Bliss: Visionary Flowers: Another Study of Katherine Mansfield’s Bliss
It is perhaps inevitable, given our cultural bias, that Bertha Young, who yearned to share her feelings of ‘‘bliss’’ with her husband and friends and failed to find the language that would communicate it, has been misunderstood and misrepresented by the critics of this most popular of Katherine Mansfield’s stories. Even a largely sympathetic critic like Sylvia Berkman has had difficulty with Bertha, seeing her as representative of the brittle set among which she moves, an example of a ‘‘modern metropolitan woman’’ who is ‘‘callous, tempermental, selfish and unreasonable,’’ demanding ‘‘servile, undeviating attention’’ from her men. Miss Berkman is uneasy with this mold for Bertha, for she goes on to admit: ‘‘Bertha Young in ‘Bliss’ to my mind exemplifies a misapplication of this tone, she seems not so much detestable as immature and stupid, an impression I do not believe Miss Mansfield meant to convey.’’ Marvin Melanger also identifies Bertha with her social set and stresses the satirical element of the story. Bertha’s ‘‘hysteria,’’ her frigidity, her mind’s apparent ‘‘confused internal chaos’’ make her ‘‘a highly unreliable grade for the reader.’’ Eisinger goes so far as to say that the pear tree and Bertha’s identification with it is ‘‘nothing short of myopic sentimentalization.’’ Poor Bertha! According to these critics, she is quintessentially a female stereotype: timid, sentimental, childish, frigid, naive, self-deluding. Such a figure (no matter how self-contradictory some of those qualities might be) of course deserves the disillusionment which comes to her at the end of the story when she discovers her husband’s and friend’s affair. Perhaps her worst fault, as Melanger insists, is that she has thought herself happy. Even her bliss is suspect: ‘‘. . . in the very words which the author frames her insistence, she demonstrates the emptiness of the claims.’’ Katherine Mansfield is thus brought forward as a witness against her character. And what seems to be primarily a critic’s reaction against the character is attributed to the author. But to strip Bertha of her human dignity and to make the story into an unpleasant little exposé of a social group and of a child-woman is to fail to recognize the author’s state of mind during the writing of the story and her hopes and intentions for her art. For Katherine Mansfield was not thinking small or smart at the time ‘‘Bliss’’ was composed. The story was written a week after the hemorrhage which signalled the seriousness of her lung condition. Like Keats in a similar situation she was henceforward convinced that she did not have enough time left to seal the accomplishment her work had promised. She turned her back on her earlier, for her less satisfactory, work on the New Age and her stories in the collection. In a German Pension. Indeed, she forbade republication of that work at a time when she needed money, and it would have been undoubtedly profitable for her to republish it because she no longer wanted to be identified as a clever, satirical voice. And she no longer needed to be. With signs of her mortality before her eyes, ‘‘Bliss’’ nevertheless occurs during a strongly productive time in her career. Highly excited by ‘‘Je ne parle pas francais’’ and by J. Middleton Murry’s reaction in praise of the story, she writes, ‘‘But what I felt so seriously as I wrote it was—oh! I am in a way grown up as a writer—a sort of an authority.’’ In another letter of this time she borrows an image from ‘‘Bliss’’: ‘‘Oh dear, oh dear! you have lighted such a candle! Great beams will come out of my eyes at lunch and play like search-lights over the pommes de terre.’’ Clearly, for all the playfulness of her language, she is exhilarated by the sense her art has matured. Clearly also there is in her letter to Murry at the conclusion of the first draft of ‘‘Bliss’’ the conviction that the stories are crowding up on her, that...
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