Lillies and the Hat in Kathrine Mansfield’s “The Garden Party”

Two significant material objects serve to define Laura herself and her place within the world of Katherine Mansfield’s “The Garden Party”: lilies, which serve as a parallel to Laura, and Mrs. Sheridan’s hat. The following parallel of Laura and lilies illuminates how the introductory paragraph introduces Laura’s inner tension between two selves: “Nothing but lilies—canna lilies, big pink flowers, wide open, radiant, almost frighteningly alive on bright crimson stems…[Laura] felt they were in her fingers, on her lips, growing in her breast” (3-4). The lilies evoke a youthful and bright atmosphere, similar to the kind Laura seems to have. Like the radiant lilies, Laura is full of life, a woman who perhaps is at the stage in life when issues of self-identity come to the foreground. It is the period in which her character is fluid and malleable, and, like a sponge, can soak up other’s personalities in an attempt to reconfigure her identity to better fit with the world. In the introductory paragraph, there is mention that “roses are the only flowers that impress people at garden-parties; the only flowers that everybody is certain of knowing” (1). This is one of the clues that Laura is undergoing a kind of identity crisis. Laura relates to the lilies and so is not a rose, the flower that most impresses others.

Perhaps I may be reading too deeply into the text, but there is other evidence that suggests how Laura’s habit of shifting her personality is motivated by the need to impress people. When she approaches the workmen, she tries to “look severe” by “copying her mother’s voice” (1). Perhaps Laura thought that in adopting a more ‘mature’ persona she will impress the workmen. Instead, she comes across as a kind of woman-child: she is “ashamed” and she “stammered like a little girl” (1). Lauran feels foolish for attempting it in the first place and blames the “absurd class distinctions” that dictate how she must act around those of a ‘lower’ class than herself. As she watches the workmen work, freely whistling, singing, with a sense of friendliness abounding, Laura felt she was one of them: “a work-girl” (2). This reveals the challenge that she faces in forming her identity: she must choose between acting as one of her class and impress people (even adopting a façade to accomplish it) or rejecting the social stratification that constricts her. Laura’s action of taking a big bite of her bread-and-butter in their presence is her attempt to be on the same level as the workmen.

The accident serves as a major test for Laura’s self-identity. She wishes to stop the garden-party out of respect for the dead man, Scott, a proposition which is rejected by both Jose and Mrs. Sheridan. Her insistence on the matter once again reflects her desire to place herself on the same level as the working middle-class family that has suffered a tragedy. However, her good intentions are misguided; Jose points this out on page 8: “You won’t bring a drunken workman back to life by being sentimental.” Laura pleads with her mother that “[The dead man’s family will] hear us, mother; they’re nearly neighbors!” She is both concerned for the impression that they will make to other people and she acknowledges the callousness of the garden-party: “Mother, isn’t it terribly heartless of us?”

However, Laura eventually gives in. It is interesting that after her mother gives her the hat to put on and she becomes entranced at her own reflection, she succumbs to the self-absorbedness of the upper class: “Just for a moment she had another glimpse of that poor woman and those little children…But it all seemed blurred, unreal…I’ll remember it again after the party’s over” (9). Laura’s acceptance of the hat signifies her acceptance of her mother’s words and her identity as a member of the upper-class. The many compliments that are showered upon Laura (“What a becoming hat, child!”, “I’ve never seen you look so striking”) solidifies this. “The perfect afternoon slowly ripened, slowly faded, slowly its petals closed,” just as Laura’s scattered identity assumes uniformity and ‘closes’.

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One Response to Lillies and the Hat in Kathrine Mansfield’s “The Garden Party”

  1. Kellyn Campbell says:

    I agree with the argument posed up until the very last line. Suggesting that Laura’s identity “closes” sounds extremely final. Although I believe she falls into the upper class stereotype of being unfeeling for a period of time, she experiences great personal growth after the party is over and she goes to bring the leftovers to the lower class grieving family. She is deeply affected when she sees the man’s body and realizes that trivial things such as a garden party don’t really matter in the scheme of things. Although Laura was intially concerned about the man’s family, she did not realize she was concerned about little things that did not matter, such as the family hearing the band or seeing the party. At this point in time, Laura’s fragile identity is challenged yet again and it seems as though she has taken her experience to heart. It seems to me that the story leaves her open to more change and shifting as she struggles to define who she is in a class oriented society, quite different than the finality suggested by the image of the closing lily.

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