Peter Barry’s The Beginning Theory suggests “Modernism is the name given to the movement which dominated the arts and culture of the first half of the twentieth century” (Barry, 2009, p78). Modernism was a reaction from a disillusioned society after the horrors of war. He also stated “In literature, finally, there was a rejection of traditional realism (chronological plots, continuous narratives relayed by omniscient narrators, ‘closed endings’, etc.) in favour of experimental forms of various kinds” (Barry, 2009, p79). This suggests that rather than a character showing us what they see they explained how they felt. Freudian theories can also be applied to the characteristics associated with Modernism as psychoanalysis concepts can be resonated in literature, for example the stream of consciousness technique. Katherine Mansfield’s short story ‘Bliss’ represents Modernity prose fiction because Bertha breaks away from conventional traditions as she desires a woman.
‘Bliss’ is set in an upper-class area and it’s centred around socialites attending a dinner party hosted by the Young’s. The narrator is the 3rd person from a limited point of view which demonstrates the Modernist stream of consciousness technique. The reason being is that we only see the events from Bertha’s perspective. A personal connection can be made with Bertha as she takes us on her intimate journey. However, a limitation to this is that the reader is not being told the truth throughout the story as Bertha keeps telling us she is happy and this does not seem to be reality. The narrative explains how materialistic Bertha is, “she had found a wonderful little dressmaker…their new cook made the most superb omelettes” (Mansfield, 2006, p73). This establishes that her life is measurably incomplete and shallow. Therefore, Modernist characteristics are in the story ‘Bliss’ because Bertha’s perspective lets the reader get into her consciousness.
There are symbols used in ‘Bliss’ that highlight Modernist characteristics. The pear tree is interchangeable throughout the story. To begin with the pear tree represents Bertha’s state of ‘Bliss’ and then shifts onto her intimate friendship with Pearl, as it describes it being “in fullest, richest bloom” (Mansfield, 2006, p72). As the story progresses the pear tree transforms to represent Harry’s phallic state. The reason being is that Pearl is often compared to that of the silver moon (even her dress colour is silver) and the pear tree is described as “to grow taller and taller as they gazed – almost to touch the rim of the round, silver moon” (Mansfield, 2006, p77). When Bertha discovers Harry and Pearls affair she looks to the tree and she discovers it is unchanged. Meaning that the pear tree was more likely to represent Harry and Pearl’s relationship rather than herself and Pearl. Other symbols in ‘Bliss’ are that of animals. For example, “A grey cat, dragging its belly, crept across the lawn, and a black one, its shadow, trailed after” (Mansfield, 2006, p72). The black cat specifically represents bad luck and that something is about to upset Bertha’s state of ‘Bliss’. The black cat represents Pearl (the bad luck) and the grey cat represents Harry (not living a life of black or white) as the grey cat is following the black cat, which is echoed at the end of the story. These symbols are elements of the ‘second story’ for example, “The devious second story construction leads, and often misleads the reader, who interprets clues and applies general cultural competence to ‘retell’ the once-submerged second story” (Mortimer, 1994, p41). This demonstrates that it is an example of Modernist prose fiction because this is an unconventional method of writing.
‘Bliss’ is exceptionally satirical. The white dress that Bertha wears is ironic as the white dress resembles a wedding dress. Bertha comically compliments the dress with shoes in the colour green – which represents the emotion of jealousy. However, Bertha is unaware of the affair so these elements also contribute to the ‘second story’. Another element of satire is projected through the ridiculous character Mrs Knight, as an extravagant interior designer who wants to turn the back of a chair into a frying pan. This ironically demonstrates that individuals in societal institutions are more concerned with being modern than creating art. This validates that satire used in this is regarded as Modernist prose fiction.
‘Bliss’ is an exceptional story to read, especially for the second time around when you discover more to the ‘second story’. Furthermore, it disregards the negative themes of war which was popular in literature at that time. However, it significantly highlights changes in society regarding sexuality, ethnicity, social norms and mental health which are all encompassed in Freudian theories.
Barry, P. (2009). Postmodernism. In: Beginning Theory. 3rd ed. Glasgow: Manchester University Press. p78-91.
Mansfield, K. (2006). Bliss. In: The Collected Stories. London: Wordsworth Classics. p69-80.
Mortimer, A. (1994). Fortifications of Desire: Reading the Second Story in Katherine Mansfield’s ‘Bliss’. Narrative. 2 (1), p41-52.