Katharine Mansfield’s Bliss Analysis

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Bliss is a short story that analyzes how human perceptions can change everything. The story argues that there is no such thing as thinking objective and that we all see things through a lens of our own biases. It also argues for the cliché of ignorance is bliss, as Bertha is blissful in ignorance before she faces some harsh truths. The role of women in society, as well as their ability to show any sort of desire, was also analyzed through the short story by Mansfield, as a way to provide social commentary and to get women to begin thinking in thought provoking ways about gender norms, sexuality, and if society was fair in its treatment towards women and gender roles. This essay will evaluate Mansfield’s Bliss, in terms of what Mansfield was trying to tell audiences and the implications behind the commentary about love, marriage, self-awareness, and desire.

The first passage described in the novel is one that describes the moment of bliss, which truly is a moment of ignorance. “Both, as it were, caught in that circle of unearthly light, understanding each other perfectly, creatures of another world, and wondering what they were to do in this one with all this blissful treasure that burned in their bosoms and dropped, in silver flowers, from their hair and hands?”  (Mansfield, 1918, p. 4). The moment is described so poetically, and yet it represents an awful truth. Mansfield, even in this scene alone, seems to be making a commentary about ignorance. Even if it is bliss, it only creates an idealized version of the world and of other people.

Although idealization in and of itself is not bad, it can cause problems and unrealistic expectations. Bertha expected her husband, Harry, to be faithful to her even when she did not show much interest in him. She does not seem to necessarily like Harry very much, and one can assume she married him for reasons other than what one would consider being as true love. The first time Bertha is experiencing any sort of desire for her husband is assumed to be much after their wedding, and even if it is not, seems to be odd. “But now-ardently!  Ardently! The word ached in her ardent body! Was this what that feeling of bliss had been leading up to” (Mansfield, 1918, p. 3).

Therefore, Bertha expected Harry to never stray from their relationship, even if they were not intimate in an emotional way, or even one could argue, in a truly romantic way. These unrealistic expectations are part of what caused Bertha to not expect Harry to participate in the affair with Pearl that he did.

The question then becomes, if these unrealistic expectations and ignorance really served Bertha well, or if it just put off the inevitable truth that she would eventually be forced to find out anyways. Mansfield seems to be making commentary here that the truth is something that always comes out and denying it through ignorance and bliss only prolongs the inevitable. If you yourself, or in the case of this story Bertha, do not recognize the truth, it will come and stare you in the face. In the case of Bliss, the truth not only figuratively stood Bertha in the face but also physically did, when Pearl showed up to the dinner party that Bertha was hosting with Harry.

The pear tree is a very prominent image within the short story, and it seems to represent that of the truth. "But the pear tree was as lovely as ever and as full of flower and as still” (Mansfield, 1918, p. 10). Basically, the quote about the pear tree is telling the audience that everything is exactly as it always was. Although to Bertha, everything has shifted and changed, and the world is quite a shock to her right now, the only thing that truly changed was her reality or her perception of it anyway. The truth had never changed, the harsh reality was always there, waiting for Bertha to face it. It just took one event in Bertha’s life for her to finally have to face the reality that was waiting for her.

The ignorance allowed Bertha to view the pear tree as perfect, just as she viewed her relationship with Harry. Therefore, the pear tree could also be a metaphor for marriage. Because she felt she had to view their relationship as perfect, Bertha also ignored any issues within her relationship with Harry that ironically most likely led to his affair. The pear tree, or their marriage, was still standing the exact same as it always was and was full of flowers in the exact same manner as well.

The perception of the pear tree or their marriage was the exact same to the outsider looking in. Perhaps even to everyone else who knew Bertha, Harry, or Pearl, it was also obvious that their relationship was crumbling. Therefore, when Bertha finds out that Harry is having an affair, their marriage still looks the exact same to everyone that is observing. However, on the inside, Bertha is completely changed in her perspectives on the marriage and in her past self that was full of naivety.

The short story also seems to describe how many women had to deal with desire in general, and how they were encouraged to deal with desire within society at the time that Mansfield wrote bliss. Bertha is an interesting character because she is constantly fighting within herself between her own desire, and what the norms that she has been taught to value within society. In addition, the contrast between Harry’s passionate nature and Bertha’s tendency towards frigidity showcases the difference in desire that was allowed for each gender within society at the time.

The commentary made about this arrangement is that the husband tends to be dissatisfied because his passion cannot be matched, and the wife is dissatisfied because she is not allowed to ever show she has any passion in the first place. Harry looks to Pearl as a means of escape from a life where he cannot receive reciprocal passion from his wife, and vice versa. Mansfield seems to make many implications for both marriage and sexuality. She especially seems to be arguing for a more open dialogue between the genders, and a society that allows for less frigidity and for more openness. Not only is Pearl native in her beliefs about her marriage with Harry and the dynamics within it, but she is also naïve in terms of her sexuality and what that means for her (Nebeker, 1972).

Mansfield has been known in general for her critiques of the way that women were treated, especially women in the middle class. “Mansfield examines the process by which the commodification of women’s bodies alienates them from bodily pleasure. Women in these stories experience sex and childbirth as unwelcome intrusions and invasions; in important ways, they feel their bodies are not theirs” (Moran, 1996, p. 3). This commentary helps to further showcase Mansfield’s consistent values and critiques for society that she wanted the audience to grasp from reading her works.

By appealing to women who could relate to her pieces, Mansfield could create a dialogue with other women that would be much more difficult to create out in the open. She also did this same action when she wrote Bliss. Mansfield wanted women to relate to Bertha in her frigidity, witness her sexual awakening, and then question why they themselves were not also feeling the same way. Creating a rhetorical question for women and their own relationships with their husbands was the perfect breeding ground for women to begin asking more question about the way women were being treated within society and if this treatment was morally and ethically right, or beneficial for women.

Perhaps, Bertha’s moment where she related to Pearl could have also been a moment of connection with both of their feelings of desire, not just for Harry, but also the desire that all women feel. This passage within the story may have been Mansfield’s way of attempting to create a connection between women. Women could understand that in a way, Bertha was seeing a mirror to herself when she saw Pearl’s desire and recognized sameness, and perhaps they then too could hold up the mirror to their own similar desires that reside in both Pearl and Bertha. Seeing themselves through the eyes of the characters in the story could help them to further analyze their own desires, and if those desires were being met within the current system that was created.

In conclusion, the story of Bliss was created by Mansfield as a means to an overarching theme of stories and works that she wanted women to read and connect with. Ultimately, Bliss is a short story that helps to recognize that all women feel desire, it is just a matter of which women choose to recognize this desire or not. It also makes commentary and takes a stand on the importance of realizing one’s perceptions can be faulty, and that seeing a truth that has always been there can sometimes be better in the end than pretending that truth is not there and finding out about it later anyway.

This truth could be said to represent Bertha’s marriage to Harry, but also women’s ignorance in terms of how they were being treated within society, and how in many ways they gender roles they were forced to be a part of was unfair. The story encourages women to take a closer look at their own lives, at hold a mirror to their own selves and create a new awareness, much how Pearl created a mirror into Bertha’s own life and created new awareness that she had never faced before in her life. Mansfield’s goal, in writing Bliss, seems to be to tell a cautionary tale about allowing bliss and naivety to take hold in one’s life, and the price they may pay for allowing this ignorance to overcome the truth.

References

Mansfield, K. (1918). Bliss. Katherine Mansfield Society. Retrieved from http://www.katherinemansfieldsociety.org/assets/KM-Stories/BLISS1918.pdf.

Moran, P. (1996). Word of mouth: Body language in Katharine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf. Charlottesville: The University Press of Virginia.

Nebeker, H. (1972). The pear tree: Sexual implications in Katharine Mansfield’s Bliss. Modern Fiction Studies, 18(4): 545/