Bliss by Katherine Mansfield

BLISS TEXT (pdf, with line numbers)

Bliss was one of Mansfield’s last stories. She wrote it only a week after a haemorrhage which indicated the seriousness of her lungs. Her writing has matured.  She wrote to Murry that, after facing the prospect of death, her awareness of nature had heightened.

STORY

Bliss does no have a plot and tight dramatic structure. We follow Bertha as she prepares to hold a dinner party, sharing her anticipation and her disillusionment when things don’t quite go to plan. The narrative is fuelled by what’s happening inside the characters rather than by external actions. Often it is unclear what is going on in the world around them.

Bertha Young is blissfully happy, preparing to spend the evening with friends who arrive for a dinner party. At the end of the evening she realises that her husband is having an affair with her friend, Pearl Fulton. Perhaps Bertha is blissfully happy because she is in denial about her husband’s affair. Perhaps she is simply happy without that subconscious knowledge of betrayal. Bertha resigns herself to a life of loneliness.

This story is more than the usual love triangle – KM forces the reader to make the shift; not only is the husband having an affair but his wife is also in love with the same woman… though Bertha does not realise the nature of it.

CHARACTERS

Bertha Young

A thirty-year-old housewife. Believes she is very lucky: good husband, “adorable baby”, “modern, thrilling friends”, materially well-off. Her slightly neurotic joy at everything, even in the fruit she arranges, might mask feelings of deep insecurity. The bliss may be a facade. She can see this tendency in herself: “I’m getting hysterical.”

Bertha’s last name is symbolic; she is young and immature. She is not sexually mature, and does not experience sexual bliss with her husband. “How idiotic civilisation is,” she thinks: “Why be given a body if you have to keep it shut up in a case like a rare, rare fiddle?” (Sexual repression.) She cannot finish her next sentence and allows herself to be distracted. The reality is too uncomfortable.

The couple do not communicate well. The reader observes this when Bertha fails to engage him in a meaningful conversation on the telephone. She only wants to “get in touch with him for a moment”. She describes her relationship with Harry as ‘cold’, yet she is obviously a woman who feels great passion. It is only towards her husband that she is cold.

KM refers to her character of Bertha as ‘artist manquee’, meaning that Bertha can separate language which is her own from the language she has borrowed from others. She knows what is genuine in herself and what she imitates. Yet she doesn’t yet know what is genuine in others.

Harry Young

Harry is inclined to be aggressive and predatory, not someone the reader easily warms to. He speaks of his ‘shameless passions for the white flesh of the lobster’, as if taking delight in the suffering of his food. He is also pretentious and foolish, describing a poem about a banal topic such as tomato soup as ‘so dreadfully eternal’.

Harry is an incompatible husband for Bertha, who is flighty and artistic by nature, looking for splendor everywhere. Harry makes light of Bertha’s interests and sensitivities, ensuring that the two of them will never be more than just ‘pals’. Bertha must search for a deeper connection elsewhere.


Pearl Fulton

Pearl is the friend that Bertha believes can share her overflowing happiness. Bertha looks up to Pearl, who is the only one of the dinner party guests who has any maturity. She has little to do with Bertha at all, described as Bertha’s ‘latest find’ rather than a ‘friend’.

Pearl’s name, too, reflects the way Bertha sees her: silvery blond. An oyster must be prized open to reveal a pearl inside; likewise, Bertha tries to prize Pearl open to find the prize inside. Bertha longs to understand this mysterious woman.

Bertha has noted that Pearl is reserved. This may be because Pearl is on a different level of maturity; it could also be because she is having an affair with Bertha’s husband, feels uncomfortable and must keep that part of her life away from Bertha. No doubt the dinner-party is uncomfortable for Pearl.

Bertha ‘falls in love’ with Pearl, as she is inclined to do when she meets ‘beautiful women’ who have ‘something strange about them’. Everyone else in Bertha’s life lets her down in an intimate sense; she is close to none of them. Pearl, however, just might offer the companionship that Bertha has been searching for.

But Bertha reads far more into their acquaintance than Pearl ever intended. When Pearl suggests the two of them admire the garden, Bertha takes this as a ‘sign’ – perhaps a sign that the two of them have something deeper in common. Sadly for Bertha, any connection is in her imagination. ‘And did Miss Fulton murmur: “Yes, just that.” Or did Bertha dream it?’

Pearl is part of a love triangle: Bertha loves Harry, Harry loves Pearl and Bertha loves Pearl. Bertha seems unaware of the homosexual nature of her love for Pearl; in colonial New Zealand it is unlikely that homosexuality was discussed; she may not have been aware of the concept. So Bertha quite naturally assumes that her passion is for her husband, via Pearl, when the object of her affection is for Pearl herself.

Nanny

plays the maternal, nurturing, down-to-earth role for Bertha’s baby, in contrast to Bertha herself, who does not dare to question Nanny’s authority.

Little B

Bertha’s baby is not yet her own person, instead serving as a reflection of her mother, Bertha. Bertha is not close to Little B, nor is she ‘close’ to herself. She is still working out what she thinks about the world and about her closest friends, not to mention her husband, who she only comes to understand later that evening.

SYMBOLISM AND IMAGERY

The pear tree could be a phallic symbol (of Harry) or it could be a symbol of nature’s indifference to human suffering. Or the tallness of it may represent Bertha’s homosexual aspirations, realised to their full. The flowering of the tree could symbolise the flowering of her sexual feelings. ‘(Bertha) seemed to see on her eyelids the lovely pear tree with its wide open blossoms as a symbol of her own life.’ Blossoms are a common symbol of sexual maturation.

In this sense, the tree might represent masculinity after all – the tree is tall and assertive and represents the ‘masculine’ part of Bertha’s sexual desire.

Bertha herself isn’t quite sure about the significance of the tree, and the symbolism of the tree remains only vague.

The Sun and Moon

For KM, images including both the sun and moon are holistic. The earlier imagery for her bliss was a series of sun images.  Later, the sun image is linked to the moon (via a candle metaphor). This suggests pre-lapsarian innocence – ie before the world turned to shit. (Lapsarian refers to the Fall of Man – a Calvinist idea.)

Hot and Cold

Mansfield returns to images of heat and cold throughout Bliss, referring back to ‘that bright glowing place – that shower of little sparks coming from it’. As the story progresses, the metaphor of sun and sparks becomes a form of shorthand for Bertha’s state of mind.

SATIRE

Bertha’s Friends are all keen on pumping up their own egos, “keen on social issues”.

Eddie Warren describes “a dreadful poem about a girl who was violated by a beggar without a nose in a little wood…”

The italics emphasise the author’s attitude that Eddie speaks of ridiculous things in a melodramatic manner.

NARRATION AND STYLE

The narrative style shows that Bertha is trying to keep certain truths from herself. In the first paragraphs, she speaks as if observing herself from a distance. Her words are not her own. She thinks one thing then immediately edits herself, as if observing herself taking part in some drama. Bertha’s words are not her own, simply a collection of quotations gleaned from elsewhere.

The writing is indirect and elliptic, leaving things out, hinting and suggesting rather than declaring outright. Much use is made of dots and dashes, especially in this story. Ellipsis reflects Bertha’s inability to see her own situation for what it is; a romantic attraction for a woman who happens to be having an affair with her husband. Bertha doesn’t understand her own feelings. Bertha’s feelings are reproduced in breathless, repetitious sentences. The broken syntax – full of dashes and explanation marks – make the language seem spontaneous, like someone thinking out loud. Mansfield takes us inside Bertha’s skin, sharing her insights moment by moment.

Bertha is a distinctively feminine voice, using words that only a woman would use: ‘divine’, ‘little precious’, ‘incredibly beautiful’. She also speaks with repetition, exclamation, abrupt shifts of thought (signalled by that dash) and abandoned sentences. This is the sort of language which has seen KM criticised.

KM makes a good job of distinguishing Bertha’s feminine voice from Harry’s, which is very much masculine in tone. The difference is important to the main idea: that only another woman would be able to understand Bertha’s feelings of ‘bliss’.

“You’re of course, absolutely right about ‘Wangle’. He shall be resprinkled mit leichtern Fingern, and I’m with you about the commas. What I meant (I hope it don’t sound high falutin’) was Bertha not being an artist, was yet artist manqué enough to realise that those words and expressions were not and couldn’t be hers. They were, as it were, quoted by her, borrowed with… an eyebrow… yet she’d none of her own. But this, I agree, is not permissible. I can’t grant all that in my dear reader. It’s very exquisite of you to understand so nearly.”

-         Letter to Murry, March 14, 1921.

THE ENDING

While a plot-driven story would offer the satisfaction of narrative closure – a definite ending – nothing is finally resolved in Bliss. We don’t know if Harry is really having an affair with Miss Fulton. We don’t know whether Bertha is about to confront him. She may have imagined what she saw, or knew it and ignored it.

Instead, Mansfield ends with the pear tree: the story’s central image. The pear tree appears at the story’s emotional climax and therefore provides an emotional closure.

9 responses to “Bliss by Katherine Mansfield

  1. Imtiyaz Dawan

    Thanks

  2. where in the story does she mature?

  3. I beleive that the pear tree is a symbol of a shared desire of both Harry and Bertha towards Pearl as well as a clear metaphore of their maturation process.
    the only thing I cannot understand is why Bertha considers society to be idiotic =P

    • Martin, I believe she finds it idiotic because it dwells upon all the constrains and limitations that stop one’s spirit from flowering and developing properly. The same motif is apparent in much of the fiction tracing back to the period of postmodern age, specifically the time from 1920 to 1950 (flowering of the Southern short story) where all the focus is placed on an individual trying to retain identity while keeping community relationships (if you’re interested in further reading, you may want to check works of Eudora Welty). Anyhow, Bertha finds the rapid “maturing” of the society inconsistent to her own. Also, she believes all the society’s criteria to be a matter of hypocrisi as human body to be free in its creation yet so unjustly limited in its expression by the abovementioned society – “Why be given a body if you have to keep it shut up in a case like a rare, rare fiddle?”

      Hope I helped :)

  4. What a great, thorough analysis! You’ve really helped me understand this short story better. A few things I’d like to add though:

    1. The character who says, “Tomato soup is so dreadfully eternal,” is Eddie Warren, not Harry Young;

    2. The moon could also be a symbol of femininity and maturity. The latter, as you pointed out, is also symbolized by the blossom. The use of ‘silver’ as an adjective, throughout the entire story, could also hint at femininity while leading up to the scene involving the moon.

    3. The pear tree is, like you said, a phallic symbol. Related to (2), KM writes that it seems “to stretch up, to point, to quiver in the bright air, to grow taller and taller as they gazed—almost to touch the rim of the round, silver moon.” If the moon is a symbol of femininity—and the full moon of maturity and pregnancy—I think KM’s intentions become somewhat clear.

    I’m not sure if (3) is a symbol of Harry’s or of the homosexual tendencies within Bertha, because the final sentence reads, “But the pear tree was as lovely as ever and as full of flower and as still.” Moreover, after Pearl and Harry’s ‘affair’ is revealed, Pearl says, “Your lovely pear tree!” and repeats shortly after, “Your lovely pear tree — pear tree — pear tree!”

    I think what makes KM great is the room for interpretation she leaves to us readers. “Bliss” is just another example of her mastery of the craft.

    • Thank you for the thoughtful comment.

      1. Thanks for the correction re Eddie/Warren. This post has had a lot of hits but no one has pointed that out.
      2. I hadn’t heard of silver being used as a symbol for femininity. I can see how round things in general became symbols for women (the shape of the egg, I suppose, as well as the round belly as you note) but I couldn’t for the life of me work out how silver correlates to female. So I resorted to looking up my symbolism dictionary in which I’m reminded that ‘wherever there’s a ranking, silver comes second, as the monetary value of metal is always less than that of gold’. So that’s depressing. Is there another link, do you think?
      3. Not sure about you, but I see phallic symbols in everything. I blame my high school English teacher.

      And yes, this story is open to many interpretations. I’d like to say they’re all correct, because the reader is always right, but I distinctly remember being marked down in an essay at uni when writing about this short story in a New Zealand English course, because my interpretation was too wide of ‘The Mark’. I wish I’d kept that essay, because I have no idea what I wrote back then.

      • I don’t remember where I first got it from, but a bit of search in Google revealed many sources that cite the color silver as a symbol of femininity. Some suggest that it’s because silver is the color of moonlight.

        For example, this one suggests that silver “relates to the moon, to water and the female principle; it may also symbolize the object of all desires and the harm they cause.”

        I know, ever since a course on Modernism, which highlighted Freud’s significance to modern literature, I too started to see phallic symbols in everything. Quite funny, actually, and a bit disturbing at times.

        Haha.. Or maybe your interpretation was not too wide at all, maybe your professor just lacked imagination? ;)

        Anyways, thanks for the chat!