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A Cup of Tea | Summary and Analysis

Summary of A Cup of Tea by Katherine Mansfield

 

A Cup of Tea by Katherine Mansfield was first published in the “Story-Teller” in May 1922. It later appeared in “The Doves’ Nest and Other Stories” in 1923. The protagonist is a snobbish wealthy woman who only lends a helping hand to a poor girl because she thinks it’ll make her look good. The author portrays a clear image of class difference and the attitudes of people of different classes. Themes of materialism and class difference are explored in this story.

A Cup of Tea | Summary

The protagonist Rosemary Fell is a very wealthy woman however, the narrator says that she’s not the kind to be considered “beautiful”. Rosemary has been married for two years to a very rich man, Phillips Fell. Rosemary lives a luxurious life, shopping at high-end shops and buying anything she desires. Once she visits an antique shop, the shopkeeper is very fond of her and seems to fancy her a lot. He shows her a small shiny velvet box that’s very beautiful. Rosemary is very pleased but knowing the price to be twenty-eight gunnies she decides not to buy it and asks the shopkeeper to save it for her.

Outside the shop, it’s raining and rosemary is very upset that she can’t buy that box now. She’s approached by a timid looking girl who asks her for money, the price of a cup of tea. Rosemary thinks such things happen in books and sound incredible thus she decides to take the girl with her to her home. She wants to show the poor girl that rich people feel empathy for her kind. The girl is very shocked to receive such treatment, she’s afraid at first but agrees to go with her. Rosemary thinks about boasting about this in front of her friends.

At her house, Rosemary takes the girl up to her bedroom and makes her sit near the fire on a comfortable chair. She helps the girl take off her coat and hat but drops them on the floor. The poor girl cries that life’s too hard and she’s too tired to carry on, she wishes to end her life. Rosemary consoles her and orders tea. The girl is served tea along with some food. Rosemary lights up a cigarette while the girl eats. After the girl’s eaten some food she appears livelier. Rosemary starts to ask her about her life but she’s interrupted by her husband’s arrival. Phillip is astonished to see the girl in his wife’s room and he asks the girl’s name, she says it is Smith. Phillip then asks Rosemary to join him in the library to talk in private.

Phillip inquires about the girl and Rosemary explains her philanthropic plans. Philip says that it’s absurd to keep a stranger in the house like this but Rosemary is keen on her mission. Then Phillip mentions that the girl is very lovely and pretty. This makes Rosemary insecure. Rosemary leaves the library and picks up some money to give to the poor Miss Smith, she then asks her to leave. After Miss Smith leaves Rosemary dresses up nicely, makes her hair look nice and wears her pearls. She joins her husband back in the library and lies that Miss Smith insisted on leaving. She sits on his knees and asks him whether he likes her; he assures her that he likes her a lot. She then asks if she can buy the shiny velvet box from the antique store. Phillip agrees but that was not what she wanted to ask him. After a pause, she questions “Am I pretty?”

A Cup of Tea | Analysis

This story is narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator, in a conversational manner. Appearances have a lot of importance in this story. Mansfield depicts the class difference and hypocrisy seen in New Zealand during the early 20th century. Rosemary appears to be a caring and kind woman but she has selfish intentions. She only helps the poor girl because she thinks it will improve her status among her friends. This reflects how the upper-class society only acts for their own benefit and they only help the poor to gain praise.

Rosemary lives a luxurious life unaware of the hardships the people like Miss Smith go through. Even if it was pretentious she tried to be kind and sympathetic towards Miss Smith however her insecurity and jealousy turned her selfish again. She becomes mean. When she kicked Miss Smith out, she could have at least given her some proper amount instead she gives her a mere three dollar bill.  She just wanted to have an adventure; it was like a play to her but when it came to her own interests she decides to stop her little game.

Rosemary is jealous of the poor girl after her husband calls her lovely. Her insecurity stops her from offering her pretentious help; she makes the girl leave by giving her some money. At first, she picks up five pounds but then keeps two and only gives three to the girl. She can help but she chooses to not help that girl. She’s too concerned about her own feelings. The girl told her she might kill herself yet Rosemary showed no empathy. The author establishes that whatever the status, a woman of Rosemary’s type is a woman after all, frail, and jealous, despite her desire to appear otherwise.

 

A Cup of Tea | Themes

Materialism

Rosemary is very materialistic and her intentions are centred on materialistic things. She desires the shiny velvet box a lot and after she fails to buy it she becomes so upset as if it was a big tragedy. She then helps Miss Smith to make herself look good but the moment her vanity is hurt she drops her idea of helping. This reflects how the rich lack emotions and empathy; they keep reaching towards materialistic goals. As a woman, Rosemary is inclined to make herself look beautiful in order to establish her worth. This is another materialistic attitude of the society that the author condemns. People force women to feel insecure about themselves, women are only valued for their beauty. Appearances are given more importance than personality and values.

Class Difference

The disparity of classes was very evident in this story. Miss Smith has no money to buy her a meal, she desperately asks for money for a cup of tea. While there are rich people like Rosemary who waste money on flowers and shiny objects which they don’t need. Despite having so much money they don’t help others. While the wealthy people indulge in materialistic things the poor are exposed to hunger and suffering. Rosemary represents the mentality of the upper-class people. The major theme of this story is the class difference between Rosemary and Miss Smith. The upper-class people are materialistic and selfish. They have a lot of money and possessions yet they want more and go after insignificant expensive things. The velvet box symbolizes this materialistic attitude. On the other hand, the lower class people don’t have enough to get ends meet. They lack the money to even afford basic needs like food and shelter. The cup of tea symbolizes their requirements.

A Cup of Tea | Character Sketch

Character of Rosemary

Rosemary is a materialistic and snobbish woman. She keeps chasing materialistic things and cares about appearances a lot. She’s selfish for the most part and pretentious. She may have been selfish but we find that she’s also venerable the same as everyone. She has her own insecurities. Her husband’s attraction towards Miss Smith hurts her and compels her to become rude. At the end of the story she asks her husband “am I pretty?” this shows that she too wants validation. She wants someone to value her and recognize her for who she is.

 

A Cup of Tea | About the author

Katherine Mansfield, original name Kathleen Mansfield (1888 –1923) was a New Zealand writer. When she moved to England she became a friend of D. H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf and other prominent figures. Her short stories and poetry were very well received, they mostly focused on existentialism. She’s one of the most influential and important authors of the modernist movement and had much influence on the development of the short story as a form of literature. Her popular works include “Prelude” and “Bliss”.

 

 

 

 

 

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