Miss Brill

In this short story, we see Katherine Mansfield at her best. It is indeed a slice of life, it is indeed a short description of Miss Brill daily ritual and it is indeed an exquisite work of art. Chekhovian of course is everywhere in this story. But Chekhov was a humanistic story teller. Mansfield, instead, was an impressionistic artist. She gave more color to her characters and settings. Her method of description is precise and detail which creates an isolated and subjective atmosphere surrounding Miss Brill.

Mansfield doesn’t need to tell us Miss Brill’s loneliness; the setting alone speaks for itself. Miss Brill, an old and lonely woman (almost similar to Chekhov’s cabman in Misery), goes to a public garden on her usual Sundays. There, she sits on a bench observing people like an audience in a theater:

“The old people sat on the bench, still as statues. Never mind, there was always the crowd to watch. To and fro, in front of the flower-beds and band rotunda, the couples and groups paraded, stopped to talk, to greet, to buy a handful of flowers form the old beggar who had his tray fixed to the railings. Little children ran among them, swooping and laughing; little boys with big white silk bows under their chins, little girls, little French dolls, dressed up in velvet and lace. And sometimes a tiny staggerer came suddenly rocking into the open from under the tress, stopped, stared, as suddenly sat down ‘flop,’ until its small high-stepping mother, like a young hen, rushed scolding to its rescue. Other people sat on the benches and green chairs, but they were nearly always the same, Sunday after Sunday, and – Miss Brill had often noticed – there was something funny about nearly all of them. They were odd, silent, nearly, all old, and from the way they stared they looked as though they’d just came from dark little rooms or even – even cupboards!

Behind the rotunda the slender trees with yellow leaves down drooping, and through them just a line of sea, and beyond the blue sky with gold-veined clouds…

Two young girls in red came by and two young soldiers in blue met them, and they laughed and paired and went off arm-in-arm. Two peasant women with funny straw hats passed, gravely, leading beautiful smoke-colored donkeys. A cold, pale nun hurried by. A beautiful woman came along and dropped her bunch of violets, and a little boy ran after to hand them to her, and she took them and threw them away as if they’d been poisoned.”

Everything a reader needs to understand Miss Brill’s psychological motivation can be found in this lengthy description. Mansfield delivers to us layers of existence and personality, especially her delicious description of “a cold, pale nun” hurriedly passing by. One may ask why go all the trouble describing a nun who doesn’t contribute any significant meaning to the plot. For writers like Chekhov, Hemingway, and Mansfield, plot structure is not important as the character development. Small ‘unnecessary’ details like the nun (or Chekhov’s Gurov slicing a watermelon) remind us that life is full of redundant details. We rarely take notice the small matters in life because our mind filters anything that we feel is irrelevant to our normal consciousness. Realistic fiction, like Miss Brill, seeks to arouse our slumbering aesthetic experience.

The story ends with Miss Brill returning home without resolving her internal desires. She only brings with her a box of self-awareness (instead of a box of cake that she buys on Sundays) that she had been refusing to take notice; afraid of being reminded the state of loneliness inside of her. Like many great writers, Mnasfield doesn’t provide any solution to her story. But what she does is formulate the right questions for us to ponder and contemplate the meaning behind her beautiful work of art.


Anonymous said…
wah. sy pun buat mansfiled untuk tahun ni. baru je lepas discusss Bliss dlm kelas.

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