Katherine Mansfield and Female Dependance

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Melissa Roxburgh

English HL IB


Katherine Mansfield, a modernist short story writer, is acclaimed for her perception of the lives of different classes of women revealed through her feminist approach to literature.  Specifically, two of her stories that present feminism are The Woman at the Store and Mr. Reginald Peacock’s Day. Each expose to the readers the social setting Mansfield places her characters in where the male has power over the relationships. The first, a less recent story, portrays a withered beauty that owns a store with her daughter in the middle of nowhere. As three visitors, arrive at her abode, the audience is enlightened on the severity of her inferiority. The latter gives the perspective from the male partner, yet still affirms the significant discontent of the female’s isolated existence. Reginald Peacock , a singing teacher, is used as a focal point of Mansfield’s theme of married life to delineate the absence of female equality. Mansfield uses these stories to reveal the issue of male dominance on marriage, to the extent that women are denied an independent role in life.  Attention is directed to this matter through the male figure’s flaws in the two short stories and the effect it plays on the female.

        In 1912, Katherine Mansfield’s short story The Woman at the Store emerged. The setting of the story is a metaphorical expression of the loneliness of the woman’s marriage. She is confined to her home forced to sell from her store, much like she is confined to her marriage, selling her body. Although the woman is married and has raised a child, her lifestyle exposes the downfall of her independence and happiness. From the opening lines of the story, the author uses setting to set the tone of a decaying entity. One example is the “larks [that] shrilled”(10). The author uses the appearance of larks because this particular bird’s beauty if found in the male gender. This male bird uses its shrilling songs to attract the female. Female larks are not nearly as attractive. This resembles the woman at the store, who is no longer beautiful, and must build her life, and nurse her child, alone, much like the female larks in real life.  Mansfield also incorporates the presence of plant life to reveal male dominance. She describes the scene using imagery, noting “there was nothing to be seen but wave after wave of tussock grass—patched with purple orchids and manuka”(10). Purple orchids—also referred to as orchis mascula—and manuka are significant because their titles hint at masculinity. The imagery Mansfield uses to communicate the setting also signifies the death of the woman’s independent lifestyle, the one she lost after marriage. “Flies buzzed in circles,” in the home (13). This picture displayed to the readers shows the consistent death-like qualities of her life. It also foreshadows the revelation of the truth about the husband’s whereabouts. The narrator also mentions, “the wind…[slithering] along the road,” alluding to death in a spiritual sense. However, it implies the feeling of demise, as the woman’s life is deteriorating. Her life is deteriorating due to the fact that her husband has neglected to care and love her the way a husband ought to. While she used to be beautiful, “as pretty as a wax doll,” her looks are now spoiled. Ironically the narrator states that she “blinked rapidly, screwing up her face,” even though the readers become aware that her image is already a permanent mess (11). Through the repetition of the whereabouts of her husband who is apparently “shearing”, symbolism is presented in the fact that he has stripped his wife of her rights, independence, and even beauty, and has mistreated her. Hin, a side character in the story states, “the old man’s cleared out and left her; that’s all my eye about shearing” (14). By this quote, the symbolism of shearing is revealed more specifically as a way of articulating the insignificance of the woman’s rights in the marriage. She has been forced to sustain a life on her own strength, while her husband lived the way he pleased, coming and going when he felt like it. “He left me too much alone,” she complains to her guests, “and [left] me ter look after the store. Back ‘e’d come…till ‘e could twist me round ‘is finger, then ‘e’d say ‘Well, so long, I’m off’” (16). This indicates that she is powerless and ultimately worthless. Mansfield enhances this point by denying the woman a name in the story. This devalues her character.  Furthermore, even though the woman at the store was clearly not fit to raise a child, she was expected to bear and care for children as one of her duties. This responsibility establishes the lack of independence of women, because they are pressured to reproduce no matter what the situation. All this woman was really good for was her skill of “ 125 different ways of kissing” (14).  The phrase  “knock up” emerges twice as well, pointing out her role in life as a sexual figure.  Male dominance is expressed despite the actual appearance of the husband in the story. However, we see the effects his actions left in her life. Even the woman acknowledges this by stating that he had “ broken [her] spirit and spoiled [her] looks” (16). The woman is ultimately a tool for reproduction, and a worthless addition to her husband’s selfish lifestyle.

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        Mr. Reginald Peacock’s Day, written eight years after the first story, offers a more modern view of the idea of male superiority. The story of a self-centered married man is parallel to The Woman at the Store, and unfolds the issue of male authority and independence contrasting the female of the story who is forced to comply with their spouse. Mansfield uses the protagonist’s name, Reginald Peacock, to develop an understanding of the character and how he seeks to dominate the relationship with his wife. Like the larks in the story The Woman at the Store, Peacocks’ beauty is given to ...

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