The Garden Party Summary

Katherine Mansfield

The Garden Party

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The Garden Party Summary

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Katherine Mansfield’s short story “The Garden Party” is about a garden party and protagonist Laura’s idealism and sensitive nature. As the story begins, Laura’s family is preparing for the party, introducing readers to her shallow mother, Mrs. Sheridan, her bossy sister, Jose, her business-minded father, and her brother, Laurie, who shares many of Laura’s personality traits. When Laura hears that a worker who lives nearby has died, she feels that to host a party in light of a neighbor’s demise is wrong, and tries to convince her family to cancel the garden party.

First, Laura goes to Jose, who scolds Laura for wanting to cancel the party because cancelling it won’t bring the worker back to life. Jose represents the Sheridan family’s attitude toward the workers, whom they generally view as lower class, as evidenced by their hostile temperament toward them. Laura is not dissuaded from her cause and goes next to her mother, hoping to find enough compassion to cancel the party. This is where Mansfield fleshes out Laura’s relationship with her mother. Laura tries initially to copy her mother’s attitude and mannerisms, but ultimately decides to distinguish herself from her mother. When confronted with the news of the dead worker, Mrs. Sheridan reacts much the same way as Jose–she thinks cancelling the party a ridiculous idea. She gives Laura a black hat to wear for the party, and upon seeing her charming reflection with the hat, Laura decides not to plead with her family to cancel the party after all.

The party happens, though it’s not the focus of Mansfield’s story. She provides snippets of dialogue, which reflect the guests’ general pleasure in seeing Laura in such a nice hat. Everything is going fine until Mr. Sheridan mentions an accident, and Laura is reminded of the dead worker. Mrs. Sheridan convinces a hesitant Laura to deliver leftover food from the garden party to the worker’s widow, and insists Laura make this delivery in her party attire. Laura obeys her mother’s wishes and travels to the nearby cottages where the laborers live. The atmosphere is the opposite of the Sheridan estate–instead of light and cheerful, it is dark and oppressive. Laura feels she is dressed inappropriately for her errand and plans to drop the food off and return home as quickly as possible, but the widow’s sister doesn’t let her off the hook so easily.

Against Mrs. Sheridan’s request, Laura allows herself to be led to the body of the deceased laborer after meeting the widow. She finds him serene and beautiful, and once more returns to her earlier thesis that in light of life and death, garden parties are silly. Struck by the difference between her lifestyle and that of the laborers, Laura is immediately ashamed and begs forgiveness for her attire before fleeing the cottage, only to encounter her brother, Laurie.

They talk about the deceased laborer and the garden party and come to the same conclusion–that life is “darling,” and there is more in the world of consequence beyond garden parties.

In “The Garden Party,” the black hat Mrs. Sheridan gives Laura is a symbol of their wealth and separation from the rest of the world that surrounds them. Themes of “The Garden Party” include the difference between innocence and experience, and dreams and reality. Laura journeys from innocence–thinking that her family would honor the dead, and then enjoying herself at the party–to experience, when she is made to deliver the leftover food and becomes embarrassed that she is dressed for a party when people are mourning and suffering. The veil of her dream–the happy atmosphere of home–is lifted when she travels to the cottages to deliver the food and experiences reality for the first time.

At the end of the story, though Laurie commiserates with her, he also realizes there’s nothing she can say to truly impart the feelings she had when making this journey.

The story, written in 1922, can also be seen to represent the end of the genteel class. Laura leaves that behind and travels to the cottages where she sees firsthand the suffering in the rest of the world. Post World War I, this story encapsulates many of the issues dealt with worldwide regarding economic class division.

In 1973, “The Garden Party” was adapted into a twenty-five-minute short film. Born to a wealthy family in New Zealand in 1888, Katherine Mansfield was influenced by the writer and satirist Oscar Wilde. She was known for being rebellious and regarding the artistic community more highly than the society into which she was born. In 1923, she died at the young age of thirty-four, just one year after “The Garden Party” was published. Her other works of note include In a German Pension, “Miss Brill,” and Bliss and Other Stories.