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“The Garden-Party” by Katherine Mansfield can easily be classified as a coming of age tale for the main character and narrator, Laura Sheridan. The ending of the story leaves the reader with many more questions than answers. This is mainly because Laura herself is unable to put into words what she has learned from her new experience with death. “She stopped, she looked at her brother. ‘Isn’t life,’ she stammered, ‘Isn’t life –’ But what life was she couldn’t explain” (Daley 218).
As a reader, it is hard to come to any sort of conclusion about what she took away from the experience because the author gives us such an ambiguous response which to base the entire story off of. Mansfield’s creatively constructed conclusion leaves room for interpretation from the reader as to what Laura will learn from this experience and what her ultimate outcome will be. Laura’s struggle within herself is apparent from the beginning of the story.
She is seen by readers as being very different from the rest of her family and seems to struggle with being herself and conforming to the norms of her class like the rest of the family appears to be doing. “But Meg could not possibly go and supervise the men. She had washed her hair before breakfast, and she sat drinking her coffee in a green turban, with a dark wet curl stamped on each cheek. Jose, the butterfly, always came down in a silk petticoat and a kimono jacket” (Daley 206). Laura’s sisters are completely self-absorbed and their primary focus is on their outward appearance which most likely was a learned trait from their own mother.
Laura does however give in to a few social norms throughout the work, but finds the outcome to be quite dissatisfying. “‘Good morning,’ she said, copying her mother’s voice. But that sounded so fearfully affected that she was ashamed, and stammered like a little girl…” (Daley 207). Laura tries to mimic her mother’s voice that she used when speaking with her inferiors, but it almost seemed wrong for her to pretend to be something that she wasn’t. While the rest of her family finds staying within their social class comfortable, it is clear that Laura strives for something more.
This becomes clearer as she continues to interact with the working men who have come to put up the marquee for the party. Her encounter with three workers hired to raise the tent is confusing and awkward for Laura, as she finds herself torn between snobbery and her developing sense of moral responsibility. She fantasizes about how much more pleasurable it would be if it was acceptable for her to socialize with the working men because they see much more interesting than the boys she is forced to spend time with.
The ending of the story could prove as a point where Laura continues down a different path than everyone else in her family because she holds a different set of values compared to the rest of her family. Laura’s proposition to cancel the party out of respect for their neighbor’s death was met with much dismissal and even sarcasm which further validates this point. “‘Stop the garden-party of course. ’ Why did Jose pretend? But Jose was still more amazed. ‘Stop the garden-party? My dear Laura, don’t be so absurd.
Of course we can’t do anything of the kind. Nobody expects us to. Don’t be so extravagant’” (Daley 212). As a reader, it is shocking to see that is visibly upset by the news of her neighbor’s death, but does not receive even an ounce of sympathy from any one in her family. It’s surprising that even her own mother doesn’t try to see the situation through the eyes of a child, but on the contrary tells her to “use her common sense” (Daley 213) and convinces her that the party must go on.
Death can be a traumatic experience for a child, but it seems as if the lower status of the deceased is the reason to why the parents do not feel the need to address the issue with Laura. They don’t see the need to consider the feelings of their neighbors who aren’t as well off as them and ultimately Laura getting side tracked from her need to do something when he mother gives her the beautiful hat to wear to the party. The moment where Laura is able to regain some her humanity is during her trip to drop off the flowers to the family.
It is in the moment when she walks into the kitchen of the grieving widow and realizes how she must be viewed by the family. “His head was sunk in the pillow, his eyes we closed; they were blind under the closed eyelids. He was given up to his dreams. What did garden-parties and baskets and lace frocks matter to him? He was far from all those things” (Daley 217). When Laura is alone with the dead man, she is unexpected overwhelmed by the peacefulness of the corpse. Laura’s trivial life seems suddenly meaningless in the face of death.
Although the time spent at the party caused her to conform to the norms and go with the flow of things, Laura is jolted back into feeling more different than ever after seeing death for the first time. Her awe in the face of death seems to be her way of trying to escape her family’s moral degradation. When she returns from her trip to deliver flowers, she is unable to articulate what she has just experienced, but nonetheless Laurie is very quick to agree with her. At first this can be seen as a lie in order to rope her back into the family and their way of living.
However, it can also be viewed as Laurie genuinely being able to understand what she is feeling in that moment, but maybe never had the courage or desire to do anything about it. Laura throughout the story seems to be only trying to establish her own identity and figure out where she fits in the world around her. In conclusion, although the ending of the story leaves much room for interpretation, it may be safe to say that through many instances throughout the short story that Laura will continue down a different path from the rest of her family.
It is easy to see as a reader that she views things very differently and even her own family sees her in this way. It may be for this very reason she is categorized as the “artistic” one in the family. The ending may be dissatisfying to readers, but it opens the door for change in Laura’s life. She has seen death up close and personal and learns a very valuable lesson, which seems to be lost or deeply hidden by the rest of her family, about the meaning of life and death in a world in which all human beings share a common humanity.