In this lesson, we’ll explore Katherine Mansfield’s short story, ‘Miss Brill.’ We’ll examine and analyze the key themes addressed in the story and how they may relate to a common human struggle.
A common complaint nowadays is the distraction of cell phones and social media. Even in public and the company of others, people tend to be more preoccupied with their devices than each other. How would it feel if they put their cell phones away but still wouldn’t look at you? What if they still failed to see the value in what you had to offer?We find this question in ‘Miss Brill’, a short story by Katherine Mansfield, published nearly seven decades prior to the emergence of cell phones. ‘Miss Brill’ is the story of an elderly woman who goes to a park to enjoy a pleasant Sunday morning.
She sits on a park bench listening to the band play music while watching the social interactions that take place around her. Miss Brill does not interact with the park goers, preferring instead to feel connected to them by way of overhearing their conversations. Eventually, a young couple says some rude things about Miss Brill, forcing her to suddenly leave the park.
On her way home, she bypasses the bakery she usually stops at and returns to her small, dark room to lament her situation.
Age as a Theme
The theme, or recurring idea, of age, plays an important role in ‘Miss Brill.’ As seen through the main character’s eyes, older folks have less value and are less able than their younger counterparts. Eventually, the main character views herself in a negative way. Let’s examine a few examples.Miss Brill is sitting on a bench next to a couple she notes as being old and who don’t speak. As a result, she finds them boring.
She later watches as a woman in an ermine toque who is old enough to have had her beauty fade meets a man. This man ignores and abruptly walks away from the woman. It seems as if he cannot be bothered with her feelings or whatever she has to say. Then Brill watches an old man who ‘hobbles’ through the park and is almost knocked over by a group of young girls. Seemingly, the elderly, feeble man is less deserving of consideration and less space on the path than the younger people.
Miss Brill is an elderly woman, but her age is not made apparent until a young couple rudely points it out. The young couple who identified Miss Brill as an old woman better off out of sight, forces her to connect all of her own negative views of age.
Loneliness as a Theme
Another theme in ‘Miss Brill’ is that of loneliness. In many respects, this is a story about being alone and isolated.
Beginning with the title, the author chooses not to use Brill’s full name, but instead uses ‘Miss,’ the prefix for an unmarried woman. This is not to say that all, or even most, unmarried women are lonely. However, the emphasis serves to highlight Miss Brill’s solitary condition, along with each passing person with whom she creates a connection based only on proximity. She connects to these people through their conversations, which she listens to but never joins, as if something is holding her back.The loneliness Miss Brill experiences is best exemplified through her care of an elderly man. Four days a week, Miss Brill spends time with an old man who is barely alive.
While he sleeps, she reads to him. According to her description of him, he seems only passingly aware of this world: so much so, that she notes he could die and she wouldn’t notice for weeks.
Reality & Illusion as Themes
Miss Brill spends a great deal of time and effort creating a means for connections – real and imagined – to allay her loneliness. Armed with this information, let’s explore the disparity between reality and illusion in the story. Miss Brill weaves seemingly separate experiences into a unified narrative in which she is a central character, connecting what happens around her as a play. Katherine Mansfield uses this as an allusion, or a direct or indirect reference in literature.
In this case, the author is alluding to a scene in Shakespeare’s play As You Like It when a character states, ‘All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players; / They have their exits and their entrances.’ The grand connection among all people, including Miss Brill, requires her to play an important role. This illusionary role is much different from the side role she plays in reality.In the last few lines of the story, it becomes apparent that Miss Brill is crying, but she distorts the situation. Instead of hearing herself cry, it is as if she hears someone or something else crying. The climax, or the moment of highest tension or turning point of the story, occurs when Miss Brill overhears the young couple refer to her age.
Instead of facing it, Miss Brill turns away from a confrontation with reality and returns to her protective illusion.
In ‘Miss Brill,’ a short story by Katherine Mansfield, the author address the reoccurring ideas, or themes, of age and ageism, loneliness, and the barrier between reality and illusion. As readers witness Miss Brill listening to and observing other people engaged in conversation, Mansfield forces us to consider if the artificial means for connection we create do more harm than good.The story serves as an allusion, or a direct or indirect reference in literature, to William Shakespeare’s play As You Like It particularly the lines, ‘All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players.’ During the climax (or turning point) in Katherine Mansfield’s short story, Miss Brill overhears a young couple refer to her age, which sends her both home and back to the safety of her protective illusions.