‘Prelude’, the long short story which opens Katherine Mansfield’s 1920 collection Bliss and Other Stories, is a modernist masterpiece. But like much modernist fiction, its meaning and its subtle use of symbolism and other narrative devices are unlikely to be fully apparent after a first, or even a second reading. You can read ‘Prelude’ here; on Tuesday we offered a detailed summary of the ‘plot’ of the story; now, we venture to put down some words of analysis about this story.
Because ‘Prelude’ is a modernist short story, the emphasis is on character rather than plot, as is also often the case with James Joyce’s short stories or Virginia Woolf’s short fiction. Mansfield is using the Burnells’ house-move, and the period when they are busy settling into their new home, as a situation around which she can make a number of local observations about family, women, and class, among other things.
‘Prelude’ is partly an observation about family relationships, and how the dynamic of a family alters. With their mother and grandma absent, Lottie assumes the role of the ‘important’ one (‘Lottie was very important’, the narrator tells us in part II; this statement should be read as an example of free indirect speech, with the third-person narrator relaying Kezia’s own thought that her older sister was enjoying being in charge).
Another theme of ‘Prelude’ is the way women speak to each other, and here family, class, and gender might all be regarded as interrelated themes. Consider the way Alice, the servant girl, dislikes the way Beryl speaks belittlingly to her, making her feel ‘low’; or the way Linda speaks to her mother ‘with the special voice that women use at night to each other as though they spoke in their sleep or from some hollow cave’. Beryl adopts a ‘flippant and silly’ tone to her friend Nan Pym when she writes her letter to her, reflecting when she reads the letter back only a few moments later that ‘she’d always write that kind of twaddle to Nan Pym’ and that her letter-writing tone ‘was faint already, like a voice heard over the telephone, high, gushing, with something bitter in the sound’.
How truthful can one woman be to another, and how often do the women of ‘Prelude’ find themselves constrained to keep things to themselves, or to modify how they feel when they communicate it to each other? Shortly before the goes down to dinner, Beryl confides (to herself alone: not to anyone else) that she is ‘always acting a part’.
And, related to the theme of gender and womanhood, we have the theme of pregnancy, embodied by Linda, the mother. The first real hint we have that she is pregnant is when she wakes up, having dreamt of a bird:
She was walking with her father through a green paddock sprinkled with daisies. Suddenly he bent down and parted the grasses and showed her a tiny ball of fluff just at her feet.
‘Oh, Papa, the darling.’ She made a cup of her hands and caught the tiny bird and stroked its head with her finger. It was quite tame. But a funny thing happened. As she stroked it began to swell, it ruffled and pouched, it grew bigger and bigger and its round eyes seemed to smile knowingly at her. Now her arms were hardly wide enough to hold it and she dropped it into her apron. It had become a baby with a big naked head and a gaping bird-mouth, opening and shutting. Her father broke into a loud clattering laugh and she woke to see Burnell standing by the windows rattling the Venetian blind up to the very top.
This moment, which Mansfield may have borrowed from George Egerton, uses birds and babies as interchangeable symbols, as a way of highlighting Linda’s unspoken pregnancy. And ‘Prelude’ is littered with bird symbolism and imagery: even before they have left their old home, Lottie finds a pill box in her parents’ room (a ‘pill’ box which had held what, one wonders – the cotton wool echoes the ball of ‘fluff’ that turns into the bird in Linda’s dream) and remarks, ‘I could keep a bird’s egg in that.’
As soon as the children arrive at their new home, ‘Lottie staggered on the lowest veranda step like a bird fallen out of the nest.’ And then there’s Beryl’s song that she sings, in an effort to mask her sullen feeling of unhappiness: ‘How many thousand birds I see / That sing aloud from every tree …’ Of course, the story also contains the decapitation of a bird, which pulls against the idea of birds (and therefore babies/children and new life) as exclusively the creators of joy and fulfilment in all who encounter them.
Rather than having a plot which builds towards a denouement or surprise twist, modernist short stories tend to focus on minute impressions and observations of character, and build towards an ‘epiphany’ experienced by one of the main characters.
This epiphany is a sort of realisation or revelation: they realise something about themselves, their own lives or their own feelings, which they hadn’t confronted before. In ‘Prelude’, the epiphany is Linda’s realisation, in part XI of the story, that she detests her husband. Stanley will go on working and making money, their house and their garden will get bigger and bigger as they move up in the world, and she will bear him more and more children (she’s had three already, with a fourth on the way). At this moment, Mansfield’s decision to focus on the family’s move begins to make complete sense: they are moving up in the world in relocating to the country, and Beryl’s exchange with the servant girl, Alice, underscores the gulf between the middle-class Burnells and the people who work for them.
‘Prelude’ opens with two sisters, Kezia and Lottie, but it is two sisters of an older generation – their mother and aunt, Linda and Beryl – who are the real protagonists of the story. One, Linda, has a husband, children, and a large house and garden of her own; the other, Beryl, has no husband or children, and is living with her sister’s family and feeling bitter, lonely, and isolated. Both are unsatisfied. One of the questions which Mansfield encourages us to ask – but to which she does not provide an answer – is to wonder where exactly fulfilment lies in our lives. How can it be achieved, or found, or cultivated?
Another problem which Mansfield highlights, but does not attempt to solve, is the gulf between how we feel and how we are able to articulate those feelings. This is apparent during Linda’s epiphany in the story’s penultimate part, but also just after Beryl’s letter in the final part, where we learn: ‘In a way, of course, it was all perfectly true, but in another way it was all the greatest rubbish and she didn’t believe a word of it. No, that wasn’t true. She felt all those things, but she didn’t really feel them like that.’ Like many other modernist short stories, and many of Mansfield’s other stories – Laura’s complex feelings at the end of ‘The Garden Party’ come to mind – knowing how we feel is hard enough; and putting those feelings into words is something else altogether.
As well as the bird-symbolism, the tableau with which ‘Prelude’ ends is subtle and delicate in what it symbolises. The scene involving Kezia, playing with her toy cat, mirrors (as it were) a mother bossing her child, forcing the child to ‘look at yourself’ (as Kezia says to her calico cat) in the mirror, as if she is chastising a child for a bad deed and forcing them to confront what they’ve done. Will Kezia and Lottie and Isabel grow up to be like Linda and Beryl, similarly searching for elusive meaning and satisfaction in their lives? Is the lot of women in Mansfield’s early twentieth-century New Zealand society to be either downtrodden servant girls (looking for meaning of their own, incidentally, in the pages of dream books), wives and mothers, or unmarried women living with their siblings and being the bossy aunt?
When the lid from the jar of cream hits the floor at the end of ‘Prelude’, Kezia is sure it has broken even before it hits the ground, even though it hasn’t. It isn’t an actual glass mirror, but a tin lid. But symbolically the glass has already shattered, and Kezia has lost her illusions already. She has caught a glimpse of her life to come, even if she is not yet fully aware of it.
In the last analysis, ‘Prelude’ is, indeed, a prelude to Mansfield’s later work: the symbolism of the aloe as an emblem of Linda’s own life chimes with Bertha’s obsession over her pear-tree in ‘Bliss’, while the focus on the relationships between sisters and the way family produces conflicting emotional responses in us prefigures ‘The Daughters of the Late Colonel’.