‘Bliss’, Katherine Mansfield (1920)

Although Berth 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!

Bertha Young is childlike from the outset, apart from the obvious connotations of her surname, she is connected with her daughter ‘Little B’ whom she displays a curious “fondness” for (“you’re nice – you’re very nice!… I like you.”) and is even explicitly figured “like the poor little girl in front of the rich little girl with the doll” in her relationship with Nurse. This childlike character is throwing a dinner party for her “thrilling friends” and brimming with, “bliss”. This “perfect” happiness is felt as an almost obliterative, manic, sexual energy, “as though you’d suddenly swallowed a bright piece of the late afternoon sun and it burned in your bosom, sending out a little shower of sparks into every particle, into every finger and toe?…” And the source of this “bliss”? Not the “extravagantly cool” Harry, Bertha’s husband, but the ethereal Pearl Fulton, her latest “find” whom she has “fallen in love with… as she always did fall in love with beautiful young women who had something strange about them.”

The evening progresses and the comically named Norman Knights (or “Mug” and “Face as they refer to each other) become increasingly grotesque; even on arrival Face looks “like a very intelligent monkey – who had even made that yellow silk dress out of scraped banana skins.” The dreadfully affected Eddie Warren who speaks in italics and recites poems about Tomato Soup arrives “(as usual) in a state of acute distress”. Only Miss Fulton whose very touch “could fan – fan – start blazing – blazing – the fire of bliss that Bertha did not know what to do with” remains exempt from the absurdity of the party. Bertha feels sure that they share something, that “Miss Fulton, ‘gave the sign.'” and as the two women look on “slender flowering [pear] tree” in the moonlit garden the narrative reaches a climactic moment of connection between them, orgasmic in the imagining:

Although it was so still it seemed, like the flame of the 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 the 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?

Bertha experiences a sexual awakening in her communion with Miss Fulton and with it she feels finally able to transcend the realm of “such good pals” in which her marital relationship has languished as “for the first time, she desired her husband”, only to have her revelations shattered in a moment of supreme bathos which, for fear of spoilers, I won’t reveal here.

The narrative is undulating and elliptical, Mansfield’s use of free indirect discourse creates a space between Bertha’s perceptions and her realities and it’s a space to be identified in the dashes and ellipses of her voice. There are moments of direct expression that jar against the very mannered style of Bertha’s own speech and here, the reader suspects, is a more reliable source only glimpsed as Bertha pauses for breath. This flexibility of perspective and voice renders the final realisation all the more effective. It also elucidates the disparity between Bertha’s perceptions and the truth: the first word of the story, ‘Although’, flags that all is not as it seems. These flags continue to pop with Bertha’s frustration at having “a body shut up like a rare, rare fiddle” and “how idiotic civilisation” is; indeed the change in tone with the arrival of the dinner guests serves to further discomfit the reader, especially as Bertha becomes increasingly assured in her perceived connection with Miss Fulton culminating in their mutual gaze on the “lovely pear tree”.

The same pear tree that earlier Bertha has replicated in her “scheme” of “a white dress, a string of jade beads, green shoes and stockings” and where she saw, “a grey cat , dragging its belly… across the lawn, and a black one, its shadow, trailed after it.” The same sight that elicits “a curious shiver” and causes her to exclaim: “What creepy things cats are!”. Even the pear tree that Bertha identifies both herself and Miss Fulton with as a symbol of perfection is shadowed by an unsettling sexuality Mansfield later recalls using the same image of feline motion. The variety of meanings that have been attributed to the pear tree itself range from the phallocentric hardness of Harry (whose only interest in his daughter appears in the context of sexuality – “I shan’t feel the slightest interest in her until she takes a lover” – and who so relishes dismembering Miss Fulton as if he is almost running his hands over her body, “liver frozen…pure flatulence..kidney disease”); the langorous sexuality of Pearl with her “heavy eyelids” and “moonbeam fingers” or Bertha’s own sexual potentiality. The pear tree, then, is a composite symbol drawing these spectral sexualities together in the same uncertain, enigmatic way that the story itself characterises sexual possibility as fundamentally unknowable and uncertain.

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