Behind the Facade of Place
Setting often portrays a character even more accurately than their words or actions. Often the time or location in which a story takes place will affect one or more of the characters. In the case of Katherine Mansfield’s short story, “Miss Brill,” the author uses vivid sensory images to display the dynamic character of Miss Brill. The French park, the bakery and Miss Brill’s apartment, are all instruments used in displaying the main character. Miss Brill changes from being in denial of her lonely, secluded life to a rude and abrupt realization of her true circumstances.
How do the time and place show the change in Miss Brill’s character? The story opens in a lively French park in autumn and as Miss Brill notes, there are far more people at the Jardin Publiques than there were the previous Sunday and that “the band sounded louder and gayer,” (Mansfield 275). By Miss Brill’s choice of this bustling park as where she spends her Sunday afternoons, she is shown as a lonely woman who does not have many friends or relations to whom she may go. The way Miss Brill interacts, or rather fails to interact, with her surroundings shows her detachment from society. But, Miss Brill does not realize this or at least refuses to acknowledge her state. The park also feels festive as “the season had begun…” and “Wasn’t the conductor wearing a new coat, too?”(275) this also attracts the lonely Miss Brill. Miss Brill has “her ‘special’ seat.” This shows how Miss Brill is a consistent visitor of the park and how she has formed her own place in this busy public picture.
“She had become really quite expert, at listening…sitting in other people’s lives just for a minute.” Miss Brill would rather listen to another’s life story than talk herself, which may betray her secret loneliness, not only to others, but also to herself. This is shown even more deeply, when Miss Brill consoles herself that even when she cannot hear the conversations she can watch the crowd (276). Another point of Miss Brill’s denial is that on page 275, “when she breathed, something light and sad – no, not sad, exactly – seemed to move in her bosom,” and on page 277, “what they played was warm, sunny, yet there was just a faint chill;” she sees and feels happiness and life around her yet something hinders her from joining it. Both times rather than accepting and dealing with this separation she puts any “sadness” from her mind. Miss Brill uses the park as the backdrop for an imaginary world where she is an actress, thus finding an illusion of purpose for her life. In the Jardin Publiques Miss Brill draws from the people, music and lives around her to furnish her world with meaning, but unfortunately for Miss Brill when she leaves the park she leaves the theatre world she has created behind her.
Every week on her way home from the park Miss Brill stops at the bakers where she “usually bought a slice of honey-cake. It was her Sunday treat,” the regularity of Miss Brill’s visits to both the park and the bakery are hints of how empty her days are and how every chance away from home is an excitement which will cover the nagging truth about her life. “Sometimes there was an almond in her slice, sometimes not. It made a great difference,” (277) even the menial, to others, difference between an almond slice and the absence of one is an event large enough to Miss Brill that it is cause for celebration or disappointment. To Miss Brill an almond was like a present or surprise (277). Even a place and atmosphere as simple as a bakery is warm and alluring to a person who leads a lonely and uneventful life with no one to care for or to receive care from such as Miss Brill.
Miss Brill first realizes, or first accepts, the fact that she leads a lonely, purposeless life when the boy and girl voice what she has subconsciously known for a long time; “That stupid old thing at the end there…Why does she come here at all–who wants her?”(277) the inconsiderate young people give Miss Brill a rude and painful jolt into the realization or acceptance of her lonely state. Here we see that if Miss Brill had not chosen to systematically walk to the Jardin Publiques and bakery every Sunday afternoon her eyes may never have been opened to her circumstances. Unfortunately, for the unsuspecting Miss Brill, her informants may have given her more pain than her former denial would have.
On page 278, Miss Brill hurries on the almond slice Sundays. The few moments in thebakery determines the happiness of her entire evening. While Miss Brill was still in denial and resistance of her situation she notices that Sunday after Sunday the other people sitting in the park were “Odd, silent, nearly all old and they looked as though they’d just come from little dark rooms or even – even cupboards!”(278). In the end of the story Mansfield states, “But today she passed the bakers by, climbed the stairs, and went into the little dark room – her room like a cupboard,” (278). Miss Brill has come to the awareness of her sad and friendless life and this is accented in the last line on page 278, “but when she put the lid on she thought she heard something crying.” Miss Brill’s daydreams are shattered now that she knows the painful truth that she has always been aware of. The crying she hears is from her heart because she will never be able to see the park, bakery or her home in the same light that she previously did.
Throughout her story Katherine Mansfield used vivid descriptions of settings to uncover the character of Miss Brill. The French park showed Miss Brill to be an almost happy woman in fairly contented denial of her solitary lifestyle. The bakery was used to illustrate how routine the lives of secluded people become. Finally, Miss Brill’s apartment was used to represent her acquiescence of her solitude. Miss Brill was written as an example that often the places people chose to go reflect important or key features of their character. Even though time or place can be an obscure source it can very likely reveal more about a person than what they say or do.
Mansfield, Katherine. “Miss Brill”. Rpt. in M. Meyer Ed. The Compact Bedford Introduction to Literature. Eighth Edition. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2009. Pp. 275-278.