Prelude by Katherine Mansfield Analysis: Writing Style and Critical Reading
I will try my best to make this the most engaging analysis ever. However, I need your full sympathy, seeing as I’ve never read any modernist short stories, let alone works that are done by one of the ‘best short-story writers of all time’! The idea behind this is to analyse reading and writing in Katherine Mansfield’s acclaimed short story, Prelude. Why?
a) I’m hoping to submit my writing for a short story competition run by the Emirates Airline Literature Festival soon and I like to learn from the greatest.
b) There’s a reason why this blog is called Paradise Prose, people…
Step 1: Plan of Action
This time, I read quite a few academic journals (links below) and made summary notes about the context and narrator. With the background knowledge to inspire my own analyses, I’ve sprung off some thoughts about Mansfield’s literary and writing choices.
Step 2: Analysing the opening
You can’t go wrong with the opening, right? There’s bound to be some deliberate and effective reading/writing choices there. Here’s quote 1 below:
Quote #1 :
“THERE was not an inch of room for Lottie and Kezia in the buggy. When Pat swung them on top of the luggage they wobbled; the grandmother’s lap was full and Linda
Burnell could not possibly have held a lump of a child on hers for any distance.
Is this a good opening? Maybe the most obvious thing that engaged me was the suspense about where this busy, large family is going. Clearly, Lottie, Kezia, Pat and Linda are familiar, homily names. The focus on the kids and the lack of room for them gives me a clear impression that they are a burden/compulsory duty, a theme that is central to the whole story. Sidenote – all the effective first sentences I have read recently seem to be of this length.
One of the key features of modernist literature is symbolism, which makes analysing the text more revealing about the feelings of the characters.
What did I find most interesting?
Linda Burnell being squished by the others (for lack of better words). This implies to me that she’s overburdened by children and familial duties to the extent that it hinders her individual development (a key theme of modernist literature is conflict with the self). Then, there’s the buggy itself. It’s inadequacy for the number of people it carries could be a metaphor for Linda’s own exhaustion from duties. In fact, the buggy (if it had a say) would probably want to leave without the children since there isn’t any space left. For Linda Burnell (their mother), that might be a repressed desire.
Also, just shooting off some more little ideas:
A ‘lump of a child’ has connotations of being unwelcome. The fact that she can’t carry ‘a lump of a child’ could suggest that her children are making her life uncomfortable in the same way a lump in your throat might do. It also makes her seem a little dreamy, not the sort of mom who makes do and manages to carry her children anyway.
Quote #2 :
“As they stood on the steps, the high grassy bank on which the aloe rested rose up like a wave, and the aloe seemed to ride upon it like a ship with the oars lifted. Bright moonlight hung upon the lifted oars like water, and on the green wave glittered the dew.
Here we have some striking imagery of none other than an aloe plant. I really like how Mansfield creates the impression that the aloe plant is magnificent and powerful, considering how she uses the simile ‘rose up like a wave’ and the verb ‘ride’. In fact, just thinking of a vessel as large as a ship and so much movement (‘oars lifted’) adds to this idea. When you think about how Linda reacts to Beryl flirting with her husband, how she stays in her bedroom imagining things, inaction and giving in are the words that come to mind. But this aloe suggests that she idolises being able to react and have power over herself, a symbol identified with Linda throughout the story.
The bright moonlight, to me, ensigns a dream-like quality to the aloe’s stance. It could connote that Linda’s dream, to this effect, would be to attain the power that the aloe resembles. The personification in the phrase ‘(moonlight) hung upon the lifted oars’ could suggest that she’s holding onto this dream to revitalise herself every day, to survive every day – the same way water keeps any living being alive. In a metaphor, she transforms the grassy bank into the a ‘green wave that glitters in the dew’. Additionally, the words ‘green’ and ‘glitter’ suggest growth alongside fantasy, like a fairy tale. The reference to dew (water on leaves in the dawn) reinforces the idea that Linda would be able to live her life with strength again. Now that I think of it, the ship could imply the idea of Linda wanting to steer her life the way she wants to.
Let’s face it, this is going to be a looong post. But there’s something abominable about stopping a list at two, especially when there’s so much more that Mansfield does!
When Aunt Beryl ran out of the room she sat the cat up on the dressing-table and stuck the top of the cream jar over its ear.
“Now look at yourself,” she said sternly.
The calico cat was so overcome by the sight that it toppled over backwards and bumped and bumped on to the floor. And the top of the cream jar flew through the air and rolled like a penny in a round on the linoleum–and did not break.
The cream jar over the cat’s ear could suggest the ridiculousness of Beryl’s conflicting identities. Since it’s hiding it’s one ear, it could symbolise Beryl’s falsehood. The fact that the cat topples over once it sees itself could consequently suggest that Beryl will live in distress as long as she pretends to be someone she’s not.
CONCLUSION: What do I make of this?
Prelude was my favourite amongst the many Mansfield short stories I’ve read. Writing wise, I loved reading her symbolic, evocative imagery. The relationships between characters were also interesting to observe, particularly how Kezia reacted to her grandmother, her mother, her aunt by turns. The kids personalities were really engaging to read about – although in Mansfield’s stories I’m getting a slice of life instead of a plot, I do enjoy observing what these little details are.
Study journals/essay sources for research:
3) Katherine Mansfield and her Confessional Stories is a book I’d recommend (I only read preview parts from Google Books)
Thanks for sticking with me this far!
Keep reading and read-joicing,