha’s naivety and the absurd mediocrity of her guests.
‘Bliss’ is told from an unbiased perspective that invites the reader to evaluate the characters with little or no influence from the author. It is written in the third person, although there are rare moments of the second person, evident in the use of the word ‘you’, displayed in the line: ‘What can you do if you are thirty years old and, turning the corner of your own street, you suddenly invades a feeling of happiness’ (p.174). Mansfield’s choice to address the reader directly here serves to further immerse them in his narrative. ‘Bliss’ also launches into the story with little narrative exposition.
An important feature of the modernist tale is that it discarded plot in favor of epiphany. Epiphany in literature is a deeply dramatic scene in which a character (or reader) is enlightened through some kind of revelation. Mansfield knowingly employed it as the focal point in many of his stories, for example in ‘Bliss’ the entire narrative framework seems to function as a setup for Bertha realizing her husband is having an affair with Pearl Fulton: ‘Her lips said, ‘I adore you,’ and Miss Fulton laid her fingers like a moonbeam on her cheeks and smiled her sleepy smile’ (p. 85). This shocking revelation is reinforced by the fact that Bertha was under the illusion that she shared a deep friendship with Miss Fulton, evident in the scene where the two women admire the pear tree: ‘How long were they there? Both, so to speak, trapped in that circle of supernatural light, understanding each other perfectly’ (p.183).
Katherine Mansfield instrumentally employed images and symbolism as effective means to satirize the naivete and pretense of her characters in ‘Bliss’.