Narratives Simultaneously Function at Multiple Levels of Meaning
The novel, the Garden Party by Mansfield Katherine, exemplifies the socio-economic differences within the white colonial community of New Zealand during the early 20th century. According to the novel, although the affluent Sheridan family enjoyed a garden that produced “literally hundreds” of roses on “green bushes bowed down as though they had been visited by archangels,” the garden of the less affluent working-class population that was adjacent to the white community bore “nothing but cabbage stalks, sick hens, and tomato cans” (Mansfield 204). The author illustrates how the enormous gap between the poor and the rich played a crucial role in creating conflicts within a society. Through various literary devices, including tone, imagery, symbolism, and irony, Mansfield signifies that regardless of social class differences, people are united by the great leveler, death, and social class differences contribute to social inequality and social injustice.
Throughout the story, the use of imagery helps Katherine present thoughts, feelings, and experiences that the working-class community faces due to socio-economic disparities. Imagery is used to help the audience understand the position of different characters within society. For example, the author reveals how the pretty flowers adorning Laura’s hat mark her out as a member of society’s respectable middle class (Shaup 221). The illustration of flowers and the flourishing garden of Sheridan’s family exemplifies the glamorous and innocent life of the affluent population in Britain during the early twentieth century. Katherine employs imagery and symbolism with equal effectiveness to illustrate the miserable life of the Scott family, whose patriarch had just died (Shaup 221). The use of the two literary devices descriptively describes the differences between the Scott and Sheridan families, which are distinguished on the grounds of socio-economic well-being, thereby outlining social inequality.
The author also uses symbolism to illustrate the socio-economic classes between the Sheridan and Scott family. This literary device represents the Sheridan family as a member of the upper class, while the Scott family belongs to the lower class. Additionally, the garden party is a symbol of the Sheridan family’s insolence and lack of sensitivity about the experiences of the lower class. After the death of Mr. Scott, the Sheridan family refuses to cancel the party to his death (Shaup 221). This notion is related to the middle classes’ low perception and lack of respect for most people from the working-class population who live in abject poverty. Mansfield states that the Sheridan family could not afford to have a perfect day for a garden party if they ordered it, following the death of Mr. Scott (Mansfield 83). From this illustration, it is evident that the poor household would remain not considered in the story regardless of the incident (and in this case, irrespective of the death of a lower class member).
Mansfield uses symbolism to describe the prevalence of the enormous gap between the rich and the poor. Laura’s mother, Mrs. Sheridan, shuns Laura about the bother and inconvenience of canceling the party after the death of Mr. Scott. This is highlighted in the quote, “you are being absurd, Laura [. . .]. People like that don’t expect sacrifices from us. And it’s not very sympathetic to spoil everyone’s enjoyment as you’re doing now” (Mansfield 132-133). The use of symbolism helps the reader understand the socio-economic disparities in society and the experiences of the lower class within society.
Alongside the effective use of symbolism to describe socio-economic disparities in society, Mansfield also employs symbols to exemplify irony. The irony is integral in helping the audience understand how the two families are contradictory. The literary device provides conflict and tension in the story, especially related to social class differences. Mansfield uses irony to represent the distinction between the situation of both the upper class and lower-class communities (Sorkin 441). For instance, the author exposes the readers to irony whereby Laura wearing her best dress and going to the wake of Scott’s family is highly ironic.
Additionally, the basket of leftovers symbol is also ironic and signifies how the wealthy Sheridan family perceives the poor Scott family. It is ironic how the Sheridan family gives the Scott family leftovers from the party, despite the death of Mr. Scott (Sorkin 449). In essence, the leftovers are a signal of the disrespect the wealthy family has for the dead, which is also a different expression of lack of sympathy, despite the intention to extent “help” for the deceased (Sorkin 442). Therefore, the author’s use of symbolism to develop irony in the story adds to the story’s aesthetic value. It describes the maltreatment, social inequality, and social injustice of the middle class towards the working class.
Alongside symbolism and imagery, The Garden Party utilizes imagery to portray the conceding perception, lack of sensitivity, and the lack of sympathy towards the working-class community. Through imagery, Mansfield effectively criticizes the social construction, which distinguishes the society based on affluence, in addition to the middle class’ uncharitable treatment towards the less affluent neighborhood (Shaup 221). Through the use of “knot,” as demonstrated by Laura’s efforts to unite society, the author calls for humanity for the lower class members. The element of imagery is poignant in Kezia and Laura are still young and yet to be tainted by social prejudice (Shaup 221). The symbol of “knot” serves a purpose of unity, whereby knots tend to be strung together. The strings are a representation of the individuals standing outside. However, as they unite together for the funeral, they become the “knot,” united towards a shared purpose-social justice and social equality. Nonetheless, Laura coincides with these people as a “dark knot” because they suggest a different social class type (Shaup 221). Consequently, the use of the image “knot” helps the reader to recognize the role unity and humanity play towards realizing social equality and social justice in a community characterized by socio-economic inequalities and social injustice.
The use of literal narrative challenges the elements of figurative narrative as it contributes to the story’s aesthetic value. By using the third-person perspective, the narrator allows the reader to assume that the narrator is the addressee. Third-person point of view is also essential in the Garden Party as it improves the audience’s prejudice, perspective about the themes the author demonstrates, in addition to judgment (Shaup 221). Moreover, the third-person limited narrative style provides the readers with an in-depth understanding of the experiences the lower class had in her community from Laura’s perspective. The third-person perspective coupled with internal dialogue across the novel offers the plot an easy-flowing rhythm to the narration. This technique helps the audience to empathize with the characters, thereby understanding the problems they face. The use of the third-person narrative style, as a literal narrative, also contradicts the figurative narrative because it significantly unfolds the themes of conflict, social inequality, and social injustice. When Mrs. Sheridan states that “people from that class…” the quote is told in a third-person perspective, showing that Mrs. Sheridan’s concern and sympathy only applies to the individuals of their status (Sorkin 439). This shows the attitude of the middle class, who have no regard for people from the working class. The third-person point of view also helps Mansfield create two contrasting worlds, with each distinct social class presenting extreme characteristics that culminate into tension and conflict (Sorkin 439). Consequently, the third-person narrative approach, as a literal narrative, challenges the symbolic narrative. It illustrates the comparison and the highlighting of the positive characters in the initial half of the narration, where everything is “perfect,” and the latter half, in which there is social class tension and conflict, supports the theme of the novel-social injustice.
Mansfield uses various literary devices, including tone, imagery, symbolism, and irony, to pass the message that regardless of social class differences, people are united by the great leveler, death, and social class differences contribute to social inequality and social injustice of society. The author employs imagery and symbolism with equal effectiveness to illustrate the miserable life of the Scott family, whose patriarch had just died. On the other hand, through imagery, the author effectively criticizes the social construction, which distinguishes the society based on affluence and the middle class’s uncharitable treatment towards the less affluent neighborhood. The use of irony as a literary device functions to provide conflict and tension in the story, especially related to social class differences. Mansfield uses irony to represent the distinction between the situation of both the upper class and lower-class communities. The author exposes the readers to irony through literal narrative whereby Laura wears her best dress and goes to the wake of Scott’s family is highly ironic. Likewise, the basket of leftovers symbol is also ironic and signifies how the wealthy Sheridan family perceives the poor Scott family. It is ironic how the Sheridan family gives the Scott family leftovers from the party, despite the death of Mr. Scott. The literary devices generate an aesthetic value by illustrating how the enormous gap between the poor and the rich during the time played a crucial role in creating conflicts within a society.
Mansfield, Katherine. The garden party and other stories. Penguin, 1997.
Shaup, Karen L. “Consuming Beauty: Aesthetic Experience in Katherine Mansfield’s” The Garden Party”.” Papers on Language and Literature 51.3 (2015): 221.
Sorkin, Adam J. “Katherine Mansfield’s” The Garden Party”: Style and Social Occasion.” Modern Fiction Studies 24.3 (1978): 439-455.