In ‘Miss Brill’, Katherine Mansfield introduces us to an apparently simpleminded woman who eavesdrops on strangers, who imagines herself to be an actress in some kind of absurd musical, and who’s only friend in life seems to be a shabby fur stole. We are encouraged neither to laugh at her, nor to dismiss her as a madwoman. Yet, Miss Brill comes across as a convincing character who we sympathize with. By telling the story from a third person point of view, Mansfield allows us to both share Miss Brill’s perceptions and to recognize those perceptions are mostly fantasy.Miss Brill’s view of the world on this Sunday afternoon in early autumn is a good One, and we are encouraged to share her pleasure! The day “so brilliantly fine,” the children“swooping and laughing,” the band sounding “louder and gayer,” than on previous days.
We are also encouraged to look at Miss Brill as a person as well as her perceptions. This dual perspective encourages us to view Miss Brill as someone who has resorted to fantasy rather than self pity.Miss Brill reveals herself to us through her perceptions of other people in the park, the other characters in her production. Since she really does not know them, she characterizes the people by the clothes they wear, for example,” a fine old man in a velvet coat,” an Englishman” wearing a dreadful panama hat,” “little boys with big white silk bows under their chins” She observes what everyone is wearing as if she is a wardrobe designer for a production. She thinks they are performing for her benefit, even though to us it appears they are oblivious to her existence.Some are not very appealing: the silent couple beside her on the bench, the vain woman who chatters about the spectacles she should be wearing, the “beautiful” woman who throws away a bunch of violets “as if they had been poisoned,” and the four girls who nearly knock over the old man.
She is annoyed by some, sympathetic towards others, but she reacts to them all as if they were characters on a stage. Miss Brill appears to be innocent and childlike, but in fact may be just acting that way to attract sympathy.Miss Brill seems to identify with the woman wearing’ the ermine toque she’d bought when her hair was yellow. The description of the “shabby ermine” and the woman’s hand as a “tiny yellow paw” suggests that the lady reminds Miss Brill of herself even though she would never use the word shabby to describe her own fur. The”gentleman in grey”is very rude to the woman; he blows smoke in her face and abandons her. Now like Miss Brill, the woman is alone. But to Miss Brill this is just a stage performance and the true nature of this curious encounter is never made clear to the reader.There are hints in the story that self awareness is something Miss Brill avoids, not something she is incapable of.
In the first paragraph, she describes a feeling” as light and sad”; saying “no, not sad exactly. ” Later in the afternoon she again refers to a feeling of sadness, only to deny it as she describes the music played by the band;” and what they played warm, sunny, yet there was just a faint chill–something, what was it–not sadness–no, not sadness–a something tat made you want to sing. ” Mansfield suggests that the sadness is just below the surface, something she has always kept inside.
Similarly, Miss Brill’s “queer, shy feeling” when she tells her pupils how she spends her Sunday afternoons suggest an awareness if not an admission of her loneliness. Miss Brill appears to resist the sadness by giving life to all she sees and hears; the brilliant colors noted throughout the story in contrast to the dark room she returns to, her reactions to music, and her delight in small details. By refusing to accept the role of a lonely woman, she is acting out a part.
She actively refuses to feel sadness or self pity; this evokes our sympathy as well as our admiration.The main reason we feel such pity for her in the end is the immense difference between the way she lives and the beautiful and lively way she describes the scenes in the park. Finally, it leaves us feeling sympathetic toward Miss Brill. We are made to share her excitement as she imagines that she is not just an observer but also a participant. No, we do not believe the whole group will start singing and dancing, but we may feel that Miss Brill is on the verge of a more genuine kind of self-acceptance: her role in life is a minor one, but she has a role all the same.
In Mansfield’s conclusion, Miss Brill packs herself away in her “little dark room. ” We sympathize with her because her purpose in life is not revealed to her. Miss Brill is an actor, as are the other people in the park, as we all are in social situations.
And we sympathize with her in the end not because “the truth hurts,” but because she has been denied the simple truth that she does, indeed, have a role to play in life and she is being laughed off the stage, and that is a fear we all have. Mansfield has managed not only to touch our hearts but also our fears.