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.
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.
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 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.