Lynette Abel  / Aesthetic Realism & Life

Part 2 of The Inability to Appreciate--What does It come From?

A Short Story Criticizes Snobbishness

     A story that usefully shows how a woman's snobbish values hurt not only her life, but those of people close to her is "The Garden Party," by the important 20th century British writer, born in New Zealand, Katherine Mansfield. 

     It takes place in one day and focuses around the various arrangements being made for an elaborate garden party to be given by the wealthy young Sheridan girls Laura, Meg, and Jose. Laura, who is the main character, represents the ethical conflict all people have, which Mr. Siegel explained in The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known #60: 

    Since man as an individual is first impelled towards feeling good, feathering the nest of his singular felicity, the desire to see other things, other living beings, is secondary.   This makes for a contest between the desire to soothe oneself ...make oneself distinguishedly belligerent, and the desire to see justly, comprehensively, gracefully, beautifully. 
     The story begins with a description of an exquisite early summer day, of cloudless sky, fresh mowed lawns and hundreds of roses all abloom.   Workmen have come to set up a marquee and Laura, who is supervising it, is in a contest between the desire to "make [her]self distinguishedly belligerent and "the desire to see justly." Mansfield writes: 
    "Good morning," she said, copying her mother's voice.   But that sounded so fearfully affected that she was ashamed, and stammered like a little girl, "Oh--er--have you come--is it about the marquee?"  "That's right, miss," said the tallest of the men, a lanky, freckled fellow, and he shifted his tool-bag, knocked back his straw hat and smiled down at her....What nice eyes he had,...How very nice workmen were! 
When Laura sees one of the men bend down to pinch a sprig of lavender and enjoy its fragrance, she is taken by his tenderness, and wonders why she can't be friends with workmen.   "It's all the fault, she decided,...of these absurd class distinctions.   Well, for her part, she didn't feel them...." 

     Then, Laura learns from the man who has delivered the cream puffs, that there has been a terrible accident: a man by the name of Scott, who lived nearby was thrown off his horse.   "Killed.... left a wife and five little ones."   Laura, horrified, runs to tell her sister Jose that they have to stop the party.   Jose says: "Stop the garden party?   My dear Laura, don't be so absurd. Of course we can't do anything of the kind. Nobody expects us to.   Don't be so extravagant."   "A person with snobbery," Mr. Siegel explains: 

      doesn't ask, doesn't keep on asking, whether an object or person deserves a certain attitude or feeling.   The question is, what will happen to me if I feel this way or that way, say this or that? In looking at matters this way, the person with snobbery has defiled his own individuality, befouled the true idea of self."
     Laura says to Jose "But we can't possibly have a garden-party with a man dead just outside the front gate." Miss Mansfield writes: 
    "True, [the little cottages] were far too near.   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.   Washerwomen lived in the lane and sweeps and a cobbler,... Children swarmed."
     In Katherine Mansfield's courageous narrative she has us see these people as real and feel ashamed at how some people are being forced to live.   She makes vivid the horrible inequity of some people having great opulence and others pitifully little. 

     Laura tries to put herself in the position of the woman who has lost her husband.   She says to Jose, "And just think of what the band would sound like to that poor woman."   But Jose is getting increasingly indignant, and says: 

    "If you're going to stop a band playing every time some one has an accident, you'll lead a very strenuous life....Her eyes hardened. ..."You won't bring a drunken workman back to life by being sentimental," she said softly." 
Jose is such an exemplification of that ugly, contemptuous desire in a person to do all kinds of fancy footwork, even lie, in order to feel justified in feeling superior and having one's way. 

     Laura, furious at Jose, runs to tell her mother.   Mrs. Sheridan is at her dressing table trying on a new hat, when Laura comes in, "breathless, half-choking," and tells her of the man's death saying "Of course, we can't have our party, can we?"   Laura is shocked that her mother "seemed amused."   In a chilling way but ever so ordinary too, Mrs. Sheridan tries to rationalize not having to think about the Scott family at all. She says: 

    "But, my dear child,'s only by accident we've heard of it.   If some one had died there normally--and I can't understand how they keep alive in those poky little holes--we should still be having our party, shouldn't we?"   Laura had to say "yes" to that, but she felt it was all wrong. 
         "Mother, isn't it really terribly heartless of us?" she asked.   "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....I have never seen you look such a picture. Look at yourself!" 
 Mr. Siegel explains: 
     "Flattery is so useful; and it is still so intricately, darksomely pernicious.   Domestic life is, so much of it, cajoling approval." [TRO 60] 
      Mrs. Sheridan's flattery has gotten Laura's mind off thinking about what is fair to the Scott family.   She leaves her mother's room and goes into her own bedroom: 
    "There, quite by chance, the first thing she saw was this charming girl in the mirror, in her black hat trimmed with gold daisies, and a long black velvet ribbon.   Never had she imagined she could look like that. Is mother right? she thought. And now she hoped her mother was right." 
I believe Mr. Siegel explains what is working in Laura when he writes: 
     "We use others to back up our frailest, most useless, most hurtful notions.   We are all looking for confirmation of an opinion, chiefly so when we are not sure it is right." [TRO 60] 
      The hat is a symbol of how easily we can choose something so small in behalf of our vanity.   Yet snobbishness, I learned, has its large, mind-weakening disadvantages--we cannot like ourselves, or have true, big, sweeping feelings of respect that we yearn to have.

Next page, the conclusion


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