Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

Why the "Life of Ma Parker" Is Not So Simple: Preclosure in Issue-Bound Stories

Academic journal article Studies in Short Fiction

Why the "Life of Ma Parker" Is Not So Simple: Preclosure in Issue-Bound Stories

Article excerpt

She's a widowed charwoman. Yesterday, her loving little grandson, the light of her dreary life, was buried. As servant, wife, and mother, she's the generic British working-class female at the turn of the century--cowed by drudgery and burdened by loss. Her husband, a baker, died of "white lung" disease, and those children who survived the high rate of infant mortality fell victim to other ills of the late-Victorian underclass: emigration, prostitution, poor health, worse luck. This is the "life" of Ma Parker, who comes to work after her grandson's burial, stunned by a grief she can barely stand. Her employer, a "literary gentleman" out of touch with humanity, hopes "the funeral was a--a--success." What a day! What a life! If only there were someplace to go--certainly not a room of her own, but a corner, a stoop--where she could "be herself" and have, for the first time in her life, "a proper cry." As the final tine says, "There was nowhere" (Mansfield 490).

Katherine Mansfield's "Life of Ma Parker" is an unabashed tear-jerker. The old cleaning-woman keeps her eyes dry, but we're not supposed to. In fact, the emotional bribery is so patent, the assault on pity so bold, it's hard not to dismiss this story as an embarrassing lapse, one of quite a number of stories in which Mansfield's tougher insights and cooler ironies fail to control her sentimentality. The story is dissipated in the emotive response that is triggered too simply and spent too quickly.

At the very same time, there is a quantity of sociological detail, an imaginative empathy, a spare iconography of working-class life that make the story a perfect set-piece for cultural studies. Indeed, in today's climate of social awareness in the literary classroom, it is very hard to find readers--either students or teachers--who will not approach this story primed to talk about gender and class "issues." Such readers, one would think, are just the ones to appreciate the story.

What often happens, however, is that the issues, valid and important as they are, frame the reading process so exclusively that the story becomes an ideological product. Like Ma's employer, the literary gentleman who takes a passing interest in "this product called Life," such readers hypostasize the "life" represented in the story (capitalizing Women and Working-class). While they do so with much encouragement from Mansfield, and considerably more insight and sympathy than her male character displays, they, too, are allowing the story to dissipate, to escape them.

As both a short story theorist and a teacher, I want to know what we can find in this tale when we do not "spend" it too quickly as sob-story or, for that matter, as protest-story. The question might be worth asking simply because "Life of Ma Parker," composed in 1920, dates from the same period as those firmly controlled masterpieces, "Miss Brill" and "Daughters of the Late Colonel." However, it is also worth asking because the sins of this one little story--exaggerated affect, subordination of character to type, social pathology, oversimplified "message"-- have all, at one time or another, in various guises and degrees, been charged against the genre of the short story.

While it is obviously true that this one text does not stand for all stories, nor even for one category of fictions (Modernist, impressionist, workingclass, feminist, ...), I do want to suggest that the approach I am taking can be usefully applied to many a tale that claims our attention, yet resists our engagement, either because (as in past cases I've considered) the story presents special difficulties to the student, or because (as in this instance), it can be grasped too easily.(1) Although I have given it other names, I will call this method "storiographical." It is a way of slowing down the reading process in order to track it more carefully, to net more value from a short[er] fiction.

As a context for what I am about to do, let me first mention two of the more usual ways of approaching Mansfield's story: formalist and biographical. …

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