Life of Ma Parker

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Katherine Mansfield's "Life of Ma Parker": Women's Plight Katherine Mansfield's "Life of Ma Parker" presents the plight of Ma Parker as a working-class woman at the turn of the century, in terms of her position in the sphere of the family and in the sphere of society. "Life of Ma Parker" is a story of a widowed charwoman. Like Miss Brill, Ma Parker is a very lonely woman, but their equally painful story is told quite differently, mainly because Mansfield supplies no background to account why Miss Brill's Sunday passes as it does. As the title of the story denotes, we receive the story of Ma Parker's life, which explains her current situation. "As servant, wife, and mother, she's the generic British working-class female at the turn of the century – cowed by drudgery and burdened by loss. Her husband, a baker, 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: emigration, prostitution, poor health, worse luck" (Lohafer 475). At the present point in the story, Ma Parker arrives to work in the house of the literary gentleman after she buried the previous day her loving grandson, Lennie, who was the only ray of light in her dreary life. According to Irigaray, "all the systems of exchange that organize patriarchal societies and all the modalities of productive work that are recognized, values, and rewarded in these societies are men's business….[t]he work force is this always assumed to be masculine, and ‘products' are objects to be used, objects of transaction among men alone" (171). Ma Parker has to play the role of an object circulated among masculine employers as she has to support her children and herself. Ma begins working as early as the age of sixteen as a "kitching-maid" (143). Later on, "[w]hen that family was sold up she went as ‘help' to a doctor's house, and after two years there, on the run from morning till light, she married her husband" (144). Ma is an object of transaction among men, as she transfers from one male employee to another, until she is married. Now then, Ma was working for the literary man, as people advised him to "get a hag in once a week to clean up" (142, my italics). The literary man, insensitive to his surroundings and lonely as Ma Parker at the same time, dirties everything around him and leaves it all looking like "a gigantic dustbin" (142), but Ma "pitied the poor young gentleman for having no one to look after him" (142). Instead of thinking of herself, of her plight, her poverty and loneliness, Ma pities the gentleman she works for. At this point she does not stop to think of her troubles, of her grief, of her hard life. While Miss Brill lives in a world of her own creation and is a mere spectator of life (much like the literary gentleman Ma Parker works for), Ma Parker is an active participant in the cruel and difficult reality of her time, and suffers the hardships of a working-class woman. Ma Parker realizes she has had a hard life and wonders to herself, "[w]hy must it all have happened to me?…what have I done?…What have I done?" (Mansfield 148-149). Ma Parker, sadly, has grown "accustomed to the pain" (141). She and her husband "had thirteen little ones and buried seven of them. It if wasn't the ‘ospital it was the infirmary" (144). Her husband then dies of consumption and Ma Parker is left alone to struggle to bring up six little children and "keep herself to herself" (145). She must keep herself to herself, for "the gender-coded expectation [is] that Ma should swallow her suffering" (Lohafer 477) and keep on being strong for the sake of everyone concerned. She does not have the privilege of breaking down and actually feeling her pain. "Mother, virgin, prostitute: these are the social roles imposed on women" (Irigaray 186)....
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