Katherine Mansfield’s Presentation of Happiness
‘Bliss’ and ‘The Little Governess’ are two short stories written by Katherine Mansfield at the time of World War 1 (1914-18). They were taken from the book ‘Bliss And Other Stories’ and both depict young woman, one single and one married, who are victims of deception. Both characters in these two stories believe themselves to be safe. In Bliss Bertha accounts her happiness to the fact that she ‘doesn’t have to worry about money’; she believes that being financially stable is happiness. She has ‘modern, thrilling friends’ but she treats them as material possessions. In this way Katherine Mansfield presents happiness as superficial.
Bertha believes that having a cosy family life, and being respected in social circles promotes a sense of security. She has the protection of a good husband, and a ‘satisfactory house and garden’. However, this is all self-deception, as it does not make her safe. On the contrary, her happiness blinds her, and makes her nai??ve. She has no inkling of the fact that her husband is having an affair. In ‘The Little Governess’ she feels safe with the old man, and with this security she feels ‘frightfully happy’. But her perception of happiness is different to what the reader sees.
A flush licked the old man’s cheeks; the old man’s perception of her is very different to hers of him. Her happiness makes her vulnerable, and completely innocent of the old man’s sexual agenda. This state of happiness that Bertha and The Little Governess enjoy is still real, even if it turns out to have blinded them both from reality. Katherine Mansfield suggests in both stories that innocence is bliss. Because they are ignorant of the truth does not make it necessarily unreal bliss. The fact that Bertha and the Little Governess discover that they have been horribly misled does not cancel out the happiness that they felt earlier.
Bertha feels sexual excitement, which is stimulated by Miss Fulton’s ‘touch of that cool arm’. Sexual feelings are uncorked and she describes it as a ‘fire of bliss’. This bliss that Bertha feels is strong, as she is innocent of what lies ahead of her. Therefore the deception does not take away the experience of the happiness, but destroy her innocence. But deception can ruin future happiness as with ‘The Little Governess’; she can never again feel happiness towards an old person, therefore with the benefit of experience she realizes her past happiness was false.
So happiness for her does exist, but it is transient, it cannot last forever. At the time in which ‘Bliss and Other Stories’ was published, there was no substantial schooling available to women, and they often lead sheltered lives. This meant that women were dangerously ignorant of the ways of the world. In the Little Governess, the lady at the Governess Bureau understands this and advises her to be a ‘woman of the world’, and that it’s ‘better to mistrust people’. This shows that young women were not educated about the ways in which a woman should act, and were thoroughly nai??ve about people’s thoughts and deeper intentions.
In ‘Bliss’ Bertha does not know what to do when she discovers that her husband is having an affair. ‘Oh what is going to happen now? ‘ she cries at the end of this powerful story. She feels paralysed. Although she describes her husband’s smile as a ‘hideous grin’, which implies something ugly and unchaste, she does feels reproach towards Harry for his infidelity. However she cannot express any feelings of anger, but only complete confusion and shock. She is ignorant of what to do in this situation, and she is fearful of causing a scandal. Bertha is not the one in control.
Whilst she is perplexed and vulnerable, her husband is ‘extravagantly cool and collected’. Though in ‘Bliss’ Bertha describes some things in her life as ‘material’ or ‘superficial’ happiness, (perfect house, friends husband etc. ) she also feels a deep seated, unexplained impulse of happiness at the core of her being. However, there are also constricting views in society that cause her to feel anger that she cannot express fully. She cannot stand still and ‘laugh at nothing- at nothing simply’ for fear of being thought ‘drunk and disorderly’ which dents her happiness slightly.
She says: ‘how idiotic civilization is! ‘ and feels that it is like a straight jacket constricting her and preventing her from experiencing her happiness more fully. Bertha cannot really let go, and tries to conceal her bliss by resorting to a more conventional prose when talking to a servant. Later she ‘throws off her coat’ revelling in her euphoria. Bertha’s happiness seems to be completely uncontrollable, she describes it ‘like a fire’ and has ‘fear for fanning it higher’ which implies that it could lead to some kind of chaos.
Bertha looks in the mirror and sees herself with ‘big dark eyes’, which implies her sexual excitement, as her pupils expand. Katherine Mansfield promotes this sense of oppressed sexual feelings by describing fruit with ‘smooth’ skin and ‘stained pink’; which gives a sense of erotic colours and enriched senses. Later she thinks she is ‘getting hysterical’ which hints at Freudian ideas of ‘sexual oppression’, which were popular at the time. Bertha has not recently enjoyed sex with her husband, and has probably never had pre-marital sex, which is another way in which Katherine Mansfield explores happiness, with ‘sex as bliss’.
Bertha also obtains sensual pleasure from hugging her child. She describes physical happiness in her ‘exquisite toes’ and her ‘neck as she bent forward’. Which illustrates Bertha’s want of sensual pleasure. It is telling that when Bertha is hugging a simply mundane object like a cushion ‘passionately, passionately’ it seems to enlarge the sexual and sensual happiness that she is feeling and ‘fans the fire in her bosom’. It is ironic that the first time Bertha Young desires her husband she cannot have him because of his affair with Pearl Fulton.
This powerful force, which whispers ‘blind and smiling’ in her ear, makes her more vulnerable as she desires him. She wonders if this feeling of bliss ‘had been leading up to’ desiring her husband for the first time. Here Katherine Mansfield attributes some of the bliss Bertha is feeling to sex. Another story by Katherine Mansfield called ‘Pictures’ depicts a single woman struggling to find a job to support her, and using happiness as a kind of professional tool for keeping reality at bay. Miss Ada Moss is constantly fantasising in order to keep hopelessness and desperation from taking over.
Even though her life is falling apart she still answers people in her ‘cheerful way’ in order not to draw attention to herself and to keep up appearances. Her greatest fear perhaps, is to be found out to be desperate, and the only way to prevent this is to pretend to everyone and to herself that nothing is wrong. Katherine Mansfield uses different styles of writing in her stories in order to convey a sense of happiness to the reader. She vividly describes ordinary things extra ordinarily like the recurring image of the pear tree so that they become metaphors.
She also uses a simile to describe the pear tree’s ‘flowering beauty’ ‘like the flame of a candle’. She goes on to imply that the pear tree is becoming Bertha, by ‘dropping in silver flowers’ from her ‘hair and hands’; which makes this happiness seem like ‘blissful treasure’ dropping heavily from Bertha. The last line of ‘Bliss’ again returns to this image of the pear tree, and describes it as ‘just as lovely as ever’; which seems a revelation, that with Pearl Fulton, Harry and Bertha’s lives being entangled and confused, the tree still remains.
Bertha’s life is shattered but the tree is still there, the same as ever. Katherine Mansfield also uses slightly unexpected verbs like ‘the blush licked the old man’s cheek’ (from ‘The Little Governess’), in order to let the reader have a small insight into what the characters true agendas’ really are. She also uses the Pathetic Fallacy to reflect the character’s inner happiness, as in ‘The Little Governess’ the ‘pink clouds in the sky’. Overall Katherine Mansfield represents happiness in a number of different ways.
Through material happiness in ‘Bliss’, to innocent and nai??ve happiness in ‘the Little Governess’. Through fantasising happiness in ‘Pictures’ to sexual or sensual oppression, and sex as happiness in ‘Bliss’. Katherine Mansfield portrays happiness as not false, but as transient. In all three of her stories the character’s happiness is slowly or suddenly crushed by outside interference. Bertha and the Little Governess believe that their happiness will last forever. They are both nai??ve, sadly mistaken, and have to learn that perfect happiness does not exist and cannot last forever.