Critical Literature: Essay One
February 09th, 2009
A Reader Response to Miss. Brill
Miss Brill by Katherine Mansfield, has many symbols that clearly point out that Miss Brill is an old maid with out close contacts. Firstly, Miss Brill lives in northern France teaching English. She is an immigrant everyone she knows, with the exception of her students and a elderly man, lives in England. This makes Miss Brill a stranger in a strange land despite the fact that she speaks French. Another reason the reader can tell Miss Brill is alone stems from the title. She has never been married and therefore has no family. Also brill is French for bearded. Symbolically bearded people are old. These are some symbols that point the loneliness and age factor in Miss Brill.
In Miriam B. Mandel's essay "Reductive Imagery in Miss Brill" she brings up several other signs that Miss Brill is elderly. She uses the brass band as an example. Mandel says "On this Sunday the first Sunday of the new season it was "louder and gayer than usual". But filtered through Miss Brill's perception the large brass band becomes "a little fluetly". ( Mandel 474) She is not able to hear the loud brass band. Mandel implies that Miss Brill is losing her hearing. I did not notice this image at first. But after Mandel brought the symbol up I agreed with her. Readers can also note another sign in the young couple in the park, while they are cruel and blunt, when they say that she is a "silly old thing". (Mansfield 218) This is no doubt that Miss Brill is alone and elderly. I do not disagree with those signs and symbols.
However, many readers and critics use these signs and symbols to assume that Miss Brill leads a tragically unhappy life. I thought so too upon my first several readings. Yet, the more I thought about Miss Brill I realized she was not depressed. Miss Brill is in a happy mood for most of the story. She just leads a dull routine life and there is no crime in this. But, most people are stuck in dull routine lives. Today I had Frosted Shredded Wheat instead of Honey Nut Cheerios. That was a nice change for me, such as the almond in the lemon cake is for Miss. Brill. It's mostly the little things that make the difference in routine. Miss. Brill's routine may not be thrilling but she goes to the park, she imagines other people's lives, teaches school and she gets lemon cake. Miss. Brill even dresses up in her best to go out to the park. Miss. Brill "was glad that she had decided on her fur". (Mansfield 214) She is proud of her stool and enjoys wearing it. The stool is old and fraying but Miss. Brill does not care she still wears it. She also thinks the best things about the people in the park. Before the young couple insults her she thinks they are "hero and heroine of course, just arrived from his father's yacht." (Mansfield 218). All of the people in the park lead happy lives. No one comes from a bad home or has a depressed life. If Miss Brill was depressed she would not give the characters in her play happy lives. She would not have dressed up to go out or imagined happy lives for everyone in the park. Depression is different from dull routine. I was sure for the first part of the story Ms. Brill was content or happy.
This is why Peter Thrope is wrong in his essay "Teaching Miss Brill". He claims that " Miss Brill's mind moves higher and higher up the hierarchy of unrealities until she has reached a point in which she can only fall." (Thrope 661) Nothing is wrong with Miss Brill's imagination. She's just telling the stories of other people's lives in her. Miss Brill goes to the park every Sunday and imagines people's lives. Nothing has gone wrong before. Miss Brill has not "crashed" when imagining other people's success. She would not have crashed this time if it had not been for the boy who called her a "stupid old thing". (Mansfield 218) Miss Brill is simple an imaginative person who has been insulted; that is what makes her unhappy.
I realized that it was when the boy called her a "stupid old thing" that Ms. Brill's world becomes shattered. (Mansfield 218)The boy and girl insult her fanciest outfit. The boy criticizes her stool "why doesn't she keep her silly old mug at home" and the girl also says it looks like a "fried whiting". (Mansfield 218) These comments cause Ms. Brill to think. Previously she had thought, "no doubt somebody would have noticed if she had not been there. She was part of the performance after all." (Mansfield 217) After the boy's comment Ms. Brill thought she was not the actor she thought she was. She believed that no one would notice if she was not in the park. She thought was not part of a play. Ms. Brill thought she was just a bystander instead of an actress. That was when she became depressed and demoralized. She starts to believe what the boy said "Who wants her here?" (Mansfield 218)
However, I gave this story some personal thought and related it to people I have known. When I was little we used to go to mass. There was this old woman who came and patted our hands as she passed our pew. We called her "The Patting Hand Lady". To this day I do not know her name or what happened to her. Yet, I remember "The Patting Hand Lady". She played a small role in my life but I remember her. So I realized that despite what the boy says and what Miss Brill believes. Someone sees her in that park and somebody would miss "the lady who sits on the bench" if she was not there. Just because people play minor roles in lives does not mean they go unnoticed. Therefore she is an actress even if she has a minor role.
The ending of Miss Brill seems to imply that she will not return to the park. Critics seem to agree that she will not return but I differ. Miss Brill is a creature of habit. She teaches, she goes to the park and she gets lemon cake. It is her weekly routine. Miss Brill will not break it just because of one bad day. The imagery behind her stool is a perfect example of this. "It must have had a knock somehow. But never mind a little dab of ceiling wax when the time came." Miss Brill has had her knock but she will spring back like her stool with time. (Mansfield 214) Another symbol showing that she will spring back to happiness and return to the park lies again in her stool. Miss Brill takes it out of the closet, brushes it off and it's eyes "spring back to life". (Mansfield 214) Next week Miss Brill will follow her usual habit. She will wear her stool, go to the park, get her lemon cake and she too will spring back to life.
Many signs and symbols lead most critics to assume that Miss Brill leads a lonely depressing life. Yet, I differ. Miss Brill just follows routine just like everyone else. I also observed the lives of many older people such as "The Patting Hand Lady". They were not depressed their lives were just routine. Yes, it is a boring routine. I agree with Dunbar, a critic who says in reference to Mansfield "challenging the conventional notions of a romantic heroine by focusing on an ageing and socially disregarded figure and making her a vehicle for a meditation on art, love and death." (Dunbar 137) Miss Brill is old and disregarded but she will triumph as the heroine of her own life after she has recovered from her blow. Critics say that Miss Brill's life is dull but we all can not lead the life of a rock and roll star. If everyone led the life of a rock and roll star, people would envy Miss Brill.
Dunbar, Pamela. "Radical Mansfield: Double Discourse in Katherine Mansfield's Short Stories." Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature (2000):
Mansfield Katherine. Miss Brill
Mandel, Miriam. "Reductive Imagery in "Miss Brill"." EBSCO Publishing 2002 473-477. 17 Feb 2009
Mansfield Katherine. Miss Brill
Thrope, Peter. "Teaching "Miss Brill"." Teaching College English 23(1962): 661-663.