Monkey Business: Darwin, Displacement, and Literary Form in Katherine Mansfield's "Bliss"
Dilworth, Thomas, Studies in Short Fiction
For such a popular and much-anthologized work, Katherine Mansfield's "Bliss" has generated sparse criticism. The aspect of the story that chiefly makes it so popular has also diminished its critical reputation: its element of contrast and surprise. With climactic simplicity, the narrative contrasts the erotic happiness of the protagonist throughout the story with its deflation (largely implied) at the end, when she discovers that her husband is unfaithful. So simple and emphatic, this contrast--it is not much of a plot-has led many, including T. S. Eliot, to assume that there is little to the story apart from the powerful effect of its final surprise, a disillusionment more felt than susceptible to interpretation (35). Virginia Woolf thinks the story a shallow example of "superficial smartness," based on a concept that is "poor, cheap, not the vision of an interesting mind" (1: 179). (1) I want to demonstrate that they are wrong, that this story is a rich and protean work of art. Its parts and aspects resonate significantly on all four principal levels of imagination, which are, in order of deepening emotional intensity: satire or allegory, realism, romance, and myth. The story also accomplishes a rare effect, by which its form becomes symbolic. The meaning of its central imagery--the pear tree, garden, and moon--continually changes in a way that rhymes with the displacements of biological evolution--evolution being, though heretofore unnoticed as such, the most important thematic strand in the story. As a remarkably seamless union of form-and-content, "Bliss" is a wonderful aesthetic achievement.
At the beginning of the story, the 30-year-old protagonist, Bertha Young is returning home after ordering fruit for a dinner party that evening. For no specified reason, she is "overcome, suddenly, by a feeling of bliss--absolute bliss" (95). It is a powerful but unfocused erotic emotion, such as anyone might feel in spring. The feeling is immediately identified as natural, for it is "as though you'd suddenly swallowed a bright piece of that late afternoon sun and it burned in your bosom, sending out a little shower of sparks into every particle, into every finger and toe" (95). Her erotic feeling then acquires objects, which are, in sequence, symbolically narcissistic, female other, and male spousal. She directs her blissful attention to a "cold mirror" that "[gives] her back a woman, radiant, with smiling, trembling lips" (96). Then she looks at the beautiful pear tree in her garden, with which she identifies, partly because she has already planned to dress in colors that she only now realizes are those of the tree and garden. Then she is excited by newly arrived Pearl Fulton: "What was there in the touch of that cool arm that could fan--fan--start blazing--blazing--the fire of bliss that Bertha had not known what to do with?" (103). But Bertha is not so much attracted to Miss Fulton as aware that they share the same happiness. It was "as if they had said to each other: `You too?'" (103-04). The similarity between them is emphasized by each living in anticipation--"listening" (Bertha, 96; Miss Fulton, 103), which, in Miss Fulton, is suggested by her habitual posture of holding "her head a little on one side" (99, 103). Bertha's erotic feeling veers toward the homoerotic when she is with Miss Fulton but remains protean, essentially undefined in orientation and general in expression. It makes her feel "tender" (105) toward all her dinner guests. "Everything was good--was right. All that happened seemed to fill again her brimming cup of bliss" (105). But she then realizes that soon she and her husband, Harry, will be "alone together in the dark room--the warm bed" and "for the first time in her life Bertha Young desired her husband" (107). This is, for her, an important sexual awakening. Until this moment she has been "so cold," although she and her husband had been "good palls"; but now she wants him "ardently! ardently! …