Academic journal article Papers on Language & Literature

Consuming Beauty: Aesthetic Experience in Katherine Mansfield's "The Garden Party"

Academic journal article Papers on Language & Literature

Consuming Beauty: Aesthetic Experience in Katherine Mansfield's "The Garden Party"

Article excerpt

Katherine Mansfield's "The Garden Party" exposes the economic disparities within the white colonial community of New Zealand in the early twentieth century. While the wealthy Sheridan family enjoys a garden that produces "literally hundreds" of roses on "green bushes bowed down as though they had been visited by archangels," the gardens within the working class neighborhood adjacent to the Sheridan house contain "nothing but cabbage stalks, sick hens and tomato cans" (197, 204). Laura Sheridan, the protagonist of "The Garden Party," crosses the "the broad road" separating the classes in order to deliver a basket of party leftovers to the family of a deceased workman, a carter named Scott. While in the cottage, Laura views Scott's body, having been encouraged by Scott's sister-in-law that "'e looks a picture. There's nothing to show" (209). Presumably, Scott's body has been "made up," and all marks of the violent accident ("His horse shied at a traction-engine") have been removed (203). What Laura sees is "a young man, fast asleep--sleeping so soundly, so deeply, that he was far, far away from them both" (209). She reflects, "He was wonderful, beautiful. While they were laughing and while the band was playing, this marvel had come into the lane. Happy ... happy.... All is well, said that sleeping face. This is just as it should be. I am content" (209).

Because "The Garden Party" is a coming-of-age tale, Laura's interpretation of Scott's body has received much critical attention as the culmination of her experiences throughout the course of the single day represented in the story. It is almost universally agreed upon that Laura aestheticizes Scott's body in the moment of viewing, and many critics conclude that Laura's aestheticizing action signals her inability to confront the harsh economic realities facing Scott's surviving family. William Atkinson, for instance, claims that Laura finds the dead man "fearsome," and by "transforming" Scott's body "aesthetically" she "neutralises its danger by refusing to see the body for what it is"--a corpse (59). Laura's reference to happiness, Atkinson argues, "is all hers. She is the one who has succeeded in neutralising death by transforming it into benign sleep and in finding a way to overcome her inconvenient sympathies for those who are less fortunate than herself" (59). In other words, because the aestheticizing process allows Laura to view Scott's body as fundamentally at peace, she can enjoy her class privileges without feeling the discomfort or guilt she experienced earlier in the day. Christine Darrohn, who reads the story as part of Mansfield's response to her brother's death during a training exercise in World War I, also finds that Laura's act of aestheticization serves to displace the discomfort of economic realities: "through this aestheticization Laura again averts a confrontation with the painful facts about the lives of the working class" (529). As Darrohn contends, "Though Laura tries to resist her mother's social blindness, Mansfield casts doubt on Laura's ultimate success. Scott's eyes, we are told, are 'blind under the closed eyelids,' but the suggestion is that perhaps it is Laura who is blind" (529).

Both Atkinson and Darrohn rightly call attention to Laura's lack of recognition of the economic realities that shape this colonial community. Indeed, Laura fails to perceive the real hardships endured by any of the working class individuals she encounters throughout the day despite her declared desire to cast off " these absurd class distinctions" (199). However, neither Atkinson nor Darrohn examine how the instances of aestheticization in the story may be linked to Mansfield's sustained interest in the aesthetic theories and practices of Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde, writers Mansfield discovered, admired, and imitated as a young woman. Throughout "The Garden Party," Laura experiences episodes of decadence: intense, extravagant, and erotic responses to her environment. …

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