I recently read the short story “The Garden Party” written in 1922 by Katherine Mansfield alongside How to Read Literature like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster.
The latter provided an enriching experience on how to carefully eye and identify reading patterns, symbols, allusions, and more of the sort. It was a vessel to how I would approach “The Garden Party,” which focuses on a distinguished sense of classism and the ways in which characters in the lower and upper classes interact on the surface.
I will admit, I was on the hunt for literary devices in a much more sophisticated manner than usual, scoping them out and thinking too critically, both actions which I do not usually partake in when reading for pleasure. My thoughts on this short story are not the thoughts of leisurely reading but to dig deeper and ask questions on both a phenomenal and noumenal level.
A short-story, “The Garden Party” centers around protagonist Laura Sheridan, a young woman on the cusp of adulthood who, along with her family, is tasked with hosting a garden party. The Sheridans generally represent wealth and a lack of substance but Laura is portrayed in an ideal and sensitive nature.
The plot takes shape and form when Laura hears word of the tragedy of a worker who had just died, one who happened to live nearby. The workers, who were usually lower-class, resided in run-down cottages, the dirt and grime of their quarters separated from the flashy and glamor the Sheridans were surrounded by.
Laura feels as though it is not moral to throw a party after the death of a man in such close proximity took place, but her family is too shallow to stop the party planning and excuse it since nothing can bring the man back to life. To distract Laura from her thoughts, her mother gifts her a hat, a charming black hat that Laura enjoys atop her head so much, she drops all pleas she expressed to her family of not throwing the party.
Despite it being the name of the piece, the garden party, which proceeds to take place, is not the focus of Mansfield’s story. It circles back to the incident of the now widowed woman who is beside herself after her husband passed. Mr. Sheridan hesitantly allows Laura to deliver leftover food from the party to the cottage nearby where the dead man had once lived. Arriving at the cottage, Laura describes it as dark and oppressive, a grand contrast to her estate that is light and cheerful. Laura is greeted by the widow’s sister who insists she come in and Laura follows, against her mother’s request.
She greets the widow and in a chain of events, finds herself looking at the body of the deceased laborer. Instead of the usual shocked and horrified reaction, Laura is at peace and feels that he is serene and beautiful. She is overcome with tranquility.
The short story ends with her running out of the cottage, ashamed and embarrassed of her attire, only to run into her brother, Laurie. Laurie commiserates with her, but he himself realizes there’s nothing she can say to truly impart the feelings she experienced when making this journey.
Laura, choking on her words, “isn’t life- ”
And Laurie cuts her off, “isn’t it, darling?”
The short-story was an intriguing masterpiece that delves beyond class tensions and socioeconomic standings. It asks the question of value in the light of life or death.
Laurie must have assumed that Laura was in tears because she was shocked at what she'd seen in a life of poverty and held concern for his family members who have been exposed to poverty rather than for people suffering it.
The hat is a symbol of wealth meant to keep Laura at bay and away from that ‘other’ world.
Laura can be seen running from her family’s elitist attitude who look down upon people of a lower class and her thoughts of serenity when faced with a dead body speaks louder of her heart and soul than what has been instilled in her mind.
“The Garden Party” was nothing but masterful, and a valuable message that is still relevant today.