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The Garden Party and Other Stories

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The Garden Party and Other Stories

Laura Sheridan is a young girl struggling to understand the dynamics of social class, wealth, and poverty. Her family is planning a lavish garden party, unconcerned with the working-class struggles taking place just down the hill from them. What will Laura discover about class, prejudice, and detachment? Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923) addresses these issues in her famous story “The Garden Party”, the most famous short story within the collection The Garden Party and Other Stories (1922).

The Garden Party and Other Stories: Katherine Mansfield

Katherine Mansfield was a highly influential Modernist writer. She wrote numerous short stories, many of which were published in collections. She drew inspiration from her upbringing in New Zealand, as well as from her experiences in a society that she felt was unfair toward women. “The Garden Party,” the titular story of this collection and possibly Mansfield's most famous work, was written in 1921, then published in The Garden Party and Other Stories in 1922. This collection was the last published during the author's lifetime.

In general, Katherine Mansfield’s writing style can be described as experimental and innovative. She is considered an early influential figure in literary Modernism; The Garden Party and Other Stories is representative of her modernist writing.

Modernism: a literary movement popular between the early 1900s and the early 1940s that rejected the more straightforward storytelling of its predecessors. Modernism instead strove to portray the changes in society and the popular mind following World War I.

Other famous examples of Modernist literature include T. S. Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1915), Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway (1925), James Joyce's collection of short stories titled Dubliners (1914), Franz Kafka's novella The Metamorphosis (1915), and D. H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers (1913).

The Garden Party and Other Stories: Summary

Laura Sheridan is a young woman growing up in a wealthy, high-class family in New Zealand. They live in a large, lavish home with a gorgeous garden—clearly showing their wealth and class.

The Sheridan's house was inspired by a large, beautiful house that Katherine Mansfield lived in during her childhood, growing up as part of a well-off family in New Zealand.1

The Sheridan family is preparing to hold a garden party on their property; Laura is put in charge of overseeing the workers who come to set up the marquee. Laura, having been raised in a wealthy family, is expected to consider herself superior to the working men. However, as she observes them and hears the straightforward and direct way that they speak, Laura finds that she really likes these lower-class men. She becomes upset, feeling that the social classes that separate them are “absurd” (The Garden Party and Other Stories, “The Garden Party”).

Marquee: a big tent typically used for outdoor events.

After Laura is finished with the marquee, she finds that a giant delivery of pink lilies, ordered by her mother, has arrived. After this, Laura's sisters Meg and Jose are in another room practicing singing and playing the piano, which has been moved for the party. Laura next writes out labels in the shape of little flags for the sandwiches that will be served at the party. After delivering the flags, Laura learns that cream puffs have been delivered; after eating one, she encounters the Godber's man, who delivered the cream puffs, in the garden.

The Garden Party and Other Stories, a Fancy Estate, StudySmarterThe Sheridan estate is a lavish house that shows the family's wealth, especially in comparison to the working-class homes just downhillPixabay

The delivery man is telling some other workers that Mr. Scott, a man who lives just down the hill from the Sheridan estate, died in a work accident earlier in the day. Laura is upset by this and immediately feels that the garden party should not be held. However, when she expresses this to Jose and Mrs. Sheridan, they are annoyed that Laura would ruin their fun. They make fun of Laura for feeling so upset about a working-class man's death, and Jose even suggests that Mr. Scott was drunk at work and got what he deserved. Finally, Mrs. Sheridan gives her own fancy hat to Laura. Seeing her reflection with the beautiful hat, Laura feels removed from Mr. Scott's death and decides that the party should go on after all.

Later in the day, Laura goes to her brother Laurie to ask his opinion on the matter. However, when Laurie compliments her hat, Laura's mind is made up, and she attends the garden party without further reservation. When the party is over, Mr. Sheridan mentions Mr. Scott's death. This upsets Mrs. Sheridan again, who again feels that her fun is being marred by the attention given to the death. Suddenly, though, Mrs. Sheridan decides to send the leftover party food to the Scott family and Laura, though she feels that the act is a little arrogant, goes herself to deliver the leftovers.

Along the way, Laura sees the poor state of the working-class homes and feels embarrassed to be wearing fancy clothes. When she arrives at the Scott household, Laura tries to hand over the leftovers quickly and leave. However, she is invited inside and introduced to the newly widowed Em Scott. Laura is still upset by her surroundings, but ends up entering the room containing Mr. Scott's body. Rather than finding the corpse horrifying, Laura sees it as beautiful; she sees that Mr. Scott is no longer confined by social class. Laura does, however, still recognize the tragedy of his untimely death, and on her way out she apologizes for the fancy hat she still wears.

Leaving the Scott home, Laura runs into her brother Laurie. Laura is crying, though her tears are actually from joy because of her new understanding of the beauty of life and death. She struggles to express her revelation to Laurie.

At the end of the story, Laura says, “Isn't life—” but cannot find the words to properly express what she is feeling. Laurie, believing that he understands exactly what she means, responds, “Isn't it, darling?” (The Garden Party and Other Stories, “The Garden Party”).

Do you think that Laurie really understands what Laura is feeling? Why or why not?

The Garden Party and Other Stories: Central Idea

The central idea that Katherine Mansfield develops in the titular story “The Garden Party” is a close look at the dynamics between the rich and poor. Laura Sheridan, a young girl, is growing up and beginning to understand that her well-off, high-class family looks down on poor people.

More than this, they connect a person's poverty to their worthiness; while a poor person is not seen as worth the time or attention of a high-class person, a poor person is expected to greatly appreciate any attention or discarded objects given to them by a high-class person. As Laura witnesses poverty and death, she gains a more mature perspective and sees the beauty in both life and death.

The Garden Party and Other Stories: Main Characters

  • Laura Sheridan: Mr. and Mrs. Sheridan's daughter. As she is exposed to working-class people, she slowly realizes that she disagrees with the separation between social classes. She wants to put off her family's garden party when she learns that Mr. Scott, a working-class man who lives just down the hill from them, has died; however, she is convinced by her family to continue the party as planned. She later takes leftovers to Mr. Scott's widow and, seeing Mr. Scott's body, realizes the beauty of life and death.

  • The workers: working-class men who come to the Sheridan home to set up the marquee for the garden party. Laura is impressed with them and discovers that she wished social class didn't prevent her from befriending them.

  • Mrs. Sheridan: Mother to Laura, Laurie, Meg, and Jose. She is upset when Laura wants to put off the party due to Mr. Scott's death and doesn't understand why Laura is concerned with the misfortunes of a poor man. She gives Laura a fancy hat to distract her from her concerns about the party, and later sends Laura to the Scott home with leftovers after the party.

  • Laurie Sheridan: Laura's brother. He compliments Laura's hat, solidifying her decision to attend the garden party.

  • Mr. Sheridan: Laura's father. After the garden party, he brings up Mr. Scott's death, prompting Mrs. Sheridan to send leftovers to the Scott home.

  • Mr. Scott: a man who lived in the poor area downhill from the Sheridan family and worked driving a cart; he died unexpectedly in a work accident the morning of the garden party.

  • Em Scott: Mr. Scott's wife. She is confused but pleased when Laura visits after the garden party.

The Garden Party and Other Stories: Analysis

The Garden Party and Other Stories is a collection of 15 short stories by Katherine Mansfield. The 15 stories included in the collection are:

  • “At the Bay”

  • “The Garden Party”

  • “The Daughters of the Late Colonel”

  • “Mr and Mrs Dove”

  • “The Young Girl”

  • “Life of Ma Parker”

  • “Marriage à la Mode”

  • “The Voyage”

  • “Miss Brill”

  • “Her First Ball”

  • “The Singing Lesson”

  • The Stranger

  • “Bank Holiday”

  • “An Ideal Family”

  • “The Lady's Maid”

“The Garden Party” is the most famous of the stories in this collection. It was written in 1921 and first published in newspapers before the release of The Garden Party and Other Stories in 1922.

As is typical of Mansfield's works, it reflects characteristics of the Modernist literary movement. This story in particular features symbolism and a focus on an individual's experience.

The following are often used in Modernist literature, such as Katherine Mansfield's short stories:

  • Symbolism
  • Imagery
  • Individualism (a focus on individuals' experiences)
  • Stream of consciousness (a writing style which presents the author's or narrator's thoughts as a continuous flow like natural thought, rather than through a structured narrative frame)
  • Nonlinear stories (when the plot of a story is not told in chronological order)
  • Multiple perspectives

Point of View

Katherine Mansfield uses a third-person perspective in “The Garden Party”, and also uses free indirect speech to occasionally mix in Laura's first-person perspective to the overall third-person narration.

Free indirect speech: a kind of narration that melds together the third- and first-person points of view; this gives the intimacy of first-person narration as well as the objectivity of the third-person perspective.

By allowing Laura's first-person perspective to meld into the overall third-person narration of the story, the reader gains insight into Laura's character and her internal thoughts. This works well with Mansfield's Modernist writing, as Modernism places importance on the inner experiences of characters. Additionally, it allows the themes of the story to shine through Laura's thoughts—we can see her internal struggle with how she feels about the working-class people she meets and how she sees her family treat them.

Symbolism

Symbolism is commonly featured in Modernist literature, and Katherine Mansfield's “The Garden Party” is no exception. In the short story, Laura is given a fancy hat that was her mother's. Seeing herself in the hat, Laura suddenly found that Mr. Scott's death

“blurred, unreal, like a picture in the newspaper.” (The Garden Party and Other Stories, “The Garden Party”).

The beauty that her lavish wealth affords her—symbolized by the fancy hat—distracts Laura from her feelings of connection and concern for lower-class people. Laura nearly brings up her concerns again before the party starts, but is again disconnected from her empathy when Laurie compliments the hat. This symbolism helps Mansfield to underline the connection she is drawing between the distracting beauty experienced by the wealthy and their tendency to detach themselves from the reality of the working class's suffering.

The Garden Party and Other Stories, a Fancy Black Hat, StudySmarterThe fancy hat that Mrs. Sheridan gives to Laura is a symbol of their wealth and how it lets them disconnect from others' sufferingPixabay

The Garden Party and Other Stories: Themes

Katherine Mansfield addresses many themes in her short story collection The Garden Party and Other Stories. Many of her stories address issues of gender, marriage, regret, life, and death. In the most famous of the included stories, “The Garden Party”, three major themes are social class and lifestyle, prejudice and understanding, and beauty and detachment.

Social Class and Lifestyle

Katherine Mansfield illustrates the effects that social class has on lifestyle in her short story “The Garden Party”. One great example of this is the description of the working-class homes at the bottom of the hill in comparison to the Sheridan estate.

The little cottages were in a lane to themselves at the very bottom of a steep rise that led up to the house [...] They were the greatest possible eyesore, and they had no right to be in that neighbourhood at all. They were little mean dwellings painted a chocolate brown. In the garden patches there was nothing but cabbage stalks, sick hens and tomato cans. The very smoke coming out of their chimneys was poverty-stricken. Little rags and shreds of smoke, so unlike the great silvery plumes that uncurled from the Sheridans' chimneys.” (The Garden Party and Other Stories, “The Garden Party”)

The description of the “eyesore” homes of the working-class families with “poverty-stricken” chimney smoke highlights the poor conditions that these people live in. The Sheridan estate, just up the hill from these “mean dwellings” is instead large and lavishly decorated. Mansfield even describes the very smoke from its chimneys as “great silvery plumes”, underlining the luxurious lifestyle that their upper-class social rank allows them to enjoy.

Prejudice and Understanding

Another theme that Mansfield addresses in “The Garden Party” is prejudice and understanding. This can be seen clearly when Laura observes a worker who came to put up the marquee.

He bent down, pinched a sprig of lavender, put his thumb and forefinger to his nose and snuffed up the smell. When Laura saw that gesture she forgot all about the karakas in her wonder at him caring for things like that—caring for the smell of lavender. How many men that she knew would have done such a thing? Oh, how extraordinarily nice workmen were, she thought. Why couldn't she have workmen for her friends rather than the silly boys she danced with and who came to Sunday night supper?” (The Garden Party and Other Stories, “The Garden Party”)

As she observes the workers, Laura quickly realizes that she identifies with them and likes them. She wants to get to know them better. However, because they are from different social classes, it is not acceptable for them to spend time together as if they are equals; the prejudice between classes prevents them from interacting on equal footing and gaining a better understanding of one another.

Beauty and Detachment

Katherine Mansfield also addresses the connection between beauty and detachment in “The Garden Party”. In particular, she uses Mrs. Sheridan's hat as a symbol for the beauty that can blind upper-class people to the suffering of the lower classes.

“Darling!” Mrs. Sheridan got up and came over to her, carrying the hat. Before Laura could stop her she had popped it on. “My child!” said her mother, “the hat is yours. It's made for you. It's much too young for me. I have never seen you look such a picture. Look at yourself!” And she held up her hand-mirror.” (The Garden Party and Other Stories, “The Garden Party”)

In this quote, Mrs. Sheridan gives her fancy hat to Laura—symbolically passing on a high-class life of wealth. The beautiful hat distracts Laura from her concerns about the insensitivity of throwing a party when Mr. Scott has just died. Mansfield uses the hat to explore the way that the lavish beauty the upper-class surround themselves with distracts them from the suffering of working-class people. Even Laura becomes preoccupied with her beauty in the hat, suddenly feeling that Mr. Scott's tragic death has faded into the background once she sees her reflection.

The Garden Party and Other Stories, a Fancy Party Table, StudySmarterThe beauty that the Sheridan family surrounds themselves with allows them to detach from the suffering of their working-class neighborsPixabay

The Garden Party and Other Stories - Key takeaways

  • The Garden Party and Other Stories by Katherine Mansfield was published in 1922.

  • The Garden Party and Other Stories is a collection of short stories addressing themes including gender, marriage, regret, life, and death.
  • “The Garden Party” is the most famous short story in the collection.
  • “The Garden Party” is a story about a young girl growing up in a high-class family; as she matures, she begins to see that the high-class people around her see poorer people as less worthy.
  • Major themes of “The Garden Party” include social class and lifestyle, prejudice and understanding, and beauty and detachment.

1Gillian Boddy, “Mansfield, Katherine.” Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, 1996.

Frequently Asked Questions about The Garden Party and Other Stories

The Garden Party and Other Stories is a collection of 15 short stories by Katherine Mansfield. The stories address many themes, including gender, marriage, social class, regret, prejudice, life, and death.

"The Garden Party" addresses social class and the way that upper-class people looked down upon the working-class. Additionally, it addresses the existence of beauty in both life and death.

Major themes of "The Garden Party" include social class and lifestyle, prejudice and understanding, and beauty and detachment. 

At the end of "The Garden Party", Laura realizes the beauty in both life and death.

The Garden Party and Other Stories addresses many topics in its 15 short stories. These include gender, marriage, social class, regret, prejudice, life, and death.

Final The Garden Party and Other Stories Quiz

Question

Who wrote The Garden Party and Other Stories (1922)?

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Answer

Katherine Mansfield

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Question

In what year was The Garden Party and Other Stories published?

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Answer

1922

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Question

What is the most famous short story in The Garden Party and Other Stories (1922)?

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Answer

"The Garden Party"

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Question

Which of the following is not a major theme in "The Garden Party"?

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Answer

Social class and lifestyle

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Question

Which literary movement is The Garden Party and Other Stories a part of?

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Answer

Transcendentalism 

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Question

Which of the following is The Garden Party and Other Stories?

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Answer

Novel

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Question

What is "The Garden Party" about?

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Answer

A young girl growing up in a high-class family; as she matures, she begins to see that the high-class people around her see poorer people as less worthy. 

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Question

What is the main message of "The Garden Party"?

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Answer

"The Garden Party" addresses social class and the way that upper-class people looked down upon the working-class. Additionally, it addresses the existence of beauty in both life and death.

Show question

Question

What is The Garden Party and Other Stories about?

Show answer

Answer

The Garden Party and Other Stories is a collection of 15 short stories by Katherine Mansfield. The stories address many themes, including gender, marriage, social class, regret, prejudice, life, and death.

Show question

Question

What does Laura realize at the end of "The Garden Party"?

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Answer

At the end of "The Garden Party", Laura realizes the beauty in both life and death.

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