The Garden Party by Katherine Mansfield is a story that follows a garden party that a rich Sheridan household hosts for its affluent guests. During the party, a tragic accident occurs right outside their gate which disturbs Laura, one of the daughters who is more humane towards the lower classes than other members. The Garden Party is the portrayal of a rich coming-of-age woman still figuring out her priorities and personality to fit in the society which is sadly pretentious and insensitive towards the miserable conditions of poor inhabitants. It is about her discovery of the true and essential meaning of life, far from the facade of socio-economic power.
If there’s a name other than Jane Austen’s that rings our ears when we hear fancy luxurious parties along with prevalent class divides, it has to be Katherine Mansfield for her beautiful descriptive yet evocative penmanship. An exemplary advancer of modernism, most of her works exhibit women who experience dilemma and inner conflict that obstructs their assimilation into the conventional society they reside in. Similar preoccupation operates in her short story “The Garden Party” first published in 1922 in the influential “Westminster Gazette” and later as a collection titled The Garden Party and Other Stories in the same year.
The Garden Party | Summary
The story is about a garden party that the upper-class Sheridan family plans to host, inviting rich personalities from their neighborhood for a delightful afternoon. Mrs. Sheridan announces her retirement from the preparations for the year and hands over the responsibility to her daughters, especially the creative Laura. Meg and Jose are different from their sympathetic sister who enjoys the company of workmen setting up the marquee for the event unlike the other members of the house who prefer to maintain a strict distance from the lower classes. However, a piece of alarming news from down the road concerning the tragic death of a man named Mr. Scott puts Laura in a conundrum about the party’s appropriateness. Her thoughts split her into an elite hostess who should not pay any attention to the misery of a family she doesn’t know personally; and as a human sympathizing with their loss who should ideally prevent the airs of celebration from reaching them. But on Jose’s and Mrs. Sheridan’s evocation of a compelling reality regarding the existing class divide, Laura proceeds with the party only for her father to mention the accident later that night and drive her to deliver a basket of leftovers to the poor man’s house.
Laura’s encounter with death and the stark contrast of her living conditions with the poor place of dwelling is revelatory to her about life’s ugliness and uncertainty that comes to light when she looks at the dead body. Unable to bear the sight, she runs out of the house where Laurie, her brother is waiting for her. The story ends with Laura’s inability to express her newfound meaning of life: “‘Isn’t life,’ she stammered, ‘isn’t life—’” and Laurie’s confirmation of her thoughts: “Isn’t it, darling?”
The Garden Party | Analysis
The story embarks in media res as the third person narrator gives out a factual report to the readers about the ideal weather for the garden party. Chronicling the events spanning over a day, the story appropriately follows the unity of time. The single day’s affair traces a shift in the protagonist’s preconceived set of beliefs pertaining to life after she observes the mourning of a poor worker in her neighborhood. The flashy life of the Sheridans stands highly in contrast to the little cottage dwellers’ who are considered the “greatest possible eyesore” with “no right to be in that neighborhood.”
Mansfield’s narrative attends to the activities before and after the garden party and the event itself does not hold any significance on which the title of the story is set. This is her craft— to create a tale that allows one to perceive things beyond the obvious. For instance, at the beginning of the story, Mrs. Sheridan announces her off duty for the year’s garden party arrangements and assigns Laura the key responsibility. However, throughout the narrative, it is Mr. Sheridan deciding for the events, and Laura complies with her mother’s opinions which suggests her inability to step down from the position of authority. Also, Laura cannot boss around like her mother and sisters. Instead of allocating the right location for setting up the marquee, she asks the workmen for their suggestions. This reflects Laura’s deflection from the codes of her class that also foreshadows her intermingling with the people of lower ranks as seen further in the story.
The tragic and untimely death of Mr. Scott, a carter who lives down the Sheridan estate opens a gate to the exposition of the sheer insensitivity of the rich towards the misery of the poor as well as the rising disparity between the prevalent social orders. Contextually situating the notion of the uncertainty of life, the story’s publication year is near the end of World War I which was a bloody affair and consumed innumerable lives. Most of the soldiers belonged to poor families who after the death of their breadwinner fell into the trap of a poverty-stricken life. While war does not serve as the backdrop to the story, Scott’s death and the fate of his family surely mirror the unfortunate lives of those soldiers and their families. It is always the poor who has to suffer somehow whether it is the “absurd class distinctions” or accidental deaths owing to their profession.
As a modernist text, the story’s emphasis on individuality is unmissable. Laura’s thoughts are central to the narrative where she learns about the intricate lives existing beyond the rosy walls of her mansion. Her moment of epiphany as she observes Scott’s dead but beautiful face brings her closer to the value and true meaning of life which resides in emotions and not material fancies. She grows into a more mature woman who comes to terms with the existential question about the unfairness of life, painting her character in dynamic colors. The garden where the party is organized somehow transforms into the biblical Garden of Eden where Laura acquires the forbidden knowledge i.e. about death and disparity. Her conscience holds significance over social reasoning which paves a way for her to sympathize with the poor family.
Open-ended narratives as a means of experimentation are also one of the primary modern characteristics of the story where a lot is left for the readers to imagine as the author refuses to provide any hints. The multiplicity of meanings calls for active reader participation. In this case, the story ends with a rhetorical affirmation by Laurie of Laura’s inarticulateness of the essence and meaning of life. Now the tone of Laurie’s reply could be either a confirmation of his sister’s discovery and thus siding with her or it could be his acceptance of her fears which he has adjusted himself to and hence encourages Laura to do the same.
Disillusionment with life and the revelation of man-made realities in society shatters Laura’s glass world to lay down a path for her entry into the real world, devoid of pretense and vanity. Mansfield remarkably confronts the class hierarchies and ugly distinctions in her story by juxtaposing them with the beauty of the garden party, leaving Laura to search for a true and more comprehensible meaning of life amidst the important element of death looming over every human life.
The Garden Party | Themes
Class disparity and its poignant operation throughout the narrative is the most evident theme in the story, exposing the vanity of the upper class and the vulnerability of the lower one. The party at the Sheridans magnifies the difference inherent in the early 20th century when death in their neighborhood threatens the event. Women like Mrs. Sheridan and Jose believe in their unaccountability for the loss of their neighbors and hence an absence of a justifiable cause to postpone their party. On the other hand, Laura who belongs to the same family and hence the same class believes in the insensitivity and immorality that the party would project with its lights and music in the mournful atmosphere at the Scott cottage. For the upper ranks, it is crucial to maintain their reputation as they could not afford to lose their standing in the circle they move in and any sympathy with the poor would welcome that dread. But it is Laura and to some extent Laurie who recognize the truth concerning the harsh reality that life often throws towards a human, to which the rich like the Sheridans have been immune.
Man v/s woman does not overtly shadow the narrative but through the parallelism in the characterization of the sibling’s Laura and Laurie, it becomes an area of exploration in the story. Like most of her stories, Mansfield opts for a female protagonist gradually learning the notion of hardships, especially poverty and death when she learns about and subsequently witnesses the dead body of Mr. Scott at his premises. Emotions engulf her and her impulse is dominated by feelings rather than rationality which her brother somehow represents. Men choose to keep a safe distance from emotions and on Laura’s inability to articulate her refreshed view on life after encountering the cottage life momentarily, Laurie confirms her take but with an air of indifference and helplessness. He like others of his class has accepted the inequalities and does not wish to bridge the gap like Laura who desires to be in the company of the workmen rather than “the silly boys she [usually] danced with…” Women tend to be more considerate than men evident in Mrs. Sheridan’s gesture to supply the cottage kids with the leftover food, though her time of the offering is inappropriate. They are concerned about the gossip which prevents Mrs. Sheridan to encourage Laura to offer any condolences to the distressed family while delivering the basket, opposite to the men who just mention the tragedy in passing as a part of a casual conversation.
Life and Death
The twin realities of life and death unfold in the narrative and alter the protagonist’s previously held conceptions. For the rich, life equates to luxuries and parties but for the poor, it is a labyrinth of hard work and socio-economic crisis. Laura and other Sheridan kids have grown up in a fairly protected environment with house helps and guards always at their service. They probably never witnessed death. Perhaps even if they had, then the dire consequences it leaves a family to face alone are far from their range of familiarity. It is inconceivable for the upper strata to speculate the sentiments of the family coping with the loss of the man of the house who is also responsible for their monetary security. Death is uncertain and it will eventually knock on the doors of the rich as well. But the unfairness of life and death in the story lies in the shouldering of the burden that falls on the poor and poor alone. If life does not favor them in luxury, it should at least keep them away from the shackles of tragic death.
If there is one obsession the upper class indulges in, it is beautiful dresses and hats. The need to reflect your identity through material possessions is the key characteristic that defines the men and women of this class. Hats play a significant role in the story because they act as a constant reminder to Laura of her role as a hostess for the party and not of the worrisome human anticipating to cancel the party due to the tragic accident of a poor worker whom she even doesn’t know in person. The rich are also capable of replacing emotions with material goods such as Mrs. Sheridan’s basket deliverance to the Scott household rather than a conveyance of condolences. What good a basket full of delicious food will do to the kids of the family who have just lost their father? Will they enjoy the treat of the farcical benevolence of their rich neighbors? Will they relish in the delicacies supplied to them during the period of mourning? The answer is quite predictable.
The Garden Party | Characters
Laura – The young protagonist of the story, she is the most distinct character in the story who is yet to align with her priorities. As a bildungsroman, the story traces the growth of her maturity pertaining to life and the realities that lie outside the four walls of her lavish mansion. Unlike the rest of the Sheridans, she sympathizes with the Scotts and even urges them to cancel the party, extending humanity to her character.
Jose – The “butterfly” sister who delights in bossing around, she is an emotionally detached woman who follows the footsteps of her mother in maintaining class inequity. Her advice to Laura against the cancellation of the garden party adheres to the social strictures dictating the actions of the people. She is comparatively more invested in ensuring the standards of the lifestyle that suits her class and hence differs from Laura. Her claim regarding the lack of expectations of the cottage dwellers from them highlights the acceptance of fate and the internalization of the rich-poor binary in the disadvantaged lot to which Mr. Scott belonged.
Laurie –The Sheridan heir and the young man in the house, he comes across as a practical and intellectual man who prefers to maintain his distance with emotions unlike his sister Laura. The similarity in their names is deliberate to allow him as a foil to Laura in their actions as well as thoughts. While much is not seen of him in the story, his affirmation of Laura’s inarticulateness about life and reality puts them on the same page.
Meg – She is the third Sheridan sister who is also a passive character and thus does not participate much in the house activities.
Mrs. Sheridan –The matriarch of the house, she is the key woman in the Sheridan house who worries more about her status and its associated reputation than a poor man’s death. While this colors her character in the shades of hard-heartedness, we cannot rule out the influence of social conditioning on her outlook. Vanity is never desirable but sometimes, it is the only option when it comes to preserving your social standing. She is authoritative and despite announcing her retirement from looking after the preparations for the party, we see her commanding all over the house to ensure the party is a success. Her typicality of belongingness to the upper-class strata finds the best representation in her act of sending out a basket of leftover food to Mr.Scott’s house for his family to have a good meal for once. The ironic timing of her kind gesture is frustrating and reflects her ignorance towards the emotions of the family who have lost the sole breadwinner of the house.
Mr. Scott – He is a carter who dies tragically when his horse throws him off after shying away from a traction engine. He resides in one of the little cottages below the Sheridan house and is succeeded by five kids and a wife. His death allows Laura to contemplate on life’s uncertainty as well as unfairness in the prevalent social distinctions. As one of the representatives of the working section of society, his character exemplifies the economic crisis men of his class endure when alive and the lack of sympathy from rich masses when dead. They occupy an insignificant position in the lives of the wealthy, emphasizing the rigid disparity.
Sadie and Hans –They are the domestic helps of the house who help out in the preparations of the garden party and are bossed around by Jose who relishes adopting an authoritative position in the house.
The Garden Party | Literary Devices
“…the green bushes bowed down as though they had been visited by archangels.”
“Cheer up, we won’t bite,” their smile seemed to say.”
“Only the blue was veiled with a haze of light gold, as it is sometimes early in summer.”
“Then the karaka trees would be hidden. And they were so lovely with their broad, gleaming leaves, and their clusters of yellow fruit. They were like trees you imagined growing on a desert island, proud, solitary, lifting their leaves and fruits to the sun in a kind of silent splendour.”
“Little faint winds were playing chase, in at the tops of the windows, out at the doors, And there were two tiny spots of sun, one on the inkpot, one on a silver photograph frame, playing too. Darling little spots. Especially the one on the inkpot lid. It was quite warm. A warm little silver star”
“And now there came the chock-chock of wooden hammers.”
Bread and butter– Laura’s elatedness with a piece of bread-and-butter in hand while guiding the workmen regarding the marquee symbolizes her affiliation with the people from the lower ranks of society. Bread signifies necessity and the basic standard of living while butter is a token of luxury. As a meal, the two come together and foreshadow the possibility of an interaction between the upper and lower class through Laura.
Canna Lillies– The garden party’s decor consisted of innumerable canna lilies which are a symbol of glory and power but at the same time of hope and confidence to balance out the two separate thoughts operating in the story separating Laura from the rest of her family.
Hat– Mrs. Sheridan’s thrust on the compulsion of a hat as an accessory in the party connotes the identity marker all upper-class men and women are expected to carry and move around with. It symbolizes high ranks and polish demeanor, especially of a lady which Laura also confronts as she looks at herself in the mirror with the hat put on. It allows her to witness her true identity and hence her belongingness.
“Oh, impossible. Fancy cream puffs so soon after breakfast. The very idea made one shudder. All the same, two minutes later Jose and Laura were licking their fingers with that absorbed inward look that only comes from whipped cream.”
“True, [the cottages] were far too near.”
“Tuk-tuk-tuk,” clucked cook like an agitated hen.”