Critical Commentary

Gender Trouble in Katherine Mansfield’s ‘Bliss’

“. . . but I tell you, my lord fool, out of this nettle danger, we pluck this flower, safety.” [1]

‘Bliss’ opens with the heroine – Bertha – being moved by an overwhelming, and misunderstood, feeling of anticipation, which is particularly characterised by her inability to give expression to it. Throughout much of the story she is unable to give full expression to her inner passions, whether out of fear or inability, ‘her discourse is tempered by social conditioning.’[2] When she is overcome by this intense feeling of bliss she asks whether there is ‘no way to express it without being ‘drunk and disorderly’’ and perceives civilisation as ‘idiotic’ because of its control over her own individual expression. When she desires to ‘get in touch’ with her husband, she becomes paralysed on the phone, ‘What had she to say? She’d nothing to say… She couldn’t absurdly cry: ‘Hasn’t it been a divine day!’ Again, in the nursery, the contrast between her internalised feelings and her verbalised response is striking, ‘You’re nice – you’re very nice! … I’m fond of you. I like you,’ she says to her baby daughter.

Katherine Mansfield

Katherine Mansfield

The disparity between what she demonstrates and what she feels is vast, but although Bertha may describe herself as ‘cold’ the heroine represented in ‘Bliss’is far from being characterised as unfeeling. It begins to become evident that behind her vacant discourse lies the dominant ideology of a culture that suppresses ‘embarrassingly feminine’ notions of bliss.[3] Therefore when Bertha innocently exclaims, ‘Why be given a body if you have to keep it shut up in a case like a rare, rare fiddle?’ she alludes to the fact that she feels herself trapped in the conventions of her society. Sadly, Bertha remains throughout the story unaware of the possibility of freedom from such social constraints. In fact, Bertha mimics the very discourse that fixes her in this restrictive position;

Really – really – she had everything. She was young.

Harry and she were as much in love as ever, and they

got on together splendidly and were really good pals.

She had an adorable baby. They didn’t have to worry

about money…

As Bertha rifles through her assets and attempts to rationalise her happiness through this senseless listing it becomes clear that these are not the true reasons for her bliss. Even in the language that she seeks to articulate her experience are terms she has assimilated, quite uncritically, from others.[4] The passage ends with a characteristic ellipses, followed by another exclamation, ‘I’m absurd. Absurd!’ Once again we see Bertha try to find the appropriate language for an emotion she has been conditioned to repress and, when she fails, we witness the self-diagnosis of her ‘absurdity’.

Once her guests arrive, Bertha expresses her feelings of bliss in awed silence; ‘she longed to tell them how delightful they were’, but of course she doesn’t, and when Harry compliments her on her soufflé ‘she almost could have wept with child-like pleasure’. Her self-perceived role, as the uneducated middle-class housewife, is to admire the wit of her ‘modern, thrilling friends’ and her husband subtly reminds her of her identity within the group when he compliments her on her culinary skills.[5] However, it is obvious that in her designated role as housewife Bertha is incapable of finding an escape for the intensity of her emotions. After carefully arranging the fruit for the anticipated party she begins to laugh, but she quickly checks herself, ‘No, no. I’m getting hysterical’ and then runs upstairs to the nursery, seeking in Little B an outlet for her anxious excitement. It is of particular importance that she moves from the dining room into – precisely – the nursery, yet she is unable to find fulfilment in these activities. Neaman suggests that by engaging in her role as ‘the good wife and mother, ‘[Bertha] observes the conventions of social responsibility which pinion her whims and moods.’[6]

It is interesting to note how many early critics were unable to identify this deconstruction of the ‘feminine’ in ‘Bliss’, and were instead content with accusing Mansfield of producing a style which was ‘essentially feminine.’ Even Virginia Woolf described it as, ‘superficial sameness the whole conception is poor, cheap.’[7] Gregor explains that doubts and concerns about her work as a modernist writer spilled over into feminist debates over the ‘value of her work in the formation of a feminist aesthetics.’[8] Although Kaplan accuses Mansfield’s work of being ‘open to the charge that it is counterfeminist’ she also jumps to her defence:

Mansfield’s practice… is deconstructive, in that it insists on

Letter from Virginia Woolf to Katherine Mansfield (Feb, 1921)

Letter from Virginia Woolf to Katherine Mansfield (Feb, 1921)

interpreting all constructions as finally arbitrary… her writing

which might be coded ‘feminine’ is not evidence of an

underlying, essential female nature, but the result of a writing

style which is conscious, deliberate and ‘artificial’.[9]

In other words, Mansfield’s portrayal of the feminine in ‘Bliss’ is a deliberate and conscious attack on the cultural conception of femininity. Bertha mimics the role she is expected to play; this mimicry, however, is only superficial. Mansfield mostly appears to be making a subtle critique of the construct of femininity. Through Bertha’s inarticulateness and her self-diagnosis of hysteria and absurdity, Mansfield engenders a positive femininity precisely through the negative knowledge she provides of the sexual and social structures that repress and deflect Bertha’s feelings of bliss.[10] Critics such as Kaplan have found in ‘Bliss’a writer making her first tentative steps to reveal a ‘woman’s experience of reality’. Even if it is through exposing the rhapsodic outbursts of a woman trapped within the phallocentric construction of femininity and feminine style.[11]

To read the next commentary in this two-part series, follow the link here: ‘A Queer Reading of Katherine Mansfield’s ‘Bliss’


Notes:

[1] The quotation inscribed in the title page of Bliss and Other Stories (Plymouth: Mayflower Press, 1920). It is taken from Part One of Shakespeare’s Henry IV.

[2] Gentille D’Arcy and Chantal Cornut, ‘Katherine Mansfield ‘Bliss’: ‘The Rare Fiddle’ as Emblem of the Political and Sexual Alienation of Woman, Language and Literature, Vol. 35, No. 3 (1999) p. 257

[3] ibid, p. 257

[4] Keith Gregor, Blissful Thinking: Katherine Mansfield and the Engendering of Modernist Fiction, Cuadernos de Filologia Inglesa, Vol. 6, No. 1, (1997) p. 69

[5] ibid, p. 69

[6] Judith Neaman, ‘Allusion, Image and Associative Pattern: The Answers in Mansfield ‘Bliss’, 20th Century Literature, Vol. 32, No. 2 (Summer, 1986) p. 250

[7] Gregor, op. cit., p. 66

[8] ibid., p. 67

[9] Kaplan, op. cit., p. 159

[10] Gregor, op. cit., p. 75

[11] Kaplan, op. cit., p. 160

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