A Study of Katherine Mansfield's Bliss

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Katherine Mansfield's story, "Bliss," is about sex. Yet, because Bertha's sexuality does not manifest itself in an immediate desire for a heterosexual sexual encounter it is difficult to determine how sexuality figures in the story. The presentation of sexuality in Mansfield's stories is so unique that most critics contributing to Jan Pilditch's The Critical Response to Katherine Mansfield do not realize how deeply sexuality figures in the stories and do not refer to it in their analyses. Cherry Hankin theorizes that Mansfield's stories are about the psychological impact on a character when fantasy and reality conflict, yet she never defines fantasy as sexual, and feels the fantasy, in "Bliss" that is destroyed is that Bertha and Pearl are "‘creatures of another world'" (Pilditch, 188). Likewise, one anonymous reviewer, who fails to identify Bertha's bliss as a sexual manifestation, writes, "It was an illusion. The intercommunication was due, not to a magic of mutual comprehension but to a common desire" (Pilditch, 52). These critics misunderstand the sexuality portrayed and do not pay due attention to the shifting voice of narration, for the description of the shared moments is not written as Bertha's thoughts, but as a third-person narration. The women's communion together does happen and is not an illusion. The revelation at the end of the story marks Bertha's loss of innocence and initiation into the confusing world of sexual relations. Vincent O'Sullivan writes, …"Bliss" may be the obvious story of the epiphany which distorts, or even tricks," and, "…both the illumination, and what remains when it fades, have to do with the way in which their author regarded the complications of sex..." (Pildich, 143, 146). The nature of sexuality in "Bliss" is illuminated through the reading of other of Mansfield's "adult" stories because her view of female sexuality is consistent. "The Daughters of the Late Colonel," "Carnation," and "Psychology," as well as "Bliss," are all about the repression of female sexuality and the release of this sexuality by a shared moment of intimacy with another woman. In all the stories aside from "Carnation" there is one man who is a focus of sexual repression or disappointment, and in all but "The Daughters of the Late Colonel," after the moment of shared intimacy between females, awakened sexuality is redirected towards a male. Mansfield is held in high regard because of the rich descriptiveness of her writing—noting the color of flowers on the table and play of light throughout the room; the position of a pair of hands and the set of lips. Arthur Sewell writes:

"What Katherine Mansfield wrote about only partly explains this quality in her stories. It has something to do with her way of taking "a long look at life," something to do with her people, too, her old maids and her children. It is a kind of tremulous quality, as when experience is a little uncertain in its lights and shadows and we don't know whether to laugh—no, to smile or cry. …It may be impossible to describe this quality in Katherine Mansfield's stories that makes them unique" (Pilditch, 42).

I think this quality is uniquely feminine and is both a part of the expression of and repression of sexuality in Mansfield's writing. In "Carnation," Eve's (her name defining her as fallen?) sexuality is transmuted into a passion for eating flowers: "She snuffed it and snuffed it, twirled it in her fingers, laid it against her cheek, held it to her lips, tickled Katie's neck with it, and ended, finally, by pulling it to pieces and eating it, petal by petal" (Alpers, 315). This process of flower-devouring is similar to other expressions of sexuality in Mansfield's work. It starts with a sensual appreciation which is not overtly sexual but indulgent, and then leads to active involvement in the garnering of more sensations. After this full sensual awakening the experience is shared with another female. In "Psychology," the...
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