Mansfield's "The Garden Party" Themes and Analysis
Themes - Innocence
Laura, the protagonist of Mansfield’s “The Garden Party” is depicted as a very naïve girl who was born and raised in the sheltered ignorance of the Sheridan family. The narrator utilizes this to gain sympathy from the reader through a series of emotions experienced by Laura. The devices used by the narrator to aid the reader in sympathizing with Laura are the depiction of her innocence, curiosity, and her realizations as she gains a deeper understanding of life.
Laura’s innocence is seen right from the beginning of the story. When Mrs. Sheridan asks one of her daughters to supervise the men, neither of them can be bothered to do it. Laura takes the job without question; in fact the narrator claims that she enjoys doing such things because she feels she “could do it much better than anyone else.” (Mansfield, 363) The narrator often expresses Laura’s feelings without Laura ever explicitly saying anything, which adds to the sheltered outlook the readers continue to gain about her character. Her innocence is further developed at her timid behavior upon her initial meeting with the workers where she tries to come off as elegant as her mother. A very significant quote from the story is, “Laura’s upbringing made her wonder for a moment whether it was quite respectful of a workman to talk to her of bangs slap in the eye,” (Mansfield, 364) which ultimately establishes that she’s never really been exposed to people speaking slang or talking without proper etiquette.
The quote also expresses Laura’s first bit of curiosity towards the world that exists outside the confines of the fabricated world she was born and raised in. The reader only goes on to learn just how sheltered in fact Laura has been when it is learned that the daughters were not allowed to go into the lower class neighborhood because they might be exposed to negative influences. Laura’s curiosity is brought to the reader’s attention in plain sight when she can’t seem to understand how her mother and Jose could allow the garden party to proceed when one of their neighbor’s have just died. Even though she was raised in a household that clearly does not value all human life equally, Laura was the only one that hadn’t let class and wealth blind her from the reality of the world. Rather, perhaps Laura was still at a stage in her life that she could still realize the reality of life, whereas her sister and mother clearly could not. Her curiosity plays an important role for the reader to understand just what a lost and confusing time Laura is going through. The scene where Mrs. Sheridan tells Laura that she is the one who ordered the lilies helps the reader to learn that Laura is in a constant struggle for freedom. This doesn’t necessarily mean explicit freedom; Laura isn’t really trying to get away from anything. It means the freedom to develop an open mind. Clearly Laura isn’t really allowed to make decisions on her own, as her mother often guides her in the direction of her choosing. The reader can assume that this has been happening for her entire life, and so it only makes sense for Laura to wonder about anything that is outside of what her family has established as the norm.
Laura’s wondering about these little things is what subtly started to take her outside of her shell. The first flash of realization for Laura may have occurred when her sister, Jose accused the man to be drunk. At this, Laura reacts in a way where the reader can understand just what is going through Laura’s mind. How can Laura’s sister assume such a thing without it ever being mentioned? At this point, Laura begins to understand that perhaps her family had always been exaggerating the things they claimed about cottages down the road. What really gets the the reader is the part afterwards where Laura goes to her mother, but her mother’s reaction is relief that no one in the garden has died. To Mrs. Sheridan, the only problem would have been a death that could ruin the party, otherwise it’s insignificant. With these values in the household it’s no wonder Laura’s sister cared little about the neighbor’s death.
Coming of Age
After being scolded by her mother for trying to stop the party, Laura leaves by saying, “I don’t understand” (Mansfield, 368). This is a very important quote in the text to show how Laura has further begun to question and realize how self-centered and class conscious her family is. Her own mother, someone she’s looked up to her entire life, cannot be bothered to give a second thought to people less fortunate than her. Towards the end of the story, Laura again questions bringing leftovers to the Scott’s family. To Mrs. Sheridan, this is but a favor she’s doing to the Scott’s. However, to Laura, it seems rather insulting to be giving them leftovers from a party they didn’t have the courtesy of postponing.
Laura seems like the only member of the family that is down to earth, along with perhaps Laurie but his character isn’t explored to the same extent. At the end of the story Laura has gone through major changes about her perception of life. She is more mature as she actually cries at realizing the ultimate fate and how all humans are linked by it, whether poor or rich. The reader likewise goes through a similar process along with her maturation from innocence, to curiosity, and then finally to a realization that, as stated in the text, life is darling.