“Bliss” by Katherine Mansfield – a breakdown

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Katerine Mansfield

Katherine Mansfield’s stories are like paper flowers. Seemingly fragile, oozing simplicity, but a closer look reveals the complexity that went into the construction, the precision and accuracy that achieves the deceptive simplicity that is characteristic of her stories.

Bliss centres around Bertha Young, thirty years old and resisting the inexplicable need “to run instead of walk, to take dancing steps on and off the pavement.” There is no explanation for the extreme elation that suddenly invades Bertha as she makes her way home.

The stream of consciousness grips as tightly as this overwhelming joy has gripped Bertha. Mansfield really excels at this narrative form, and she knows just how much to put in, and how much to leave out.

“‘No, that about the fiddle is not quite what I mean,’ she thought, running up the steps and feeling in her bag for the key – she’d forgotten it, as usual – and rattling the letter-box. ‘It’s not what I mean, because – Thank you, Mary’ – she went into the hall.”

It’s so very life-like, this fractured thought process and Bertha springs into life so adamantly, and if she wasn’t real to you in the first paragraph, then she certainly is now. And it is this realness that’s so very captivating.

Mansfield’s stories are always tailored with the trappings of daily life – all the quotidian details that you don’t really pay attention to in your routinely adventures, but set within the context of the bigger picture they make a very rich tapestry indeed.

“Mary brought in the fruit on a tray and with a glass bowl, and a blue dish, very lovely, with a strange sheen on it as though it had been dipped in milk.”

I often refer to Mansfield’s writing as stop-and-smell-the-roses writing, because it feels like she’s urging you to take a moment and really look at the trivial details of life. And then she’ll paint them with a brush that will render them magical, almost gem-like in their sudden ability to shine where they didn’t before.

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She dots daily life with these fascinating details, and then brings you down to reality. There is gentle irony in the way she satirizes her own characters for fancying things that mightn’t be there.

“She hardly dared to look into the cold mirror – but she did look, and it gave her back a woman, radiant, with smiling, trembling lips, with big, dark eyes and an air of listening, waiting for something . . . divine to happen . . . that she knew must happen . . . infallibly.”

Everyone’s prone to a little whimsy, a little fantasizing, and none more so than Mansfield’s characters. More than the English teachers who analyze these stories, it’s the characters in them that infuse things with an overripe magic, and symbolize things left and right.

“At the far end, against the wall, there was a tall, slender pear tree in fullest, richest bloom; it stood perfect, as though becalmed against the jade-green sky. Bertha couldn’t help feeling, even from this distance, that it had not a single bud or a faded petal.

. . . And she seemed to see on her eyelids the lovely pear tree with is wide open blossoms as a symbol of her own life.”

On the beauty and perfection of this unassuming pear tree is what Bertha hinges her entire night. She and her husband will be entertaining dinner guests, a few close artistic friends, and “a find” of Bertha’s, Pearl Fulton. Mysterious, sophisticated, whom “Bertha had fallen in love with . . . as she always did fall in love with beautiful women who had something strange about them.”

And so, do we finally come to the source of Bertha’s ecstasy? Is it the strange Miss Fulton who has Bertha in such raptures, feeling the painful intensity of life? Mansfield never says so. Instead she points to more of Bertha’s wishful thinking as she imagines there’s a common feeling between herself and her newest guest, an understanding of just how wonderful this night is.

“But Bertha knew, suddenly, as if the longest, most intimate look had passed between them – as if they had said to each other: ‘You, too?’ – that Pearl Fulton, stirring the beautiful read soup in the grey plate, was feeling just what she was feeling.”

Moving through the steps of the dinner party, Bertha struggles to contain her glee. She watches her friends whom she loves, but knows that they can’t quite understand what she and Pearl are experiencing. The reader, too, is excluded from this bubble. We never quite know why Bertha is so ecstatic, though we are, at least, more clued in than her guests.

This scene is particularly exquisite, because it allows us to eavesdrop in the various tidbits of conversations that Mansfield dangles before us. We are at the dinner party, too, though we are privy to more than the others.

Bertha waiting for a “sign” from Pearl, believes it to be a momentous occasion when Pearl asks to see the garden, something “so exquisite on her part that all Bertha could do was to obey.” Finally, she can show her companion in this unique experience the axis on which this magical night spins: the pear tree.

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“How long did they stand there? Both, as it were, caught in that circle of unearthly light, and understanding each other perfectly, creatures of another world, and wondering what they were to do in this one with all this blissful treasure that burned in their bosoms and dropped, in silver flowers, from their hair and hands?

For ever? – for a moment? And did Miss Fulton murmur: ‘Yes. Just that. Or did Bertha dream it?”

And so we reach the home stretch. The day is about to close up again. Bertha has been flitting through it on imaginatively strung trapeze threads. She longs to tell her husband, who has only been ice towards Pearl Fulton, of her special new friend, of what they have shared, and the thought of being alone with her husband thrills and scares Bertha.

“For the first time in her life Bertha Young desired her husband.”

It seems that Bertha’s latent desires for Miss Fulton have manifested in an unlikely urgency for her husband. The pear tree now has a double meaning; with its full blossoms, reaching for the moon, it is no longer just a symbol for Bertha’s perfect night. The giddy day has culminated in this moment of sexual awakening.

And yet, Bertha will not be free to end her night with illusions. Life is not that generous.  Bertha Young, only a girl as her name suggests, farewells her guests, “feeling that this self of hers was taking leave of them forever”, for with the taste of desire she believes she has finally stepped into the adult world. Perhaps this is where she was heading, as a young girl giddily anticipates a milestone birthday, perhaps Bertha sensed that her next step into womanhood was nigh.

Womanhood, when it does arrive, is bittersweet. Because, secluded in the hallway, is beautiful Miss Fulton, more womanly and sophisticated than Bertha, in the arms of Bertha’s husband. It is a shock to both Bertha and the reader. Once Miss Fulton, too, leaves Bertha is left with her realization. All of the magic of the night is stripped away, all of the blissful ignorance shredded, and Bertha is only left with a world that she does not truly understand.

“But the pear tree was as lovely as ever and as full of flower and still.”

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