The Critical Response to Katherine Mansfield

By Jan Pilditch | Go to book overview

David Daiches, from "Katherine Mansfield"

I

The short stories of Katherine Mansfield, though not many in number, contain some of the most sensitive writing in our literature. "Sensitive" is a much-abused critical term, but here it is the only one appropriate: there is in these stories a delicacy of response to life, a fine insight into the given situation, combined with a mastery of communicative phrase, that set them apart, almost as a unique species of writing. Where else can we find such a preference of reality to art together with such a perfect moulding of art to fit reality? Katherine Mansfield's stories are not large-scale studies of the ways of man, or narratives intended to illustrate conventional values, nor are they descriptive sketches merely, studies in style, or fine treatment of language for its own sake. They are imaginative studies of situation, attempts to get "the deepest truth out of the idea," as she herself wrote in her journal. She dealt always with the single situation, the single idea, and the whole purpose of the story with its carefully chosen setting and detailed description was to bring out the meaning of this--meaning, significance, not in terms of anything external but with reference only to the truth of experience. She approached human activity from the angles provided by the isolated instance, the single combination of circumstances; she did not approach life directly at its most exuberant, in its richest and most crowded moments, but sought to illuminate it by so presenting the aspects she selected as to bring out the "deepest truth of the idea," the reality and therefore the relevance of the short sequence of events she chose to isolate and present.

It is not the most obvious way of telling a story, nor is it the easiest. To make the content so dependent on the form, as it were, by relying on the method of presenting the situation in order to make it a situation worth presenting, without distorting the facts to meet the idea and without any comment, is to risk complete failure. There can be no half-success with this method; the critic cannot say, "A thoroughly well-told story, though a little pointless," because the point is so bound up with the telling that if it cannot be brought home the telling has no purpose--indeed, no separate existence--at all. This does not apply to some of the earlier stories, many of which are only descriptive sketches, or to those later stories where Katherine Mansfield deliberately takes a holiday from her normal method, but it is true of nearly all her work after In a German Pension. She has imposed upon herself a much severer discipline than the majority of story-tellers dare to do; she writes only to tell the truth--not the truth for the outsider, for the observer who watches the action from the street corner, but the truth for the characters themselves and so the real meaning of the situation.

A situation can have "meaning" from many different points of view. The point of view may be ethical, or æsthetic, or dependent on any scheme of values the author wishes to apply. Katherine Mansfield consciously and deliberately avoided any such external approach. For her the meaning of the situation meant its potentialities for change in the lives of the characters, in so far as such a

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