Katherine Mansfield was one of the very few writers in English to succeed in establishing a reputation entirely on the basis of the short story form. This article explores Mansfield’s short story ‘Bliss’, illustrating in particular how the author employs symbolic imagery as a means to satirize her characters. Mansfield is regarded as a literary modernist. In her writing she arrived at a singular prose style which utilized associated imagery within an integrated symbolic language. The ‘tall, slender, pear tree in fullest, richest bloom’ (p.177), is arguably the central image of ‘Bliss’.
In this story Mansfield uses imagery as an effective means of satire. Observed from Bertha’s perspective, the pretentious Mrs Norman Knight’s coat, adorned with a frieze of monkeys, appears to enhance the woman’s simian appearance. This particular image is subsequently bolstered when Mrs Norman Knight is described as ‘crouched before the fire in her banana skins’ (p.180). The recurrent image of the moon is also laughably alluded to with the ridiculous Eddie Warren’s ‘immense white silk scarf’ (p.179) and matching white socks.
Bertha is satirized through the colours of her outfit evoking the earlier description of the pear tree: ‘A white dress, a string of jade beads, green shoes and stockings… She had thought of this scheme hours before she stood at the drawing-room window’ (p.178). Although imagery is frequently employed in aesthetic art, Mansfield is clearly using it for instructive purposes, as satire is largely viewed as an instrumental device. Through her complex figurative associations, she is highlighting the naivety of Bertha and the absurd mediocrity of her guests.
‘Bliss’ is related from an impartial perspective which invites the reader to assess the characters with little to no authorial influence. It is written in the third-person, although there are rare moments of second-person viewpoint, apparent in the use of the word ‘you’, deployed in the line: ‘What can you do if you are thirty and, turning the corner of your own street, you are overcome, suddenly, by a feeling of bliss’ (p.174). Mansfield’s choice to address the reader directly here serves to further immerse them within her narrative. ‘Bliss’ also launches into the story with little in the way of narrative exposition.
A major characteristic of the modernist short story is that it discounted plot in favour of epiphany. Epiphany in literature is a profoundly dramatic scene where a character (or reader) is enlightened through some sort of revelation. Mansfield knowingly employed it as the focal point in many of her stories, for example, in ‘Bliss’ the whole narrative framework appears to function as a build up to Bertha realising her husband is having an affair with Pearl Fulton: ‘His lips said: “I adore you,” and Miss Fulton laid her moonbeam fingers on his cheeks and smiled her sleepy smile’ (p.85). This shocking revelation is consolidated by the fact that Bertha was under the illusion she shared a profound friendship with Miss Fulton, apparent in the scene where the two women are admiring the pear tree: ‘How long did they stand there? Both, as it were, caught in that circle of unearthly light, understanding each other perfectly’ (p.183).
Katherine Mansfield instrumentally employed imagery and symbolism as an effective means to satirize the naivety and pretensions of her characters in ‘Bliss’.