Katherine Mansfield and Female Dependance
English HL IB
MALE DOMINANCE, AND FEMALE DEPENDENCE
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 the male species. This resembles what Mr. Peacock views himself as in comparison to his wife. His pride reveals to the readers his failure to see reality, and exhibits his conceit. Although he denies being vain and even goes as far as to say he couldn’t “stand vain men,” the narrator later contradicts this by letting the readers catch a glimpse of his thoughts: “Vanity, that bright bird, lifted its wings again.” This too relates to his name. Peacocks, during mating season emit a very loud high-pitched cry. This directly correlates to Mr. Peacock’s obsession with singing, and its effect on the women he teaches. Dominance is portrayed through his name and vanity that cause him to view himself as more important than his wife’s right as an equal. In fact, his wife is even implied to have been slaving away long before Mr. Peacock gets out of bed when she comes into the bedroom wearing “an overall, with a handkerchief over her head—thereby proving that she had been up herself and slaving since dawn. Yet Mr. Peacock sees this as an attempt of hers to humiliate him, “by trying to drag him down to her level” (121). This implies that he regards his wife as inferior. He is ashamed of her for “not having a penny to her name” (121). Mr. Peacock’s altered view of reality causes him to think of his wife as a “pathetic, youthful creature, half child, half wild untamed bird, totally incompetent to cope with bills and creditors and all the sordid details of existence. Ironically, his thoughts essentially undermine his character, showing how weak he is to not be able to deal with the reality of marriage. Ultimately he is the inferior character because of his irrational thinking and limited perspectives. He dominates the family without admitting the responsibility of it. His irresponsibility is further exploited by his thoughts of how his wife hindered his abilities as an artist. He continually pushes the blame onto her and misinterprets her actions because he finds that he is flawless. He also dismisses responsibility by distancing Adrian, his son, from him, getting upset when his wife asks for money to pay for milk to feed their child. He is more concerned with his music and he finds his female pupils successful and beautiful, but uses the same line repeatedly on each of them: “my dear, I am only too charmed,” exposing his chauvinist perspectives that women are for his pleasure. The author also refers to Mr. Peacock as “genius” more than once, and uses this in contrast to a dispute the couple have in the kitchen where he states finding a servant, “doesn’t require a genius” essentially stating his wife is incompetent. The author uses this to demonstrate the male domination in the story.
The different perspectives of the two stories allow the audience to see both the thoughts of the male, and the negative results male dominance produces in the lives of females who are denied independence in society. It also gives insight into the author’s concern of female status. In The Woman at the Store, we see the woman’s view, which allows the perspective to focus on how the inferior status of women actually affected women. Contrary to this point of view, in Mr. Reginald Peacock’s Day, we see the male’s point of view. This engages the author’s audience in the conceit of a man suppressing the rights a female, and could possibly even cause a biased outlook on this particular protagonist. Mr. Peacock’s fantasy world, and refusal to accept responsibility give readers a glimpse of the author’s irritation of female limitations. The significance of addressing male dominance in her stories critiques the male superiority, and the few choices women have outside of their marriages. It leads the audience to admit the unfortunate realization that females are forced to depend on male figures more or less in these stories, and the inequitable authority given to husbands.