In “The Garden Party,” Katherine Mansfield uses the protagonist, Laura, to explore the idea of identity crisis. Although we are not sure of Laura’s exact age, her actions suggest that she might be in her pre-teen years. It seems that she is at the age when a child realizes that an identity has been formed for her up to this point in her life and that she is, in fact, capable of completely altering this identity. Laura’s uncertainty is first apparent in her interactions with the workmen who have been sent to set up the marquee for the garden party. She copies her mother’s voice when she says “Good morning” to the men, but then reflects that this voice, “sounded so fearfully affected that she was ashamed” (1). Here, it is clear that her upbringing has affected the way she interacts with people who are considered to be of a lower class. This becomes more obvious when Laura tries to acts as if she were on the same level as the workmen, but ultimately ends up observing them as if they are a different species. Although she thinks to herself, “Why couldn’t she have workmen for her friends rather than the silly boys she danced with and who came to Sunday night supper?” she immediately observes, “It’s all the fault, she decided… of these absurd class distinctions. Well, for her part, she didn’t feel them. Not a bit, not an atom” (2). While it is clear from this denial that Laura takes part in these class distinctions, whether it is consciously or subconsciously, it is encouraging that she is at least aware of this difference. In a sense, it seems that Laura is trapped by the society she has been born into.
Mansfield presents the high society that the Sheridan’s associate with as completely obsessed with appearance. Not only is this apparent in the precise manner in which the yard is decorated, but it is also evident in the way the food is prepared as well as the way the family dresses. This obsession with appearance undoubtedly has a major affect on Laura’s identity. This is obvious when Mrs. Sheridan puts a hat on Laura to make her stop thinking about the man who died in the neighboring community. Mrs. Sheridan tells Laura how wonderful the hat looks on her, which seems to magically distract Laura even after her mother says, “People like that don’t expect sacrifices from us” (9). Judging by Laura’s prior attitude, one would assume that this statement would upset her to no end, but instead she goes on to admire herself in the mirror.
Finally, Laura seems to reach a tipping point when she delivers a basket of leftovers from the party to the family of the man who has died. She sees the dead man and wonders, “What did garden-parties and baskets and lace frocks matter to him? He was far from all those things. He was wonderful, beautiful” (12). Although it is hard to be certain of exactly why Laura finds the man beautiful, it seems that Laura has a sort of epiphany and perhaps realizes that all humans, no matter what class they belong to, are essentially equal because everyone must die. Most importantly, Laura sees that death erases all class distinctions in the end. In terms of identity, this event proves to Laura that class distinctions are not as important as her family has made them to be.