Literature

‘Bliss’ by Katherine Mansfield: Symbolism

The 1918 short story ‘Bliss’ is one of the best-known and most widely studied stories by the writer Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923). Although Mansfield never wrote a novel, her short stories helped to redefine the possibilities of the story form. ‘Bliss’ is a story full of ambiguous and intriguing symbols and images, so let’s take a closer look at some of the symbolism of the story. (You can read our analysis of ‘Bliss’ here.)

The Pear-Tree.

‘Bliss’, like much modernist fiction, is marked by its use of ambiguous symbolism: symbols whose meanings appear multifaceted and hard to pin down. And central to the story is the symbol of the pear-tree, which recurs at numerous points throughout ‘Bliss’. When it is first described, Bertha is admiring it from the window:

The windows of the drawing-room opened on to a balcony overlooking the garden. At the far end, against the wall, there was a tall, slender pear tree in fullest, richest bloom; it stood perfect, as though becalmed against the jade-green sky. Bertha couldn’t help feeling, even from this distance, that it had not a single bud or a faded petal.

If the ‘tall, slender’ shape of the pear tree suggests the physique of a woman, the fruit itself denotes the female genitals (especially the uterus) while also carrying connotations of the fruitful, fertile, juicy, and voluptuous.

Of course, apple trees usually take us to the Garden of Eden in the Book of Genesis (according to a long-standing tradition; the Bible doesn’t mention apples in relation to the tree), and pear-trees carry something of this association, without being as blatant or direct as if Mansfield had used an apple-tree to suggest temptation, a loss of innocence, or carnal knowledge.

Bertha is quick to associate the pear-tree with herself: she sees ‘the lovely pear tree with its wide open blossoms as a symbol of her own life.’ But why she detects such symbolism is not explained; it’s possible that there is some linguistic association at work (‘pear’ is so near to ‘Pearl’, the name of the woman she is attracted to, in ways which surprise her), although the symbolism and associations already mentioned doubtless play a part.

At the end of the story, Mansfield strengthens this ‘pear = Pearl’ association when she tells us that ‘the pear tree was as lovely as ever and as full of flower and as still.’ It remains unchanged, and untouched: Bertha’s evening with Pearl has not altered that. If the pear-tree is a symbol of her own life, it is full of flowering potential and yet remains ‘still’: its beauty has not been fully awakened, and it has not been (to coin a phrase) deflowered.

Food.

The centrepiece of ‘Bliss’ is, of course, the dinner party at which Bertha and Harry entertain their friends, including the Norman Knights, Pearl Fulton, and Eddie Warren, the poet. And so food plays an important role in the story. But it is not there merely to set the scene, for it symbolises things beyond the dinner-table:

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 flesh of the lobster’ and ‘the green of pistachio ices – green and cold like the eyelids of Egyptian dancers.’

Food is here figured as almost sensual (sexual?), with the pistachio ice cream summoning exotic dancers and the ‘white flesh’ of the lobster standing in for the white flesh of a woman (Bertha? Pearl?).

Cats.

A key theme of ‘Bliss’ is marriage, and Bertha’s unhappy marriage to Harry raises questions about the role of female desire in a largely loveless or at least sexless marriage. At a couple of points in the story, Mansfield draws our attention to a pair of cats seen in the garden:

A grey cat, dragging its belly, crept across the lawn, and a black one, its shadow, trailed after. The sight of them, so intent and so quick, gave Bertha a curious shiver.

‘What creepy things cats are!’ she stammered, and she turned away from the window and began walking up and down …

Bertha’s distaste for this scene, as one cat follows behind the other, stalking it but also walking in its shadow, suggests that on some level she also sees in the cats a reflection of her own life. Is she the black cat (black cats, lest we forget, often associated with witches in European folklore: those faithful companions of unmarried women who stepped outside the bounds of acceptable society), following in the ‘shadow’ of her husband?

At the end of the story, when Pearl leaves the dinner party, the cats are mentioned again, with their movements mirroring the two human figures, Eddie Warren and Pearl: ‘And then she was gone, with Eddie following, like the black cat following the grey cat.’ Now, Pearl has become the grey cat and Eddie the black cat, but once again, one character is following in the shadow of another.

It isn’t easy to say what we are to make of this cat-symbolism. In the first mention of the cats, they are described as ‘intent’ and ‘quick’, with the grey cat ‘dragging its belly’ as it moves, suggesting the stalking of prey. Is the black cat, in turn, stalking it? Is the grey cat sexual prey, much as Eddie Warren appears to stalk the beautiful Pearl at the end of the story?

It’s worth bearing in mind that both mentions of the grey cat and the black cat come just after the pear-tree has been mentioned: the first time, it is just after the ‘slender pear tree in fullest, richest bloom’ is introduced; the second time, it is immediately after Pearl’s parting comment to Bertha: ‘Your lovely pear-tree!’

The pear-tree, in standing in the garden and being ‘lovely’, suggests paradise, a kind of Edenic world. But the two cats are a blot on this paradisal landscape. Of course, it was a serpent or snake that sowed trouble in the Garden of Eden, not a cat; but the grey cat’s action of ‘dragging its belly’ curiously recalls the punishment God meted out to the serpent following its successful temptation of Adam and Eve. Genesis 3:14 reads:

And the LORD God said unto the serpent, Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life.

Just as the pear-tree stands in for the apple-tree associated with the Fall of Man and the Garden of Eden, so the cat dragging its belly stands in for the serpent, and performs a similar function: symbolically, it suggests the threat to paradise that lurks within the garden.

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