Intriguing and Indifferent Things on the Page

By Laura-Amalia Oulanne

A fictional umbrella, doll, or tombstone can engage readers as lived bodies with a lifetime of experience interacting with the material world of things. 

Lorna Sage, in her introduction to Katherine Mansfield’s The Garden Party and Other Stories, calls the texts in the collection “intensely crafted and evocative objects-on-the-page.” The interplay of thing-like and meaningful, intriguing and opaque has drawn me to write about modernist short fiction, including stories by Mansfield, Djuna Barnes, and Jean Rhys. These texts foreground their characters as bodies in space, often with unclear motivations, as well as abundant collections of material things. The things and bodies keep to themselves, not trying to lure readers in, yet they also manage to affect us.

The stories never quite fit into interpretive frames that might have extracted meaning out of their thingly contents: studies of fashion and fetishes, and analyses of social, gendered, and economical problematics and psychological or psychoanalytical dynamics. Even though the texts definitely address social and political issues, I felt like their choir of materialities, from Barnes’s museum-like interiors to Rhys’s alluring shop windows to the hauntingly lively houses and gardens experienced by Mansfield’s focalizers, was asking for more attention: “What about how we look, how we feel when you touch me, how we occupy space? What about what we do?” Analyses of commodification and symbolism look a little past these questions. Nor do they account for the curious way the human characters in the stories seem thing-like, dehumanized and alien, yet manage to touch a reader.

In my book Materiality in Modernist Short Fiction: Lived Things (2021), I read stories by Mansfield, Djuna Barnes, and Jean Rhys. I propose a method of reading affective materiality, which charts the effects that stories and their things have on reading bodies. A fictional umbrella, doll, or tombstone can engage readers as lived bodies with a lifetime of experience interacting with the material world of things. This happens before we bring in any kind of apparatus for skilled analysis of symbolic meanings and cultural contexts. But there is no need to separate bodily sense-making from the symbolic, cultural, or critical work also done by the texts. Rather the former supports the latter, and these more “complex” meanings are built on something quite concrete. Taking a step back and letting things be, so to speak, brings out some of the ways that the stories do things in the world, including the very human world of socio-cultural meanings.

Djuna Barnes’s “Finale” (1918) is one example of an “object-on-the-page” that invites us to spend time with a curious arrangement of human and thing-bodies. The descriptive story has very little plot or human experience to engage with, but it has other means to affect our bodies and minds. Katherine Mansfield’s much-read and well-researched “The Garden Party” (1922), on the other hand, has a more complex narrative structure. Both stories offer a blend of vivid things and thing-like or dehumanized humans, and condense this blend in the central motif of a dead body.

“Finale” describes, in no more than two pages, an assemblage of a mourning family gathered around the father’s body. The picture seems static, but the narrator reminds us that things are happening: “Everything else in the room seemed willing to go on changing—being. He alone remained cold and unwilling, like a stoppage in the atmosphere.” We learn that the mother weeps, the girl’s palms sweat, the boy has a private memory of rubbing his head against a nurse’s arm. There is also a silk scarf lying around in the room, a treasured possession of the dead man. The most active agent is an animal that appears at the very end of the story:

A large rat put his head out of a hole, long dusty, and peered into the room. The children were going to rise and go to bed soon. The bodies of the mourners had that half-sorrowful, half-bored look of people who do something that hurts too long. Presently the rat took hold of the scarf and trotted away with it into the darkness of the beyond. One thing only had the undertaker forgotten to do; he had failed to remove the cotton from the ears of the dead man, who had suffered from earache.

The bodies described refuse to fit into slots reserved for active human characters and passive nonhuman ones. The human bodies also appear permeated by the nonhuman world. There is the cotton in the ears of the dead man, but also the processes of “changing and being” going on in the other bodies. These processes are highlighted instead of their feelings or psychological motivations. Stacy Alaimo has used the notion of “trans-corporeality” to describe such permeability, in which “the human is always the very stuff of the messy, contingent, emergent mix of the material world.” For Alaimo, we can only perceive most of trans-corporeal interactions with the help of scientific instruments. Yet it seems like the short story can tap into some of such relations and making them reach readers’ minds and bodies.

This description of messy embodiment displays a material indifference to any “human interest” factor. The rat doesn’t care about the specific memories inscribed on the scarf, and neither does the scarf, now enmeshed in the rat’s busy life. The dead man, obviously, doesn’t care about the family or the cotton in his ears. The family is mourning but the narrator focuses on the dullness resulting from the position of their bodies in the material space. All these micro-narratives are presented as worth telling. Read beside stories like “Aller et Retour,” “Spillway,” and “Cassation,” the story appears as perhaps the most abstract one of Barnes’s literary gestures that queer and rewrite family norms. “Finale” queers the norms by showing them beside a vivid nonhuman world and foregrounding the rules of crude materiality that apply equally to all bodies. In Barnes’s stories, there is always more than meets the human-oriented eye in even the most static family portrait. The short format seems ideal for playing with such dynamics of plasticity and vibrancy.

“The Garden Party” also gathers its meaning around an assemblage of a dead body, human characters, and material things that refuse to recede into the background. Like “Finale,” it uses the nonchalance of the material world to rewrite some norms, this time of social class. It tends to be read as a portrayal of hypocrisy and alienation, denial of class privilege, and failures in interpersonal communication. I was intrigued to find that a shift of perspective towards materiality, addressing curious interactions between objectified human characters and vivid things, brought up some new ways of reading the classic story.

The party itself becomes an independent agent that takes the human characters along for a ride: “The house was alive with soft quick steps and running voices.” Similar scenes populate other Mansfield stories, like “Sun and Moon” (1918), where a party makes everything from chairs to hats and desserts come alive in the eyes of the young focalizers. When the death of a carter living nearby threatens to spoil her family’s party, Laura’s moral troubles are solved by a becoming hat.

In the central scene, Laura is shaken by the discord of her party attire and the otherworldly body of the dead man, whose family she approaches with leftover gifts. Laura’s encounter with the dead man’s body becomes a moment of epiphany that makes all the buzzing party activity seem ridiculous. She is surprised by a state of bliss and clarity: “What did garden-parties and baskets and lace frocks matter to him? He was far from all those things.” She also realizes that the epiphany, like her clothing, is out of tune with the somber tone required of the situation. She blurts out “Forgive my hat” and escapes. Her attempt to communicate the experience to her brother turns similarly awkward:

“It was simply marvellous. But, Laurie––” She stopped, she looked at her brother.

“Isn’t life,” she stammered, “isn’t life––” But what life was she couldn’t explain. No matter. He quite understood.

“Isn’t it, darling?” said Laurie.

This ironical ending underlines the siblings’ failure at connection with each other and with the “real stuff” of life. They only know baskets, hats, and frocks. Yet on a level of crude matter, hats and frocks are not different from the dead body, and they all transcend the human party world. Laura’s apology for her hat is especially comical, as the hat, like Barnes’s rat or scarf, doesn’t care about any of the social scruples involved in the situation. Seeing these items, all associated with femininity, as superficial and corrupt is a result of an arguably misogynistic bias in human signification. Hats and frocks are things soaked in culture and politics, but they are also just things—and as such they may carry a weightier meaning than what we’re used to attaching to them.

It is also fitting that Laura cannot express her realization of “what life is.” The language of convention spoken by the siblings has no words for this kind of messy, intertwined life. Yet the story has just presented an “intensely crafted and evocative” picture of a lively, independent world of things that refuses to be reduced to any socio-cultural norms. ”The Garden Party” makes a sneaky statement of the power of literature, and the short story form in particular. Without explicitly proclaiming anything, it takes the reader through a series of interactions with fictional things. Through these experiences, the unvoiced but felt perspective of the thing-bodies is allowed to make nonsense out of class and gender biases, which at first sight govern the storyworld.

Modernist short stories often strive to depict the world as we experience it. They end up foregrounding the nonhuman and the material in the process, simply because of how enmeshed human experience is in a world of things. As researchers, we might do well to spend some more time looking at and feeling these things, as well as the opaque and unreadable characters of these stories. We shouldn’t be led astray by the flimsy and superficial reputation of hats and scarves, baskets and flowers. Neither do we need to fetch our most complicated interpretive shovels to dig deeper for the meaning of these things; looking and feeling are a good start.

Biography

Laura Oulanne is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Helsinki. She has written and published on materialities in the short fiction of Djuna Barnes, Katherine Mansfield, Jean Rhys, and Virginia Woolf as well as in works by Jane Bowles and Gertrude Stein. Her present research focusses on intersections of the mind and material environments in modernist fiction.

Sources

Alaimo, Stacy. 2010. Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Material

Self. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Barnes, Djuna. 1996. Collected Stories. Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press.

Mansfeld, Katherine. 1997. The Garden Party and Other Stories. London: Penguin Books.

Oulanne, Laura. 2021. Materiality in Modernist Short Fiction: Lived Things. New York: Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781003156499

Oulanne, Laura. 2020. “Djuna Barnes and Queer Interiorities.” In How Literature Comes to Matter: Post-Anthropocentric Approaches to Fiction, edited by Marlene Karlsson Marcussen, Sten Pultz Moslund, and Martin Karlsson Pedersen, 153–171. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. https://helda.helsinki.fi/handle/10138/323596

Sage, Lorna. 1997. “Introduction.” In Katherine Mansfield: The Garden Party and Other Stories, vii–xxi. London: Penguin Books.

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