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1 At issue in Katherine Mansfield’s Burnell family stories is the middle-class social system the family resides in and how it affects relationships and individual identities. Through her descriptions of children and their interaction with the adults around them, Mansfield portrays the early 20th Century bourgeois social system as a corrupting element, one that proliferates itself by enticing children to emulate its norms at an early age, while simultaneously creating a distance between parent and child. Mansfield offsets these developments through the character of Kezia, with whom she bestows an independent-mindedness and instinctive ability to question norms that suggests she has the potential to break from the system. Yet, Mansfield does not allow Kezia to escape the distance and lack of an emotional connection that exists between parent and child throughout “Prelude,” “At the Bay,” and “The Doll House.” Kezia adapts rather than escapes and, in doing so, points toward a new and more ideal identity achievable through actions that cut against the grain of established middle-class values. Kezia, in contrast with the children around her, represents a conduit through which Mansfield envisioned a break from the corrupting influence of the social setting that plagues the lives of the adults, most notably Linda, of the Burnell family. As the stories work their way towards such conclusions, it becomes apparent they do so subtly, carefully emulating the characteristics of the actual issues being dealt with. The fiction contained in “Prelude,” “At the Bay,” and “The Doll House” becomes something complex (though highly engaging) to navigate, much like the intricacies of the social system of which they are critical. The children’s emulation of the behavior of the bourgeois adults around them is established in “Prelude” and “At the Bay.” For example, Isabel displays an alarming propensity for acting the middle-class parent towards both Lottie and Kezia. Mansfield describes these instances in a way that portrays them as both irrational and slightly cruel, as when she notes that Isabel “longed to find some menial duty that Kezia might perform and so be roped under her government” (66). As a result, the system being emulated is portrayed as one that corrupts by establishing hierarchical relationship systems. Such systems give control to the elder children, allowing to lead Lottie and Kezia off to a simulated church and then force them to take a nap during a game of “Ladies.” Similarly, the older Pip is able to experiment and subject the younger children to his whim. This is portrayed effectively through Lottie’s memory of “the time Pip had squeezed something 2 down her throat and it hurt awfully” (79) during a game of “Hospital.” When in groups, the children in the Burnell stories are constantly either discussing, or actually taking part in, games that emulate the actions of the adults they are growing up around. With this in mind, it is evident that Mansfield sought to portray the corrupting bourgeois social system as one taught and reinforced at a very early age. There is a certain irony then, in terms of the way Mansfield has children emulate parental figures, in the fact that a profound distance marks the parent-child relationship in the Burnell stories. This disparity is especially evident in terms of Linda, who resents her children to a certain degree. In “Prelude,” for example, she associates Lottie and Kezia with bulky material possessions and jokes that “We shall simply have to cast them off” (51). As Mansfield develops Linda throughout all three stories, however, it becomes apparent that she is only half-joking. In fact, she feels her position as a middle-class parent has burdened her in such as way as to undermine her sense of freedom. Not only is she incapable of openly maintaining a close relationship with her children, she is also incapable of freely loving them. That is, to chose to do the latter cultivates the former, which, in the end, solidifies her place in the middle-class social system that represses her. Linda the middle-class wife and mother is a person who, from within the bourgeois system, feels she is not garnering enough from life: “If only one had time to look at these flowers long enough, time to get over the sense of novelty and strangeness, time to know them! But as soon as one paused to part the petals, to discover the underside of the leaf, along came Life and one was swept away” (112). Essentially, the title of middle-class wife and mother subjects Linda to the “Life” that so readily sweeps one away and fragments experience into unsatisfying chunks. Yet, she possesses the ability to love, perhaps even does love, her children. In “At the Bay,” for example, her feelings for “The Boy” emerge when he displays a confidence that captivates Linda. She is astonished and this feeling is “something so different, it was something so new” (114) that it brings tears to her eyes. For the briefest of moments, Linda actively acknowledges her love of a child to whom she has given birth. It’s important to note, however, that her expression of this love, her saying “Hallo, my funny!” (114), goes unacknowledged. Through this detail, Mansfield suggests that Linda’s struggle 3 with her own desire for freedom and her love of her children is erasing her from their lives. The fact that The Boy “had quickly forgotten his mother” (114) leads to the inference that perhaps her other children have done so as well. Linda’s passive rebellion against the middle-class social system leaves her in a “Catch-22.” Her resistance, taking the form of a disengagement from the lives of her children, not only creates a distance between parent and child, but relegates Linda to the peripheries of her children’s lives until she all but vanishes. Though Mansfield estranges birth mother from child in the Burnell stories, she does redirect the parent- child relationship in a positive way through characters who exist outside the norms of the bourgeois social system. For example, Mrs. Fairfield is portrayed as the person Kezia looks to for motherly support. Kezia confirms the nature of this relationship in “Prelude” through the elaborate surprise she plans for her grandmother in the form of the matchbox with the flower in it. Kezia takes considerable pleasure in the thought of pleasing Mrs. Fairfield, so much so that she thinks “I can make her one everyday here [at the new house]” (72). Mrs. Fairfield is also the person to whom Kezia turns to answer crucial life questions, most notably when, in “At the Bay,” she inquiries as to whether everyone has to die. When Mrs. Fairfield replies that everyone must die, Kezia’s most urgent thought is that such a harsh reality means that she will someday lose her grandmother and she pleads, “But you’re not to. You couldn’t leave me. You couldn’t not be there. Promise me you wont ever do it grandma” (117). However, her thoughts never stray to the loss of either of her parents. Pat, like Mrs. Fairfield, also helps Kezia face and cope with a harsh reality, of which the butchering of the duck in “Prelude” is the best example. Mansfield bestows upon Pat the responsibility of illustrating one of life’s harsher necessities (i.e., butchering animals for food). Kezia is horrified and eventually diffuses this horror through Pat as she “pressed her face into a bone in his shoulder and clasped her arms around his neck” (84). From this position, Kezia is able to transfer her attention from the dead duck to the physical comfort she receives in Pat’s arms. Not only is Pat performing a necessary coming-of-age function, he also performs the parental duty of providing comfort and reassurance against the harsh aspect of reality Kezia has just faced. 4 It’s important to note that neither Mrs. Fairfield nor Pat fit comfortably into a bourgeois role and neither is entirely subject to the system’s so-called lifestyle rules and norms. As a result, Mansfield, through Mrs. Fairfield and Pat’s interaction with the children in the Burnell stories, suggests healthier parent-child relationships exist outside such lifestyle rules and norms. In addition, the fact that Mansfield exclusively involves Kezia in such relationships reinforces the idea that she may be able to eventually step outside the corrupting system’s boundaries. The idea that there is hope for Kezia, coupled with the strength Mansfield develops in her, allows her to offset the character of Linda. In turn, focusing on these two individuals indicates Mansfield felt the female identity was most threatened by the middle-class social system in which the Burnell family is ensconced. For instance, Linda is tragically handcuffed by her position within the system, though her sense that there is a better way of living is strong. Her “Newfoundland Dog” husband, however, is happily oblivious to the issues developing around him because the system affords him a stronger sense of identity and freedom. In the midst of these two poles, Mansfield brings Kezia to the forefront as the stories develop. Kezia is the only child who observes and questions the behavior of the children around her as they blindly emulate their parents. She voices her opinion with a certain independence, as when she rejects the older Isabel’s desire to play “Ladies” (81) and when she stops to guide Lottie over the stile against Isabel’s wishes (105). Kezia also displays her independence through her disapproval of the competitive games the S-J’s play in “At the Bay.” To keep them “abused and out of bischief” the S-J’s compete against one another for prizes, emulating the competitiveness that can be applied to the world in which Stanley appears to thrive. Kezia, however, has a totally different take as to just how amusing such games are: “The only time the Burnell children played with them Kezia had got a prize, and when she undid three bits of paper she found a very small rusty buttonhook. She couldn’t understand why they made such a fuss ….” (106). Such blatant preparation for adult social immersion seems pointless to Kezia, as if she can sense that such a reality is preferred rather than natural. Mansfield also elevates Kezia’s sensitivity above the other children’s when Pat butchers the duck. She is the only child who remains horrified, whereas the other 5 children work their horror into a savage sort of joy. Kezia’s stubborn “Put head back! Put head back!” (84) demonstrates her instinctual propensity to passionately object to certain established realities. From this perspective, it is not important that Pat is revealing the harsh reality as to how humans sustain themselves. Indeed, such an epiphany may be necessary, but Kezia’s sustained repulsion, in contrast to the reactions of her sisters and cousins, separates her from the other children. Mansfield transforms her, rendering her as an individual willing to openly question the aspects of “Life” that have left her mother helpless, whether they are traditionally accepted or not. Despite Kezia’s potential for achieving the independence Linda can only dream of, Mansfield does not immediately make it apparent that she will succeed. As Kezia is depicted in “Prelude” and “At the Bay,” she develops the potential for independence but no relevant action occurs to suggests she will achieve it. In fact, in the aforementioned stories Kezia is portrayed as a younger version of her mother. That is, at this point in her development it’s impossible to conclude that Kezia, despite her independent tendencies, will be able to knock down the same social wall Linda has run up against. This parallel is most readily apparent through Kezia and Linda’s acknowledgment of an unseen force. Kezia’s takes the form of the “It” she sees in her old house (55), while Linda’s is the “They” she mentions in her bird dream (66). Kezia’s “It” is a source of fear, a force “waiting at the door, at the head of the stairs, at the bottom of the stairs, hiding in the passage, ready to dart out” (55). Yet, it is simply a less developed version of the scrutinizing “They” Linda describes as a secret society she “could hardly escape from” (67). It’s not difficult to infer, however, that Kezia’s “It” might eventually magnify itself into the overwhelming “They” haunting Linda. In either case, both mother and daughter sense the force of the social system they live in and describe it as something ominous. The difference between the two is that, in Linda’s case, she views the force from a shattered and subdued position. The social system has labeled her a child bearer and, as a result, she describes herself as “broken, made weak” and notes that her “courage was gone, through childbearing” (113). With Kezia, the force has yet to grow out of control, and is something Mansfield suggests she can still hope to find the strength to escape. 6 Mansfield portrays this escape, finally, in “The Doll House.” The story bestows agency to Kezia’s character and allows her to act on her instincts and go against the grain of the rules of the middle- class social system that surrounds her. Mansfield finalizes Kezia’s separation from the other children as she “thieved out at the back” (319) while Lottie and Isabel go off to entertain visitors. This moment of independence allows Kezia to finally act on her potential to defy the bourgeois social system. Against all social convention and against direct orders not to do so, she invites the passing Kelveys to see the Doll House. Though Beryl quickly runs the Kelveys off, Kezia has undoubtedly taken a step toward actively contradicting the bourgeois social system. With “Prelude” and “At the Bay” in mind, Mansfield uses the climax of “The Doll House” to present an equation of sorts. That is, that the corrupting social system requires someone with a heightened sensitivity and sense of self (manifested in Kezia’s independence) to recognize social injustice (i.e., excluding the Kelveys). Reflexively, such recognition then affords one the opportunity to act against the system, as Kezia does with the Kelveys, and thus transform one’s defiance from a passive mode to an active mode. The last portion of the equation is where Linda falls short. She never takes action and thus remains repressed. Kezia does act and, it is implied, perhaps will continue to do so until she establishes a new identity for herself outside the bourgeois system. In the end, contrasting Kezia with her mother and the children around her gives voice to a female form of repression that previously (in terms of the period) had none. In “Prelude,” “At the Bay,” and “The Doll House,” the corrupting system becomes apparent through inference rather than explicitness, as Mansfield systematically moves in and out of the point-of-view of child and adult. One might parallel this idea with that of a the image of a painter slowly sweeping a brush back and forth across a canvas so that a picture slowly emerges but is never explicitly acknowledged. Mansfield’s fiction adheres to such an approach in order to effectively illustrate and demonstrate the difficulties encountered in navigating one’s way beyond an unjust social environment. As a result, the stories become as tricky to navigate and flesh out as the system they are taking a stance against. As examples of modern fiction, “Prelude,” “At the Bay,” and “The Doll 7 House” blend with the issues they focus on, forcing the reader to infer and decode in order to derive meaning. This approach emulates the difficulty Linda feels and continually attempts to explain to herself, though only with the result of concluding that she is a broken and incapable person. Kezia offsets this condition and provides a beacon of strength and hope for the expression of the unarticulated voice. Characteristics of issue, then, blend with the craft of writing, presenting fiction as a medium with the power to emulate, rather than simply relate.
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