How Pearl Button Was Kidnapped by Katherine Mansfield

Written 1910.

Published 1912.


As the story opens, Pearl Fulton is swinging on the front gate. Her mother must have sent her out to play while she does the ‘ironing-because-it’s-Tuesday’. With the entry of two strange women a series of events begins:

  • The loose button pops off and rolls free and is lost.
  • Two gypsy women in flamboyant dress arrive and entice Pearl Button away with them.
  • The women bring her to a log room full of people, with a feeling of great vitality and freedom.
  • One of the women takes the ribbon from Pearl Button’s hair and shakes it loose. They kiss her on the neck.
  • The people laugh but Pearl Button cannot hear it.
  • A man across the room rolls a peach towards her. Pearl asks if she may eat it.
  • She eats it and spoils her clothes with the juice. Nobody seems to mind.
  • The people journey to the sea in carts. During the trip, Pearl cuddles in the arms of one of the women.
  • But when they stop on a hilltop Pearl’s happiness ends abruptly.
  • Below, the big piece of blue water creeps over the land.
  • Pearl is scared to walk on the sand but is coaxed by the women.
  • Looking towards the land, Pearl Button sees men in blue coats who have come to take her back to the House of Boxes.


Pearl Button

Little Pearl Button is like a button on a frock that her mother might be ironing. She imagines that she, herself, is a button set free. This fantasy is filled with colour and movement but normal sounds are absent, which lend the scene an air of unreality.


In places where there is a description of a scene, ordinary ambient sounds are missing. As Pearl swings on the gate, there are no sounds made by the wind. The two women approach in silence. They are seen vividly but not heard. Even when they talk, the (Maori) language is incomprehensible. It is as if Pearl is in a dreamscape.


This story is an embodiment of the desire to escape the constrictions of life.

KM was probably influenced by the “Alder King” (Erlkönig in German): a character who appears in a number of German poems and ballads as a bad creature who haunts forests and carries off travellers to their deaths, with the promise of joy, beauty and freedom.


The house of boxes symbolises the constrictions of life. The journey to the Maori pa and to the sea in the arms of the Maori earth-mother represents a journey towards both life and death.

The Sea Symbolises:

  • Natural order
  • Movements in life
  • Dark oblivion
  • A return to deep sleep
  • Security born of the subconscious knowledge of darkness