Bliss Summary

Katherine Mansfield


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Bliss Summary

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New Zealand author Katherine Mansfield’s short story “Bliss” was first published in 1918 in The English Review and later collected in Mansfield’s anthology Bliss and Other Stories. Centering on a dinner party given by a young woman named Bertha Young and her husband, Harry, the story explores Bertha’s inner life and her relationships with her guests as the night unfolds, revealing truths about those attending. Exploring themes of marriage, adultery, transformation, social change, the advancing tide of modernity, and the question of whether it is better to face the truth or live in ignorance, “Bliss” is one of Mansfield’s most acclaimed and widely read stories, remaining widely read today. It is a frequent subject of literary analysis and study, due to its complex imagery and deep character study.

As “Bliss” opens, Bertha Young, a happy but naive woman of thirty, walks home, reflecting on how wonderful her life is. She is overwhelmed by a feeling of pure bliss, thinking about her home, her husband, her baby, and her friends, and how lucky she is to have all of them. Upon arriving home, she begins to prepare for a dinner party she and her husband, Harry, are having that evening. She thinks about the guests who will be arriving soon. They include Mr. and Mrs. Knight, a couple with a keen interest in art; Eddie Warren, a charismatic playwright; and her newest friend, Pearl Fulton. Pearl is a passionate blonde woman whom Bertha found herself immediately drawn to, and she secretly wishes Harry could be more adventurous and passionate like Pearl. However, Harry has expressed misgivings over her friendship with Pearl; and Bertha is hoping that the dinner party will lead to them becoming friends as well.

As Bertha waits for the party to begin, she sits and stares at her garden. She’s especially enchanted by a pear tree in the garden, in full bloom. She sees herself in the pear tree, but her view is ruined by a pair of cats skulking across her lawn. She meditates on how blessed she is in her life, then heads upstairs to dress. Soon enough, her guests begin arriving, as does Harry. The group heads into the dining room, where they enjoy their meal. A lively discussion begins, with the main topic being the modern theater and literary scene. As she watches her guests, she thinks back to the pear tree. She looks at Pearl, sensing that the other woman shares her feelings of bliss, and watches Pearl for a sign that Pearl understands how similar they are. After dinner, as Bertha makes her guests coffee, Pearl approaches her and asks her if she has a garden. Bertha pulls the curtains to show Pearl the pear tree in the garden. She imagines that Pearl reacts positively to the sight, but she is not sure if she imagined it.

Over coffee, they continue to discuss various topics, but Bertha’s eyes are on Harry and the way he seems to dislike Pearl. She wishes she could tell him how much Pearl’s friendship has meant to her. She is suddenly overcome with sexual desire for Harry and wishes her guests would leave already so she can have some alone time with her husband. The Knights are the first to leave, and soon Pearl and Eddie are preparing to share a taxi. Pearl heads to the hall to get her coat, and Harry follows her. Eddie asks Bertha for a book of poems she owns, and as Bertha goes to get the book from a nearby table, she looks out into the hallway. There, she sees Harry and Pearl talking. Suddenly, she watches them embrace and make plans to meet the next day. Pearl reenters the room and thanks Bertha for hosting the party. The guests leave, and Harry, unaware that Bertha knows his secret, moves about the house closing the windows. Bertha runs to the window to look at the pear tree, crying out in uncertainty about what will happen to her perfect life how. The pear tree, outside, is unchanged, even as Bertha’s inner life is in turmoil, and the story ends on a note of uncertainty.

Katherine Mansfield Murry was a famous New Zealand modernist short story writer. A friend and colleague of fellow modernist writers including DH Lawrence and Virginia Woolf, she began writing and was first published as a teenager. Her stories were published in magazines and literary journals across New Zealand. She published six collections of her works during her short, thirty-four-year life, but was a prolific writer; an additional fourteen collections of her stories, poems, letters, and journals were published posthumously. Five biopics have been made about Mansfield, and she is still widely honored today in New Zealand, with schools around the island named after her.