By Dr Oliver Tearle
Katherine Mansfield’s ‘Bliss’ is one of her first great short stories – the genre she excelled at (she never wrote a novel, and her poetry failed to make a mark on the literary world).
‘Bliss’ was first published in 1918, and is shot through with homoerotic longing and the animalistic nature of sexual desire. However, because Mansfield was writing in 1918, these things can only be hinted at through symbolism and suggestion, as this analysis will attempt to show…
‘Bliss’ (which can be read here) calls to mind the phrase ‘ignorance is bliss’, and this is the question which lurks behind Mansfield’s story. Is it sometimes best to remain in the dark? Can some knowledge overwhelm you and threaten to destroy your entire world?
‘Bliss’: plot summary
In summary, ‘Bliss’ focuses on Bertha Young, a 30 year-old wife and mother who enjoys a comfortable middle-class life with her husband Harry and their baby. However, as the story goes on, we wonder whether she does ‘enjoy’ her life.
‘Bliss’ begins by telling us that Bertha passes her days in an almost delirious state of happiness and contentment, but we begin to wonder how a person can possibly sustain this level of unbridled joy. Is it hiding an inner turmoil or nagging doubt that everything is not all right? Since this is a modernist short story, we get to know the characters through moments in their lives rather than through a coherent and action-driven plot.
We see Bertha with her baby and the nanny, and the protective way the nanny takes possession of the baby, as if shutting out the mother from the picture.
We learn that Bertha has recently made the acquaintance of a young, beautiful, and exciting woman, Pearl Fulton, and there is a suggestion that Bertha idolises Pearl, and perhaps even harbours sexual desire for her. Pearl is invited to the dinner party which Bertha and Harry are hosting, and the remainder of the story focuses on this single evening.
The dinner party provides us with an opportunity to observe the characters as their true feelings are suppressed by the social constraints of the event. Decorum has to be observed; Bertha can hint at a deep affinity between her and Pearl, but can only do so through alluding in her conversation to the pear tree (oddly enough, spelling out the first four letters of Pearl’s name) in the garden, which Bertha interprets as a symbol for herself and Pearl.
At the end of the evening, Bertha’s world seems to come crashing down as she observes her husband putting Pearl’s coat on her shoulders and arranging to meet up for a secret tryst with her. Bertha’s husband and Pearl are having an affair!
Once they have left, Bertha collapses in a chair and asks what is going to happen now. But at this point the story ends: as with many modernist narratives, we are left (literally) with a question at the end, the implication being that life more often presents us with unanswered questions than it does easy solutions or neatly tied-up loose ends.
Food and fruit play an important symbolic role in ‘Bliss’, so it’s worth analysing how Katherine Mansfield uses them.
Observe the behaviour of Bertha’s husband, Harry, at dinner, where he demonstrates a ‘shameless passion for the white flesh of the lobster’, the implication being that Harry devours the ‘white flesh’ of beautiful women as rapaciously as he does the food on his dinner-plate:
Harry was enjoying his dinner. It was part of his – well, not his nature, exactly, and certainly not his pose – his – something or other – to talk about food and to glory in his ‘shameless passion for the white flash of the lobster’ and ‘the green of pistachio ices – green and cold like the eyelids of Egyptian dancers.’
The pear tree, similarly, is loaded with symbolism, although – as is so often the case with modernism – its symbolism does not rely on some shared ‘code’ which we as readers simply come along and decode, as would be the case if Mansfield had made it an apple tree instead (with all of its connotations of temptation, sin, and the forbidden which the apple tree from the Garden of Eden summons).
The pear tree suggests these connotations but clouds them, making it difficult for us to know for certain how we should interpret or analyse its significance in the story. The apple tree and the Genesis story of Eve and the Fall of Man brings us back to knowledge (the forbidden tree in Genesis is the Tree of Knowledge), and that takes us back to the story’s title, ‘Bliss’, with its invitation to recall the proverb ‘ignorance is bliss’.
But pears are altogether more succulent, luscious, and voluptuous than apples, so Mansfield combines sexual temptation with more general ideas of sin and forbidden knowledge.
Another notable aspect of ‘Bliss’ is Mansfield’s narrative technique. Although the story is written in the third person, Mansfield uses the important device known as free indirect speech to give us a window onto Bertha’s thoughts – not just what she thinks, but how her mind works:
Although Bertha Young was thirty she still had moments like this when she wanted to run instead of walk, to take dancing steps on and off the pavement, to bowl a hoop, to throw something up in the air and catch it again, or to stand still and laugh at – nothing – at nothing, simply.
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 – absolute bliss! – 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? …
Oh, is there no way you can express it without being ‘drunk and disorderly’? How idiotic civilisation is! Why be given a body if you have to keep it shut up in a case like a rare, rare fiddle?
These questions are being asked by Bertha, but it is the narrator ventriloquising them for her, and relaying them to us. Note that they don’t appear in quotation marks as reported speech; nor does Mansfield attach any helpful tags, such as ‘Bertha thought’, or ‘It was Bertha Young’s opinion that …’ The narratorial voice subtly merges with Bertha’s slightly childlike (or even childish) voice, to highlight her immaturity and sexual innocence.
‘Bliss’ is one of Katherine Mansfield’s greatest short stories, and its greatness partly resides in its ambiguities. Even Bertha’s final exclamation, ‘Oh, what is going to happen now?’, can be read less as a declaration of despair than an embracing of the wild and unpredictable vagaries of life, the same excitement at the unexpectedness of real life which grips Virginia Woolf’s narrator at the end of her story ‘An Unwritten Novel’.
If you found our analysis of Mansfield’s story useful, you might also enjoy our analysis of Kate Chopin’s ‘The Story of an Hour’.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Thank you. May I add that pear trees have a sexual character in various cultures, expressed most famously perhaps in Chaucer’s The Merchant’s Tale? Whereas the apple tree (erroneous, given that Eden would not have produced apples) represents ethical knowledge, the pear tree represents carnal knowledge.
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