‘Miss Brill’ is a short story by the New-Zealand-born modernist writer Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923). The story was first published in the Athenaeum in 1920 and then included in Mansfield’s 1922 collection The Garden Party and Other Stories: a book which, along with T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, James Joyce’s Ulysses, and Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room, helped to cement the year 1922 as the annus mirabilis of modernist literature.
You can read ‘Miss Brill’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of Mansfield’s story below.
‘Miss Brill’: plot summary
Every Sunday, a lady named Miss Brill goes to the local public gardens to hear the band play and to sit in the gardens and people-watch. It’s part of the weekly ritual to look at others, and, in turn, to be seen by others. The setting for the story is an unnamed town or city somewhere in France, as the French name of the gardens, ‘Jardins Publiques’, and the French spoken by the beau sitting with his young lover near the end of the story. In the course of the story, we learn that Miss Brill is a schoolteacher, and we infer that she is unmarried.
On the particular Sunday that is the focus of the story, Miss Brill puts on her fur coat before she sets off for the gardens. While she is there and watching the people around her, she comes to realise that she, and all of the other people gathered in the gardens, appear to be in a sort of play: life, in other words, is one big performance, and she and everyone else are playing their part:
Oh, how fascinating it was! How she enjoyed it! How she loved sitting here, watching it all! It was like a play. It was exactly like a play. Who could believe the sky at the back wasn’t painted? But it wasn’t till a little brown dog trotted on solemn and then slowly trotted off, like a little ‘theatre’ dog, a little dog that had been drugged, that Miss Brill discovered what it was that made it so exciting. They were all on the stage. They weren’t only the audience, not only looking on; they were acting. Even she had a part and came every Sunday.
Miss Brill’s realisation or epiphany (of which more below) might be regarded as a variation on the sentiment expressed by Jaques in Shakespeare’s As You Like It: ‘All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players’.
As the band start playing again, Miss Brill imagines that everyone present will begin singing together, and her eyes fill with tears at the thought. She believes that everyone is sharing a communal experience and that everyone understands.
But the end of the story brings a shock: everyone does not share her experience. A young couple come and sit on the same bench as Miss Brill, and she overhears their conversation, casting them as the hero and the heroine in life’s play. But she hears the man refer to her as a ‘stupid old thing’ before he asks, ‘who wants her?’ The girl responds by making a disparaging remark about Miss Brill’s fur coat, which she likens to ‘fried whiting’ fish.
Miss Brill walks home, but forgoes her usual treat of stopping off at the baker’s shop to buy a honey-cake. When she arrives home, and packs away her fur coat, and it is implied that she is crying as she does so.
‘Miss Brill’: analysis
‘Miss Brill’ is an example of modernist fiction, and this means that much of the story’s effect is achieved through suggestion rather than explicit description. Take that final paragraph, in which it is not openly stated that it is Miss Brill crying (the wording used by Mansfield makes it sound as though it is the fur coat itself shedding a tear): if Mansfield had written that she began crying because of what she had overheard in the gardens, the story would lose all of its delicate subtlety. Instead, Mansfield’s final sentence – ‘But when she put the lid on she thought she heard something crying’ – distances Miss Brill from her own loneliness and sadness in a way that is entirely in keeping with her character.
The implication, of course, is that she doesn’t fully realise at first that she is crying, because the feeling of her life’s emptiness has sneaked up on her out of nowhere. The moment contrasts poignantly with Miss Brill’s earlier moment in the gardens, before she overheard the young man describing her as a ‘stupid old thing’, when she openly cried and acknowledged her own tears, as the band played.
Another key element of ‘Miss Brill’, and one often found in modernist fiction, is the idea of the epiphany: a realisation or revelation experienced by a central character in the story. This epiphany often provides a similar function to a plot twist or denouement in a more traditional (i.e., plot-driven) story: at the end of a detective story the mystery is solved and the criminal unmasked, for instance. So in ‘Miss Brill’, we might say that the title character’s realisation that everyone seems to be in a play, and that the weekly ritual of walking and sitting in the public gardens is like a performance in which everyone plays their part, is an epiphany. She has realised something about the way this public space functions and that everyone is putting on an act: everyone is both part of the audience (watching everyone else) and performer (aware that everyone else is watching them).
But epiphanies in modernist fiction are often ambiguously poised between capturing genuine enlightenment (the protagonist has a life-changing realisation) and temporary change of mood (the protagonist thinks they have undergone a life-changing experience, but they are deluded about this). And there are several hints that Miss Brill’s epiphany is flawed or even misguided. For instance, we are told, ‘No doubt somebody would have noticed if she hadn’t been there; she was part of the performance after all. How strange she’d never thought of it like that before!’ But the dismissive exchange between the two young lovers on the bench suggests that, if anyone did notice she wasn’t there, they wouldn’t be bothered: indeed, they’d be relieved she wasn’t there.
In Mansfield’s stories there actually tend to be several epiphanies, or miniature moments which suggest some kind of new awareness in the mind of the story’s protagonist. And another moment, related to Miss Brill’s realisation that everyone is playing a part, comes shortly after this when she imagines everyone in the garden singing along as the band play:
And Miss Brill’s eyes filled with tears and she looked smiling at all the other members of the company. Yes, we understand, we understand, she thought though what they understood she didn’t know.
This last sentence is revealing because it hints at something which we, as readers, may pick up on but which the story’s protagonist appears to be oblivious to: namely that if the other people in the gardens ‘understand’, but what they understand Miss Brill doesn’t know, then she clearly doesn’t understand them, nor they her.
In other words, the words are subtly ironic in that they show that Miss Brill does realise the truth of the matter, but doesn’t realise that she realises it: that is to say, she inadvertently acknowledges that she doesn’t understand the people around her (as the exchange between the young couple demonstrates), while deluding herself that she does. After all, what does it mean to say ‘they understand what I mean’ if you then acknowledge that you don’t know what it is they understand? How can this be ‘understanding’ in the usual sense of the word?
‘Miss Brill’ is told in the third-person narrative mode, rather than the first-person. This is another key part of the story’s effects: if Miss Brill had been narrating her own experiences, it would have been more difficult for Mansfield to reveal to us the gulf between Miss Brill’s understanding of the people around her and the reality. Part of the quiet tragedy of the story is that Miss Brill doesn’t fully realise, or confront, her own loneliness, the extent to which she was wounded by the young couple’s remarks not just because she is no longer young (as they are) or because she is not in love (as they are), but because her ideas about how she is perceived by others have just been exposed as false. The fact that there is a generosity about her perception of others – that she is not some solipsistic attention-grabber who believes she, and only she is on the stage, but that everyone is performing, just as she is – only makes the crumbling of her weekly Sunday afternoon ritual, and the meaning she has invested in it, all the more piquant.
Writing the story from the third-person narrative viewpoint also allows Mansfield to make the most of a common modernist technique: free indirect speech, whereby a third-person narrator adopts the ‘voice’ (including the voice of their thoughts) of one of the story’s characters. This means that we are drawn into Miss Brill’s thoughts (and what we might call her stream of consciousness) even though she is never speaking directly to us:
Miss Brill put up her hand and touched her fur. Dear little thing! It was nice to feel it again. She had taken it out of its box that afternoon, shaken out the moth-powder, given it a good brush, and rubbed the life back into the dim little eyes.
The words ‘Dear little thing!’ are too colloquial and personal to belong to the impersonal omniscient narrator: this exclamation is clearly what Miss Brill is thinking, even though the words aren’t explicitly credited to her by the narrator. But because we move between more conventional third-person statements from the narrator (‘Miss Brill was glad’; ‘Miss Brill had often noticed’) and personal interjections from Miss Brill herself (‘Dear little thing!’; ‘Dear me!’), we have the curious experience of seeing everything through Miss Brill’s eyes but also, through the little hints that Mansfield provides us, gaining a view of the woman herself.
She is both spectator and performer: the narrative style of the story enacts the very dynamic that Miss Brill detects among the public gardens, where everyone is both seeing and seen, observer and observed. But Miss Brill learns that she is, like another lonely modernist figure, T. S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock, ‘not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be’.