Katherine Mansfield and Sexuality

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  • Topic: Woman, Je ne parle pas français, Wife
  • Pages : 5 (1597 words )
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  • Published : September 23, 2007
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One of the themes that can be found in the stories of Katherine Mansfield centres upon the role, status, sexuality, and "place" of women in society. According to Chantal Cornut-Gentille d'Arcy, "Mansfield's succinct narratives … are triumphs of style, a style which challenged the conventional parameters of nineteenth-century realism, constrained to plot, sequential development, climax, and conclusion" (244). More specifically, maintains that "even though Mansfield never acknowledged any profound engagement with Freudian approaches to sexuality or psychic disorder … Mansfield moved in a context which undoubtedly indicates she was aware of Freud's ideas and discoveries" (245).

This is evident in ‘Life of Ma Parker', which describes the life of a widowed charwoman who has experienced nothing more than tragedy throughout her life and who most recently has had the horrible task of burying her loving little grandson (Lohafer 475). Ma Parker is written by Mansfield from both a Freudian psychological and a sociological perspective. Susan Lohafer characterises the story as "a spare iconography of working-class life that makes the story a perfect set-piece for cultural studies" (475). In the story, an aging charwoman must not only cope with the death of her grandson, she must also deal with the fact that she has no place to go where she can be by herself and give way to her grief.

Nothing that she has achieved in her entire working life has resulted in the acquisition of such a private place. Instead, she has buried her husband, a baker who died of "white lung disease" and those children who survived the high rate of infant mortality fell victim to other ills of the late-Victorian underclass: immigration, prostitution, poor health, worse luck (Lohafer 475).

Ma Parker was a woman whose status in society was predetermined and fixed. Similarly, in Mansfield's ‘Bliss', the reader is introduced to another fixed character, Bertha Young. Bertha is a 30-year old wife and mother who is a housewife embodying "the status of non-work" (248). Bertha Young is seen as planning a dinner party and, significantly, as becoming vulnerable to a series of erotic feelings which are first narcissistic, secondly, oriented toward another woman, and finally, erotically pointed at her male spouse. Thomas Dilworth states that in this story, Mansfield explores the homoerotic urge that many women feel but do not give into expressing (141). These urges are presented in the Freudian content as perfectly normal and as liberating.

However, Mansfield is seen by Dilworth as stopping before allowing her protagonist to become overly involved in these lesbian longings (142). It is no accident that Bertha Young shifts her desire from the female object, Miss Fulton, to the more legitimate object of her own husband. It is at this juncture that Mansfield makes it clear to the reader that Mr. Young and Miss Fulton are likely to be engaged in an affair of their own: as she is departing from the dinner party, he tells her she is adored and they arrange to meet "To-morrow" (Mansfield 185). For Bertha, who is clearly in the midst of a sexual awakening of some importance, this new knowledge of her husband's infidelity is undoubtedly shattering.

Dilworth says that it is extremely poignant that this knowledge should be given to Bertha immediately after her own sexual awakening and attraction to her husband (142). This poignancy is expressed in a motif of unplayed music. Metaphorically, Bertha has been a musical instrument that is about to be played for the first time; though a wife and mother and 30 years olds, she is spiritually and sexually ‘untouched'. Bertha is a musical instrument; her husband is the musician. However, she learns that he has chosen to ‘play' another woman, relegating her to the status of the unwanted ‘other'.

Miss Fulton has literally displaced Bertha in which Dilworth calls "a brutal enactment of the Darwinian survival of the...
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