Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Bliss - Katherine Mansfield

When we meet Bertha Young, she is a happy woman. She loves Harry, her husband, and Little B, her baby girl. She loves her home, her thrilling friends, her flowering pear tree, the beautiful fruit she has purchased for the night's dinner party. She is so happy as she approaches her home that she wishes she could run or dance, but she knows better than be so unseemly. "How idiotic civilization is," she thinks. "Why be given a body if you have to keep it shut up in a case like a rare, rare fiddle?" But no, she thinks. "... that about the fiddle is not quite what I mean."

The exuberance, the love of place, the pleasure in the preparations for a party predate the appearance of Mrs. Dalloway , but Bertha could be her younger, less-introspective sister. She also could be the younger, less-callous sister of Isobel in "Marriage a la Mode," eager to know interesting people and to enjoy the moment. In fact, she shares one circumstance with them both: her enthusiasms do not lead to true intimacy in marriage. All three women who love life and color and friends have marriages that are companionable, but passionless.

After she arranges the smooth pears and ripe grapes, Bertha visits the nursery, where Nanny is feeding Little B. Nanny does not want to allow Bertha to feed the baby, but Bertha insists, thinking "why have a baby if it has to be kept - not in a case like a rare, rare fiddle- but in another woman's arms!" Bertha feeds Little B and admires the child, saying "I'm fond of you, I like you," as she admires the child's doll-like toes, and the sweetness of her lips and hands. Her blissful, ecstatic afternoon continues as she thinks of her books, her artistic friends, the scent of jonquils, and the lovely white dress she will wear to dinner.

Amongst the guests at her dinner party are characters who could have been lounging in the heat along with Isobel. Bertha loves them all: Eddie, the writer in the blazing white socks, the monocled Norman Knight, and his wife, who tucks things into the front of her dress "as if she kept a tiny, secret hoard of nuts there." She loves them, and wishes she could tell them "what a decorative group they made, how they seemed to set one another off and how they reminded her of a play by Chekhov!"

But the most beloved guest is the mysteriously cool, blonde, silvery Pearl Fulton. "They had met at the club and Bertha had fallen in love with her, as she always did fall in love with beautiful women who had something strange about them." Bertha feels a deep connection with Pearl, although her husband has been most uncomplimentary about her ("cold like all blond women") and Pearl has been indirect, quiet, observant, inexact. Like a schoolgirl with a crush, Bertha wants a sign, proof that Pearl shares that mystical connection, although "what would happen after that she could not imagine."

As the guests mingle and talk after dinner, she and Pearl look at the pear tree, its white flowers gleaming in the moonlight, illuminating and encircling them both (she feels) in a silvery, unearthly, intimate light. The moment passes, the party goes on, and Bertha thinks of how she will praise and champion her silvery friend later, in bed with Harry.

With that thought, Bertha is caught in a wash of a feeling - terrifying, new - one she never has before known: sexual desire. Desire for her husband. Desire that makes her ache."Was that what this feeling of bliss had been leading up to?" As her guests are leaving, bustling about with their coats and their taxis, she is as detached as if it were she who is departing, leaving an old world behind.

Mansfield has prepared the reader for the story's end, but gently, quietly. A body should not be hidden like a fiddle, she has said, twice. Look at the grapes, the pears, the flowering fruit tree in Bertha's Eden; look for the silence behind the chattering guests and the thoughts that skip through Bertha's mind as she would skip through her blissful, ecstatic, childlike life. But look also to the violin's sensual curves, the fecundity of the fruit and the flowers. Be prepared to participate in the world as it is.

Bertha is prepared for her old life to recede, and, perhaps, the reader is prepared for what Bertha sees when she looks to the hallway as her guests leave. She sees her husband and Pearl, "with her moonbeam fingers on his cheeks...and her sleepy smile" as Richard turns her violently toward himself for an embrace and a promise. Pearl touches Bertha's hand and says good-bye, leaving Bertha to gaze at the pear tree in her garden, still blooming, still lovely, and still. With that touch, Bertha loses her virginity.

Although Mansfield's observations are sharp, and although she is relentless in her parodies of the modern, artistic people who populate the world of the Youngs, she seems to have more compassion for Bertha than for many of her women characters. Bertha has served a purpose in the lives of her husband and her friends. She has been decorative, cheerful, and pliable. She simply never has grown up. Her only flaw has been innocence that has never been tested. Perhaps her daughter will be better prepared to be a woman in the real world. Perhaps her daughter will truly understand Chekhov.


No comments: