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Miss Brill's Fragile Fantasy

A Critical Essay About Katherine Mansfield's Short Story "Miss Brill"


Miss Brill's Fragile Fantasy

Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923)

After you have finished reading "Miss Brill," by Katherine Mansfield, compare your response to the short story with the analysis offered in this sample critical essay. Next, compare "Miss Brill's Fragile Fantasy" with another paper on the same topic, "Poor, Pitiful Miss Brill."

Miss Brill's Fragile Fantasy

In "Miss Brill," Katherine Mansfield introduces readers to an uncommunicative and apparently simple-minded woman who eavesdrops on strangers, who imagines herself to be an actress in an absurd musical, and whose dearest friend in life appears to be a shabby fur stole. And yet we are encouraged neither to laugh at Miss Brill nor to dismiss her as a grotesque madwoman. Through Mansfield's skillful handling of point of view, characterization, and plot development, Miss Brill comes across as a convincing character who evokes our sympathy.

By telling the story from the third-person limited omniscient point of view, Mansfield allows us both to share Miss Brill's perceptions and to recognize that those perceptions are highly romanticized. This dramatic irony is essential to our understanding of her character. Miss Brill's view of the world on this Sunday afternoon in early autumn is a delightful one, and we are invited to share in her pleasure: the day "so brilliantly fine," the children "swooping and laughing," the band sounding "louder and gayer" than on previous Sundays. And yet, because the point of view is the third person (that is, told from the outside), we're encouraged to look at Miss Brill herself as well as share her perceptions. What we see is a lonely woman sitting on a park bench. This dual perspective encourages us to view Miss Brill as someone who has resorted to fantasy (i.e., her romanticized perceptions) rather than self-pity (our view of her as a lonely person).

Miss Brill reveals herself to us through her perceptions of the other people in the park--the other players in the "company." Since she doesn't really know anyone, she characterizes these people by the clothes they wear (for example, "a fine old man in a velvet coat," an Englishman "wearing a dreadful Panama hat," "little boys with big white silk bows under their chins"), observing these costumes with the careful eye of a wardrobe mistress. They are performing for her benefit, she thinks, even though to us it appears that they (like the band which "didn't care how it played if there weren't any strangers present") are oblivious to her existence. Some of these characters are not very appealing: the silent couple beside her on the bench, the vain woman who chatters about the spectacles she should be wearing, the "beautiful" woman who throws away a bunch of violets "as if they'd been poisoned," and the four girls who nearly knock over an old man (this last incident foreshadowing her own encounter with careless youths at the end of the story). Miss Brill is annoyed by some of these people, sympathetic toward others, but she reacts to them all as if they were characters on stage. Miss Brill appears to be too innocent and isolated from life to even comprehend human nastiness. But is she really so childlike, or is she in fact a kind of actress?

There is one character whom Miss Brill appears to identify with--the woman wearing "the ermine toque she'd bought when her hair was yellow." The description of the "shabby ermine" and the woman's hand as a "tiny yellowish paw" suggests that Miss Brill is making an unconscious link with herself. (Miss Brill would never use the word "shabby" to describe her own fur, though we know that it is.) The "gentleman in gray" is very rude to the woman: he blows smoke into her face and abandons her. Now, like Miss Brill herself, the "ermine toque" is alone. But to Miss Brill, this is all just a stage performance (with the band playing music that suits the scene), and the true nature of this curious encounter is never made clear to the reader. Could the woman be a prostitute? Possibly, but Miss Brill would never consider this. She has identified with the woman (perhaps because she herself knows what it's like to be snubbed) in the same way that playgoers identify with certain stage characters. Could the woman herself be playing a game? "The ermine toque turned, raised her hand as though she'd seen someone else, much nicer, just over there, and pattered away." The woman's humiliation in this episode anticipates Miss Brill's humiliation at the end of the story, but here the scene ends happily. We see that Miss Brill is living vicariously, not so much through the lives of others, but through their performances as Miss Brill interprets them.

Ironically, it is with her own kind, the old people on the benches, that Miss Brill refuses to identify:

They were odd, silent, nearly all old, and from the way they stared they looked as though they'd just come from dark little rooms or even--even cupboards!
But later in the story, as Miss Brill's enthusiasm builds, we're offered an important insight into her character:
And then she too, she too, and the others on the benches--they would come in with a kind of accompaniment--something low, that scarcely rose or fell, something so beautiful--moving.
Almost despite herself, it seems, she does identify with these marginal figures--these minor characters.

Concluded on page two

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