Monday, May 16, 2011

"Bliss" by Katherine Mansfield

Virginia Woolf once said Katherine Mansfield produced "the only writing I have ever been jealous of."  Woolf also wrote  "... the more she is praised, the more I am convinced she is bad."  

That quotation opened my 2010 post on Katherine Mansfield's short story "The Doll's House" (a story which remains one of my favorites), yet at the time I did not truly understand how Woolf could have been jealous of Mansfield's work. After reading "Bliss", I am better able to appreciate her feeling. The story opens:

Although Bertha Young was thirty she still had moments like this when she wanted to run instead of walk, to take dancing steps on and off the pavement, to bowl a hoop, to throw something up in the air and catch it again, or to stand still and laugh at - nothing - at nothing, simply.
     What can you do if you are thirty and, turning the corner of your own street, you are overcome, suddenly by a feeling of bliss - absolute bliss! - as though you'd suddenly swallowed a bright piece of that late afternoon sun and it burned in your bosom, sending out a little shower of sparks into every particle, into every finger and toe? ...
Bertha has a handsome husband, a lovely young daughter, and a beautiful home and garden. She marvels at the beauty of a fruit arrangement and at the pear tree in the garden. The tree becomes one of the central images in the story suggesting fertility or sexuality. Bertha is overcome by an intense feeling of bliss as she prepares for a dinner party that evening. A stream-of-consciousness narration is especially effective in telling the story.

Friends arrive and the party is a success. After the meal, Bertha shares a moment of understanding with her new friend, Miss Pearl Fulton, as they gaze upon the garden.

 And the two women stood side by side looking at the slender, flowering tree. Although it was so still it seemed, like the flame of a candle, to stretch up, to point, to quiver in the bright air, to grow taller and taller as they gazed - almost to touch the rim of the round, silver moon.
     How long did they stand there? Both, as it were, caught in that circle of unearthly light, understanding each other perfectly, creatures of another world, and wondering what they were to do in this one with all this blissful treasure that burned in their bosoms and dropped, in silver flowers, from their hair and hands?
The actions of Bertha's husband suggest he may not like Miss Fulton, so Bertha vows to change his mind when they talk in bed later that evening. The reader then comes to understand Bertha's feeling of bliss as newly awakening desire for her husband. When the guests are leaving, Bertha witnesses a startling exchange between her husband, Harry, and Miss Fulton.

Is the exchange real? Has Bertha misunderstood or imagined it? The story ends abruptly with no resolution, just another image of the pear tree " as lovely as ever and as full of flower and as still."

I loved this story! "Bliss" was one of Mansfield's last, written in 1920, just three years before her death at age 34.  It shows the work of a more mature writer and I cannot help but be reminded of Mrs. Dalloway, published five years later in 1925. You may read the story here.

Short Story Monday is hosted by John Mutford at The Book Mine Set.


  1. This sounds wonderful JoAnn. I am starting to enjoy short stories more and more, especially as I seem to have less reading time.

  2. I'm really intrigued by this writer. Thanks for highlighting this story today so that I could be introduced to Katherine Mansfield. I have yet to read Woolf becomes her writing just intimidates me!!

  3. I never really "got" short stories; it is still one of the few categories that will make me immediately put a book down. But after reading and teaching Mansfield's "The Doll's House," I knew I had found something special, and for the first time, I wanted to read short stories. I plan on reading a substantial amount of Mansfield once summer comes! Thanks for this post!

  4. I really love the work of Katherine Mansfield-her total published work is well under 1000 pages-I have read and posted on almost all of her stories-a 1.5 years ago I also was not into short stories-now I love them-All of Mansfield but for a few very early stories, can be read online.

    I enjoyed your very insightful post a lot

  5. Diane - Short stories have been my greatest discovery since blogging!

    Staci - I've only read one of Woolf's novels (Mrs. Dalloway) and she is definitely intimidating. Don't think I'd use that adjective for Mansfield though.

    Read the Book - "The Doll's House" is just wonderful! Before blogging, I really hated short stories and am shocked at how much I have come to love them.

    Mel U - I can see my own Mansfield project beginning to take shape. What a great writer!

  6. There are so many short stories that sound so good. I wish I could get around to all of them.

  7. I have so many short story volumes on the to-read shelf and I never seem to get to them -- the novels are always calling my name! I think I'll have to stop ignoring them. I keep reading about Katherine Mansfield and really must read her soon. Her Journal is on my Persephone reading list so I suppose I should read her stories before that to get a better perspective on her work.

  8. Carolsnotebook - I know what you mean! It seems that I add at least a couple to my list every week.

    Karen K. - Oh, I'd forgotten Persephone publishes her journal... would love to read it!

  9. Oh goodie, another Katherine Mansfield story. I am going to download it to my Kobo when I'm done here. I adore her.

    This week, I read Havana:

  10. I loved Mansfield's "The Fly" but couldn't get into Woolf's "Mrs. Dalloway" so I'm torn about reading this one.

  11. Teddy Rose - I may just need to buy the collection!

    John - I haven't read "The Fly", but Mrs. Dalloway took me 3 tries spread over 25 years to finally finish. "Bliss" was a MUCH easier read.

  12. How serendipitous--I was just reading an essay about Katherine Mansfield yesterday. I am ashamed to say I don't think I had heard of her before.

  13. Reviewsbylola - You're not alone. I learned about Mansfield from fellow bloggers, and am very glad I did!

  14. I read a book chapter by Shuli Barzilai yesterday analysing the intertextuality in Atwood's "Bluebeard's Egg". Both Mrs Dalloway and "Bliss" were mentioned.
    I must check it soon!

  15. emeire - How interesting... maybe a short story Monday post in the making?

  16. I've been absent for a long time, haven't I?
    I should be there on Monday; not with Mansfield, Woolf or Atwood, though...

  17. I loved The Doll's House, but haven't read anything else by Mansfield. This sounds lovely, and I think the opening lines are quite captivating. It makes me want to read on...

    As for Woolf envying Mansfield - well, that says it all really. Nothing more needs to be said...

  18. anothercookiwcrumbles - I think The Doll House is one of my favorite stories. Don't know why it's taking me so long to read more of Mansfield's work...

  19. I finally reviewed it today:


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