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The short story “Miss Brill” was written by Katherine Mansfield, a modernist author born in New Zealand (1888–1923). The story was first released in the Athenaeum in 1920, and it was later collected by Mansfield in The Garden Party and Other Stories, published in 1922. This book, along with T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, James Joyce’s Ulysses, and Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room, contributed to making 1922 the annus mirabilis of modernist literature. “Miss Brill” takes place in France after the First World War. The devastation of the war had given way to growing wealth, as shown by the boisterous band. But the toll had been high, and while the narrative is brimming with fresh love and small children, older people in the story appear tired, probably as a result of the war’s severe effects.
About the Author
Katherine Mansfield was born into a socially prominent family in New Zealand and traveled to England at the age of 19 to attend Queen’s College. She first intended to become a cellist, but she started off writing for the school newspaper and soon rose to the position of editor. In 1906, shortly after her return to New Zealand from a tour of continental Europe, she started writing fiction professionally. However, she soon turned bored with New Zealand’s provincialism and returned to London in 1908. Just one year before she passed away from illness in 1923, her most well-known work, a collection of short tales titled The Garden Party, which contains “Miss Brill,” was released.
In France’s Jardin Publiques Park, it’s a beautiful day with a little breeze. The fur stole Miss Brill is wearing is getting a little worn out. If more touch-up is required, she will do so. That afternoon, she had brushed it after pulling it out of storage.
The busy season has begun, and it’s busier than it was last Sunday. The music is being played more loudly, and the mood is more upbeat.
Miss Brill is seated next to an elderly couple who are silent. She is dissatisfied since she is good at surreptitiously listening in on others’ conversations. Miss Brill anticipates their departure shortly. It wasn’t really intriguing either last week. A couple was having a pointless chat about the lady needing glasses.
Miss Brill looks out at the people in the crowd. There are people walking, conversing, purchasing flowers, and children dressed in the best clothes. Others occupy benches and seats; they are elderly and strange, appearing to have come from closets or dark rooms. She keeps watching as young people couple off, two peasant women lead donkeys, a nun rushes past, and a gorgeous woman drops flowers, gets them back, and then discards them again.
A woman with an ermine toque converses with a man who appears respectable. He stops it suddenly by blowing smoke in her face and leaving. The lady waves as though she sees someone before walking away. The elderly couple sitting next to Miss Brill stand up and leave. Miss Brill enjoys just sitting and observing everything. They are all actors in a play, and she is also one of them. If she were to disappear, someone would notice. She has just now become aware of this.
She arrives at the same time every week since she is an actress, but she is reluctant to tell her English students what she does on Sundays. She imagines the elderly ill she reads to four times each week realizing she is an actor. The band resumes playing. Miss Brill thinks everyone might start singing because it is a happy, cheerful song. She gets the impression that everyone has some kind of understanding.
A very attractive young couple is seated next to her. They give off the impression of being the show’s protagonists. Miss Brill keeps an ear open. The girl turns down an approach. The boy questions whether Miss Brill’s presence is the cause. He refers to her as a “stupid old thing” and asks “Who wants her?” The young girl mocks her fur stole.
Miss Brill walks herself home. As a Sunday treat, she typically purchases a slice of cake from the bakery. Today, she doesn’t. She goes up the stairs to her little, dark room, where she sits on the bed. She promptly puts her fur back in its box after removing it. She snaps the lid shut. She believes she hears someone weeping.
‘Miss Brill’ is an example of modernist literature, which implies that most of the story’s effect is produced by suggestion rather than clear description. Take the final paragraph, where it is not explicitly stated that Miss Brill is crying (the wording used by Mansfield makes it sound as if the fur itself is crying): if Mansfield had written that she began crying because of what she overheard in the gardens, the story would lose all of its delicate subtlety.
However, Mansfield’s last sentence, “But when she put the lid on she thought she heard something crying,” separates Miss Brill from her own loneliness and misery in a way that is totally appropriate for her character.
Naturally, the implication is that she first isn’t completely aware that she is sobbing because the emptiness of her existence has suddenly come over her. This contrasts clearly with Miss Brill’s previous scene in the gardens, where she freely sobbed and recognized her own sorrow as the band performed, just before she overheard the young man calling her a “stupid old thing.”
Another significant aspect in ‘Miss Brill,’ and one that is common in modernist literature, is the concept of the epiphany: a realization or revelation experienced by a central character in the story. This epiphany frequently serves a similar purpose to a denouement or plot twist in a more conventional (i.e., plot-driven) story: for example, at the conclusion of a detective story, the mystery is resolved and the perpetrator is revealed.
We may thus conclude that in “Miss Brill,” the named character’s realization that everyone appears to be in a play and that the weekly routine of strolling and sitting in the public gardens is similar to a production in which everyone performs their role, is a turning point. She has come to understand how this public place works and that everyone is putting on a show: everyone is both a performer (knowing that everyone else is watching them) and a member of the audience (watching everyone else).
In modernist literature, epiphanies frequently strike a balance between true insight and a brief mood swing. There are a number of epiphanies or little moments throughout Mansfield’s stories that imply the protagonist has gained fresh insight. One such instance is Miss Brill’s realization that everyone is involved in the performance. She looks at the other members of the group as tears well up in her eyes as she imagines everyone in the garden singing along. It implies that Miss Brill is aware of the truth but is unaware that she is aware of it. The discussion between the young couple serves as an unintentional confession by her that she fails to understand the people around her, despite her belief that she does. The story’s language is slightly ironic since it implies that Miss Brill is aware of the truth but isn’t aware that she is aware of it.
The story of “Miss Brill” is recounted from a third-person perspective rather than a first-person perspective. This is another important aspect of the story’s effects: if Miss Brill had been reporting her own experiences, it would have been more difficult for Mansfield to expose to us the gap between Miss Brill’s knowledge of the people around her and reality.
The quiet tragedy of the story is that Miss Brill is not fully aware of or confronts her own loneliness, the depth to which she was hurt by the young couple’s remarks not only because she is no longer young (as they are) or because she is not in love (as they are), but also because her beliefs about how she is perceived by others have just been proven to be untrue.
The crumbling of her weekly Sunday afternoon ritual and the significance she has attached to it is only made worse by the generosity with which she perceives others. She is not some solipsistic attention-seeker who thinks only she and nobody else is performing; rather, she sees everyone as performers.
In Mansfield’s third-person narrative, the narrator takes the ‘voice’ of one of the characters through free indirect speech, a modernist method. This enables readers to experience Miss Brill’s ideas and stream of consciousness without actually hearing her speak. The reader may comprehend Miss Brill’s sentiments even without her express attribution since the colloquial and intimate terms, like “Dear little thing!”, are plain and personable. This method enables a more intense and intimate engagement with the narrative.
The story examines Miss Brill’s point of view through third-person remarks and personal interjections, allowing readers to experience everything through her eyes and get a peek at her as a spectator and performer. She notices a dynamic in public gardens where everyone is both viewed and observed, and this dynamic is reflected in the narrative style. Miss Brill learns that she is another lonely modernist figure.