Modernism In Bliss By Katherine Mansfield
Modernism in Bliss by Katherine Mansfield
‘Bliss’ by Katherine Mansfield could be read as sentimental prose however, it is a revolutionary Modernist story still being read and analysed in the 21st century. It is the story of Bertha Young, a ‘happy’ housewife and Mother. Set in one day as Bertha prepares for a dinner party she is having for her ‘modern, thrilling friends…just the kind of friends they wanted.’
At the start of the story Bertha is experiencing a feeling of joy that she has never felt before ‘a feeling of absolute bliss’ though she has difficulty in articulating and explaining this feeling. She longs to share, to understand and find somebody that can also identify with this feeling. Bertha is looking forward to a dinner party she is giving for some friends – a bourgeoisie bohemian set of artists who are grotesque exaggerations, shallow and meaningless people. If Bertha is aware of this she fails to acknowledge this. She has also invited to dinner her new mysterious and enigmatic friend Pearl Fulton and Bertha imagines that there is a connection between them. As the story proceeds Bertha is able to identify the feelings of ‘bliss’ that she is experiencing but her learning curve and desire is suddenly cut short when Bertha realises that Pearl Fulton is her husbands lover.
‘Bliss’ is told from a third person point of view which means that the reader must rely on Bertha’s viewpoint. The first two pages deal with Bertha’s feelings of exhilaration and she repeatedly reminds the reader of how happy she is and how perfect her life is. However, this makes the reader feel that she may not be a reliable protagonist – that perhaps she is hiding something. Simultaneously Bertha exclaims when trying but failing to connect with her feelings or somebody ’How idiotic civilisation is!’ indicating a glimmer of self-awareness. Despair and feelings of doom are common in Modernist literature. That Bertha utters these words amidst her proclamations of delight are a strong indication of the this story is of the modernist genre by the third paragraph.
Marxism was gaining strength in the 1920s and was a current affairs subject. Jean Baudrillard says ‘commodities…are all signifiers’ that what we buy, we buy for the social status that it brings us. Bertha is very keen to inform us of the commodities in her life;
‘…really – she had everything…They didn’t have to worry about money. They had this absolutely satisfactory house and garden. And friends – modern, thrilling friends…books…music…a wonderful little dressmaker…going abroad in the summer, and their new cook made the most superb omelettes….’
Bertha informs us of her social status not understanding that she is being transparently shallow. Baudrillard goes on to say;
‘What is being signified is in fact your position(s) as a subject…identity is thus a product of the signifiers with which one surrounds oneself, rather than something that is unique to each individual’
Therefore in trying to surround herself with commodities that achieve social status Bertha is actually alienating herself. A perfect example of this is when Bertha visits her baby in the nursery. The Nanny is very much in control. Having a nanny, a commodity – a symbol of wealth and status – has caused Bertha to become a stranger to her own child. Harry admits the same when he says he has no interest in his child. By using labour to raise their child they have both become alienated from the child. There are no connections between these three human beings.
Katherine Mansfield typically uses female protagonists and casts them as victims of their gender or class, trapped and alienated by modern society and the transitory nature of their society. Published in 1920, the role of women in society was going through radical change, hemlines had risen, women’s hairstyles were shorter, the right to vote was being fought for and eventually passed in 1928, all girls received basic education and women in the workplace was becoming more socially acceptable. ’Bliss’ is set within the confines of the house. Although we glimpse into the garden we do not go beyond those boundaries. This emphasises the air of loneliness and alienation that Bertha feels at points throughout the story. When she throws the cushions onto the chair ‘the room came alive at once’ it is the only action that seems to bring any life to the house and Bertha’s empty life. Despite the changes for women in society Bertha Young is living through this ephemeral period and you feel that she is too naÃ¯ve and childlike to cope with these changes hence she is left with feelings she is unable to recognise and the effect of alienation.
Symbolism is a strong feature in modernism and ‘Bliss’ is packed with symbolism. The strongest being the pear tree which represents different characters and binds them together at the end. When Bertha first sees the pear tree she says ‘it stood perfect, as though becalmed against the jade-green sky’ which ties up with the white dress and string of jade beads that she wore that evening. We are told that she had decided upon that outfit whilst looking at the pear tree earlier. Later Pearl Fulton is the pear tree when she is described as ‘…all silver, with a silver fillet binding her pale blonde hair…’ The tree also brings the two women together when stood ‘side by side looking at the slender, flowering tree.’ The relevance of the pear tree at the end of the story is very important. On discovering her husbands infidelities with Peal Fulton, Bertha’s journey of self awareness and realisation of her sexual desires is abruptly brought to a standstill. She realises that she will not complete the journey and asks ‘what is going to happen now?’ but nothing is going to happen. The pear tree which, is again a representation of Bertha, is ‘lovely as ever and as full of flower and as still.’ Everything for Bertha, who the tree represents, will be the same, still. As Elaine Showalter says in ‘A Literature Of Their Own’
In the short stories of Katherine Mansfield, the moment of self-awareness is also the moment of self-betrayal….Bertha’s recognition that the feeling she calls ‘bliss’ the ‘fire in her bosom’, is sexual ardour, is quickly followed by her discovery of her husbands adultery.’
My own thoughts on reading this independently was that it was the story of one woman’s sexual desire and love for another woman. Gender and sexual issues for women in the 1920s was still a very taboo subject amongst the respectable middle classes. Sexual liberation is common subject in modernist writing. I believe that Bertha was sexually attracted to Pearl Fulton. Bertha admits to being frigid and that she and Harry are good friends in a sexless loveless marriage. Bertha is unable to connect with Harry. When they talk on the telephone she attempts to make a connection with her husband but fails. However, Bertha is certain that she and Pearl share a connection, Bertha never once doubts this. The excitement and ‘bliss’ that she feels all day is the desire, that she is unable to articulate, for Pearl Fulton. Showalter says;
Mansfield, amongst other female modernist writers, created a female aesthetic…Their version of modernism was a determined response to the material culture of male Edwardian novelists…female sensibility took on a sacred quality. She goes onto to explain that the more feminine literature became the further away it went from the physical experience for a woman. References to sexual experience are disguised in symbolism. Bertha is unable or unwilling to recognise or express her desire and so female aesthetics are used to convey this.
The concept of modernity is central to this story. Bertha’s friends, her coffee machine and even the relationship with her husband is thoroughly modern. Their dinner guests – bourgeoisie artists – are modern people with a modern people with a contemporary outlook. The mode of transports that the guests use and the city dwellings and dangers that these modern amenities represent are all depicted in this story, all of subjects are subjects used again and again in modernist literature. The bourgeoisie set of friends are portrayed as ridiculous almost grotesque characters – dressing up in what looks like ’banana skins’ and roving eyes and monocles. They talk about absurdly abstract theatre, interior design and poetry and really say nothing very much at all. The story I believe looks at how ridiculous and superficial the bourgeoisie can be despite their modern outlook. By satirising the these excessive characters we see how unimportant and insignificant mortals are. A thing is what it is and nothing more. And this is the at the heart of modernism making ‘Bliss’ very much a short story relevant to the mood of society at the time of publication.
In conclusion a modernist writers aim is to capture a moment in time exactly as they see it. Dispensing with all the traditional excessive and ornamental elements of Victorian writing which sought to celebrate the world and all life and nature in it. It makes the beautiful ugly, endings are realistic and protagonists are usually left with feelings of hopelessness and despair with civilisation. These hard cold emotions were in accordance with the way society felt as a whole during this turbulent transitory period. ’Bliss’ may not be obviously modernist – it seems very whimsical in tone in parts – but the reality is, when you closely read the story, it is a radical and bold piece of modernist prose.