Miss Brill By Mansfield
Katherine Mansfield’s short story "Miss Brill" outlines an old woman’s
lack of understanding for a world that she observes so intimately. The story is
told from the point of view of an aging insignificant character, who on this
particular Sunday is cruelly forced to see herself in a different light. This
essay will study Miss Brill’s forced development, and the conflict(s) she must
face in this story. The story is so completely the language Miss Brill uses to
describe her world, that it is left difficult to discuss. In fact, the
inclination is to just quote the brilliantly written sentences. The protagonist
on the other hand, Miss Brill herself, is not brilliant at all. Miss Brill is
the audience to a ‘play’ pretending like she is starring in it, when really
she is barely one of the most insignificant roles. "No doubt somebody would
have noticed if she hadn’t been there; she was part of the performance after
all" (100). The woman, likely 55 or older from Mansfield’s physical
descriptions, lives her life and thrives in it through other people’s
experiences. After all, "she had really become an expert, she thought, at
listening as though she didn’t listen, at sitting in other people’s lives
just for a minute while they talked round her" (98). Miss Brill’s
inauthentic yet darkly happy view on life comes to an abrupt halt when a young
woman loudly insults her, describing her fur as "like a fried whiting", and
then the young man’s attack of "who wants her? Why doesn’t she keep her
silly old mug at home?" (100). Miss Brill appears to be her own antagonist. So
fictitious is her life, made up of secondhand experience (and secondhand furs!),
that she "imagines she hears something crying in the box" (101) but really
she is just incapable of recognizing the root of her tears, which today is grief
and humiliation. Miss Brill’s development is minimal, even after her little
rude awakening in the park. In the story’s descriptive beginning, she wanders
around somewhat aimlessly playing her role as the observer. At the
mood-darkening end Miss Brill still appears to be an observer, but this time one
that is close to understanding her own hopeless situation. This time much closer
to the truth than earlier the same day.