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A Party of Classes: “The Garden Party”

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After reading Katherine Mansfield’s tale of the Sheridan family words such as “wealthy”, ‘great,’ ‘charming’ and ‘happy’ reaches out to the reader. However, an absolute contrast of words that are used to describe the people from the working class, such as ‘unsophisticated,’ ‘grieving,’ ‘poor,’ and ‘wretched’ are utilized. Evidently one realizes that the society revealed in the story “The Garden Party”, explains the hierarchy of the classes and the economic system. There are many critical lenses one can use to explore and analyze any written piece of literature. Among these are Feminism, Archetypal, Post-Colonial and Marxism and many others. However, Katherine Mansfield, “The Garden Party” can best be viewed through the Marxist critical lens.

The critical theory of Marxism owes its genesis to its reader and founder Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. At the core of Marxism’s critical lens is the economic and social system. In such a system production does not belong to the wealthy, but to the producers themselves. It’s the idea that people own their labour and energy inputs and get the same amount of product, value and capital out. Therefore, people are not paying less than they are doing, so that others can benefit from their labour rather than from their own. This removes the notion of benefit for the sake of profit and postulates that if everyone puts in labour and goods, income, resources that result are then returned to the employees in equal value for their inputs, then everyone owns their own energy, effort and time rather than others being able to ‘exploit’ workers by simply skimming the surplus from the top that continues to spread. Workers can only work in one place at a time because time is one-dimensional, but owners can own multiple businesses at once and thus earn more for less physical effort than labourers. Marxism is an idealistic theory of economics; in that, it believes that all rich and poor people want to work and strive to get what they need. Marxism, to put it more simply, is a type of economic system proposed by Karl Marx, in which classes do not exist. The State should regulate all output tools and means to ensure equality in principle. It is worth noting that there are many forms of ‘communism,’ and to date, all such types of governments have yet to enforce it as idealized by Marx truthfully and successfully. It is imperative that one realizes that the polar opposite of Marxism is Capitalism. This can be defined as “an economic system in which investment in and ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange of wealth is made and maintained chiefly by private individuals or corporations, especially as contrasted to cooperatively or state-owned means of wealth.” Marxism is also known as a socialist system, which is mainly the collective ownership of the method for the production, distribution and trade of goods and services.

The story undoubtedly illustrates a sharp contrast between the two distinct social groups: the wealthy upper-class, represented by the Sheridan family and the impecunious lower class which is depicted by the working-class group. Looking through a Marxist lens at ‘The Garden Party,’ readers are subjected to differences between the language and its vocabulary, the imagery and the social classes and socioeconomic treatment between the wealthy upper class and the working class. The language and its vocabulary undeniably demonstrate this. Throughout ‘The Garden Party,’ the upper-class protagonists use language as its primary means of establishing power over their society by using linguistic constructs which should guarantee the result of superiority. This approach is apparent from the very beginning of the text as the Party plans begins to take shape. The Sheridan’s use of tag questions which creates an illusion of open dialogue, gives the appearance of seeking an opinion and making an option by eliminating the changes of being challenged. The vocabulary attempted by the Sheridan to bully their audience into an agreement by excluding all other alternatives is evident in the language of the upper class — which is seen in both its character and its limitations— falls into sharp relief when put in direct contact with the voices of the lower classes because there is a lack of the sense of shared social identity required by the Sheridan linguistic strategy. Sheridan as a whole shows neither the desire nor the ability to empathize with those below them by only concentrating their attention to their own social equals. So, when Laura proposes to her sister that the party be stopped because of Scott’s death, her sister’s reaction is incredible: ‘Stop the garden party? My dear Laura, don’t be so absurd. Of course we can’t do anything of the kind. Nobody expects us to. Don’t be so extravagant.’ (Mansfield 8). The two women do not reject the demands of those of the lower classes; they do not even acknowledge that such demands may exist. Since the Sheridan family is unable to imagine any relationship with the staff who set up the party, any linguistic plan that focuses on such a connection would be destined for failure. The language used in the story embodies the distinction between the upper-class and lower-class that is observed through the perception of the wealthy upper-class.

Furthermore, the division of the socio-classes are clearly displayed throughout the entire narrative. The story portrays the neighbourhood of the lower class which is segregated from the upper-class neighbourhood across a broad lane. It is a visual/physical class division and can also be used as a distinguishing symbol to represent rank. There’s also an unspoken circumvention separating groups. No character of the upper class has merged with other social classes, and earlier in the story, Laura challenges that when she thought: ‘Why couldn’t she have workmen for her friends rather than the dumb boys with whom she danced and who came to Sunday evening supper?’ (Mansfield 2). It shows the readers an increasing development in the character of Laura. Class division is becoming more and more highlighted by the end of the story. As Laura walks through the community of the lower classes she feels like an outsider. Women wear shawls, men wear tweed caps, and she wears an expensive Party dress and hat. All eyes are apparently on her. It shows how much each class stands out from each other, and how rare it is that someone from the upper class should walk through a lower-class area. Further emphasizing the difference in class structure throughout the short story.

In her story, Mansfield uses various natural images with a particular focus on flowers. Laura’s hat is decorated with gold daisies which give her a metaphorical crown. Mrs. Sheridan asks Laura to take the white arum lilies to the mourning Scott widow, but she later decides against it because the stems would stain Laura’s clothes. All lilies and daisies connote a sense of purity and innocence that is synonymous with the privileged upper-class life of Laura. In comparison, cabbage grows in the Scotts ‘ backyard. The Scotts can’t afford the luxury of aesthetic beauty; instead, their garden serves as a source of food. Mansfield uses light and dark as metaphors for the upper and lower classes amid this natural imagery. While the house and garden of the Sheridan’s are portrayed as light and airy, the property of the Scotts is depicted as dark and bleak, foreshadowed by the setting sun as Laura starts down the lane.

Hats symbolize the gap that exists between the Sheridan’s, the rich middle-class family who gives the garden party, and the working-class people they recruit and who live in poverty nearby, but sets up the environment for “The Garden Party” without them the party cannot take place. Hats represent the world of pleasures and luxuries that attract Laura and her colleagues from the poor and divert their attention. In this novel, on the day of the family garden party, the death of a workman who lives nearby occurs. Laura, a daughter who had previously felt the classes had no effect, wants the family to cancel the party out of deference to the dead man. Her mother pooh-poohs this idea as ‘extravagant,’ saying that there is no need for inconvenience, and no one would expect it. She distracts Laura by offering her own scarf. Yet Laura appears to avoid continuing with the party— until she sees herself in the mirror, wearing her hat. As she fears that going ahead with the party resurfaces might be callous, she decides to ask her brother for his advice. But when he tells her that she looks ‘splendid’ in her hat and she says, ‘What an absolute topping hat!’ she changes her mind to ask him. The party ultimately goes on, but later on, Mrs. Sheridan sends Laura to the working-class hovel of the dead man with a large basket of leftovers for his father. Suddenly Laura is ashamed to show up in a showy, frivolous, expensive hat. Mansfield’s argument is that class differences are founded on an accumulation of small advantages, such as easy access to pastries, hothouse flowers and fine hats. Essentially, this is a story of a young woman who, through her desire to live her life as if it were not important, is forced to realize the importance of class. When she starts to get older, Laura begins to understand the disadvantages of her privileged upbringing, in particular the limitations she imposes on socializing. For example, she is disappointed by the ‘silly boys’ courting her from the lower classes rather than ‘extraordinarily sweet’ people, such as the workers who put up the marquee. As Laura increasingly realizes that working-class people in her community have to work tirelessly and endure poverty in order to maintain her family’s extravagant lifestyle, she is becoming increasingly torn between the gentleness of her upbringing and her sympathy for the workers that her parents and siblings barely recognize. As Laura sees Scott’s body, he has an epiphany of life, death, riches, and poverty.

Furthermore, Mrs. Sheridan buys a large number of pots of canna lilies to show off for the garden party in front of the house. Even people with money to spare can afford such extravagance and, in her selection, Mrs. Sheridan goes so crazy that Laura finds it almost too ostentatious. The canna lilies are a sign of the wealth and status of the Sheridan which Mrs. Sheridan enjoys shouting about. Her off-handed thinking of sending the more popular arum lilies to the Scotts, another name for calla lilies, is based less on compassion and more on her desire to create a good impression of herself. ‘Arum lilies really impress people of that era,’ she tells Laura. In the minds of Mrs. Sheridan, canna lilies are for the wealthy. Common arum lilies are common for such people as the Scotts. The flowers details, the gardens, party arrangements, the clothes. All of these work together to create a festive anticipatory scene for a beautiful gathering.

The garden on the estate of the Sheridan’s, symbolizes the purity of Laura. Like the Old Testament Bible’s Garden of Eden, it is an almost perfect place where nothing bad could ever happen. Laura loves the garden and allows her sights and smells to distract her from more troubling issues, such as her unwillingness to challenge the staff as they insist on putting the marquee before the karaka trees. When she ventures farther away from the greenhouse, Laura’s innocence begins to fade. At home, she catches on to the meddling of her mother in the preparations for the party and realizes that she and her sisters have never been in charge of the party at all. The house is also where Laura learns of the untimely death of Scott. The sense of naïveté begins to erode as she herself encounters the Scotts. As she reaches the home of the Scotts, where she sees the distraught widow, Mrs. Scott, and the corpse of her husband, Laura is no longer the sweet, sheltered girl she used to be. She was straying away from the garden and she came to the realization to the world beyond.

At the very beginning of the story social class is first introduced while everyone is doing something to plan for the garden party. In the opening scene, the Sheridan family represents the upper class while the lower class is represented by the Sheridan’s hired workmen. All are shown to dress very differently for the group, which obviously shows a social class disparity. The Sheridan’s are inside, getting ready by taking showers and eating breakfast while the staff are outside, planning and organizing the actual party by doing all the manual labour. As the setting up begins, and Laura supervises the workers, there’s a moment when one of the employees takes the time to smell a sprig of lavender in the greenhouse, and Laura asks herself: ‘How many men she met would have done such a thing?’ (Mansfield 2). Now it’s revealed to the reader that Laura never really interacted with such people; people who take the time to recognize the natural beauty of life. This is her first real experience with a lower-class guy. Laura continues to think about people in her life and says to herself, ‘with men like these she would get on much better’ (Mansfield 2). In a way, this comment foreshadows Laura’s feelings later on in the story towards the lower class. Katherine Mansfield’s ‘The Garden Party’ is a short story in which class distinction plays a big part. Laura is part of an aristocratic, wealthy family. When we meet them, everything but Laura is consumed with the party’s details and finishing touches, though they do virtually nothing to actually prepare for it, except for themselves. Instead, a number of workers come to the house to do the different tasks that need to be done before the gathering takes place. Laura is selected to accompany them, as she is the ‘artistic one.’ When she first sees them, she is struck by the dramatic difference in her life between them and the people. She remarks to herself ‘How lovely were the workmen!’ She watches them and attempts to demonstrate herself somewhat ineffectually. Instead, as the men set up their tents, they move straight into the practical. She observes one of the workers raising a flower to his nose to savour the scent that had been a completely foreign sight for her. Laura states “Oh, how extraordinarily nice workmen were, she thought. Why couldn’t she have workmen for her friends rather than the silly boys she danced with and who came to Sunday night supper? She would get on much better with men like these.” (Mansfield 2). To an ‘artistic’ or responsive young girl, these experiences aren’t especially surprising. While it is shocking that since she was born in a home that practically excludes those from the working class and who doesn’t appreciate either her or her compassionate view of the working class.

As the story moves on, it becomes apparent how Mrs. Sheridan views others based on their economic status and describes them. An example of this is seen when news about the man who was from the working-class and lived just down the street passed away, Laura seemed to be the only one who felt like it would be inconsiderate to host a party when just a few houses away a family is mourning for their loved one. However, Ms. Sheridan did not have the same sentiments, in that she felt it was highly disrespectful to not have the party because someone from the lower class died. When the party is over, he suggests to Laura: ‘Let’s make up a basket. Let’s offer some of that perfectly good food to that poor creature ‘(Mansfield 9). Before the party, she would have said or done anything to keep the party running: and now that it’s over, she’d care less about what’s going on next. It is very evident that Mrs. Sheridan’s main objective of hosting such a luxurious garden party is mainly for her to be able to boast and show off her financial stature, which defines the day as when the story began. ‘Windless, dry, the sky without a cloud. Only the blue was filled with a haze of light gold’ (Mansfield 1). Now, as it passes into the neighbourhood of the lower class, the atmosphere becomes ‘smoky and gloomy’ (Mansfield 10). It is depicted as being beaten down and a bad economy, visually. When she arrives at home she is led to a room where the dead man’s lifeless body lies on a pillow.

The authors describe Laura as an exceptional personage. She is a person of the upper class through birth but uniquely just a human being and an activist who supports lower class people. However, at the same time, she has limitations to working against upper-class people. In fact, she is the mouthpiece of the author and the link character with a connection between the two groups. In the Garden Party, a lane separates two groups. Mrs. Sheridan’s family lives on the upper side and the working class family lives on the lower side. Everything in the family of Mrs. Scott is poverty-stricken — there is nothing but cabbage stalks, sick lenses, and tomato cans in their garden, patches. In the families even the chimneys show the difference. Everywhere, then, there is class distinction. ‘The Garden Party’ is an excellent piece of work that marks the distinction of class in society. We also observe Mansfield’s mastery of representing Laura’s character, who seeks to remove the distinction within society. Laura’s conflicted between going against her family’s morals and beliefs and aligning with the working class, yet culture and family limit her activities.

‘The Garden Party’ is lavish with Marxist themes and makes the range of disparities between social and economic class very apparent to readers. Laura, the central character, begins very excited for the day and is more aware of the implications of her social position by the end. She starts to be trapped in a world of high-class housing parties, food, family and garden parties and clicks back to reality in the course of just one day. Katherine Mansfield lets readers see the world from Laura’s eyes and thus unmasks both Laura and the readers reality of Communism. Laura reveals that her coming-of-age is more of a deliberate awakening to the hypocrisy of the upper-class culture she grew up. The tale is a good representation of different classes in society and illustrates exactly how classes are separated.

From the tale, we see strong words used to describe one class and characterless words used for the working class showing a great distinction between the two. Unequivocally one realizes that the society revealed in the story “The Garden Party”, explains the hierarchy of the classes and the economic system. There are many critical lenses one can use to evaluate and analyze any written piece of literature, as seen in Katherine Mansfield, “The Garden Party” can best be viewed through the Marxist critical lens. Looking through the Marxist lens at ‘The Garden Party,’ readers are subjected to differences between the language and its vocabulary, the imagery and the social classes and socioeconomic treatment between the wealthy upper class and the working class.

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