Miss Brill


Although it was so brilliantly fine—the blue sky powdered with gold and great spots of light like white wine splashed over the Jardins Publiques—Miss Brill was glad that she had decided on her fur. The air was motionless, but when you opened your mouth there was just a faint chill, like a chill from a glass of iced water before you sip, and now and again a leaf came drifting—from nowhere, from the sky. Miss Brill put up her hand and touched her fur. Dear little thing! It was nice to feel it again. She had taken it out of its box that afternoon, shaken out the moth-powder, given it a good brush, and rubbed the life back into the dim little eyes. "What has been happening to me?" said the sad little eyes. Oh, how sweet it was to see them snap at her again from the red eiderdown!... But the nose, which was of some black composition, wasn't at all firm. It must have had a knock, somehow. Never mind—a little dab of black sealing-wax when the time came—when it was absolutely necessary... Little rogue! Yes, she really felt like that about it. Little rogue biting its tail just by her left ear. She could have taken it off and laid it on her lap and stroked it. She felt a tingling in her hands and arms, but that came from walking, she supposed. And when she breathed, something light and sad—no, not sad, exactly—something gentle seemed to move in her bosom.

There were a number of people out this afternoon, far more than last Sunday. And the band sounded louder and gayer. That was because the Season had begun. For although the band played all the year round on Sundays, out of season it was never the same. It was like some one playing with only the family to listen; it didn't care how it played if there weren't any strangers present. Wasn't the conductor wearing a new coat, too? She was sure it was new. He scraped with his foot and flapped his arms like a rooster about to crow, and the bandsmen sitting in the green rotunda blew out their cheeks and glared at the music. Now there came a little "flutey" bit—very pretty!—a little chain of bright drops. She was sure it would be repeated. It was; she lifted her head and smiled.

Only two people shared her "special" seat: a fine old man in a velvet coat, his hands clasped over a huge carved walking-stick, and a big old woman, sitting upright, with a roll of knitting on her embroidered apron. They did not speak. This was disappointing, for Miss Brill always looked forward to the conversation. She had become really quite expert, she thought, at listening as though she didn't listen, at sitting in other people's lives just for a minute while they talked round her.

She glanced, sideways, at the old couple. Perhaps they would go soon. Last Sunday, too, hadn't been as interesting as usual. An Englishman and his wife, he wearing a dreadful Panama hat and she button boots. And she'd gone on the whole time about how she ought to wear spectacles; she knew she needed them; but that it was no good getting any; they'd be sure to break and they'd never keep on. And he'd been so patient. He'd suggested everything—gold rims, the kind that curved round your ears, little pads inside the bridge. No, nothing would please her. "They'll always be sliding down my nose!" Miss Brill had wanted to shake her.

The old people sat on the bench, still as statues. Never mind, there was always the crowd to watch. To and fro, in front of the flower-beds and the band rotunda, the couples and groups paraded, stopped to talk, to greet, to buy a handful of flowers from the old beggar who had his tray fixed to the railings. Little children ran among them, swooping and laughing; little boys with big white silk bows under their chins, little girls, little French dolls, dressed up in velvet and lace. And sometimes a tiny staggerer came suddenly rocking into the open from under the trees, stopped, stared, as suddenly sat down "flop," until its small high-stepping mother, like a young hen, rushed scolding to its rescue. Other people sat on the benches and green chairs, but they were nearly always the same, Sunday after Sunday, and—Miss Brill had often noticed—there was something funny about nearly all of them. They were odd, silent, nearly all old, and from the way they stared they looked as though they'd just come from dark little rooms or even—even cupboards!

Behind the rotunda the slender trees with yellow leaves down drooping, and through them just a line of sea, and beyond the blue sky with gold-veined clouds.

Tum-tum-tum tiddle-um! tiddle-um! tum tiddley-um tum ta! blew the band.

Two young girls in red came by and two young soldiers in blue met them, and they laughed and paired and went off arm-in-arm. Two peasant women with funny straw hats passed, gravely, leading beautiful smoke-coloured donkeys. A cold, pale nun hurried by. A beautiful woman came along and dropped her bunch of violets, and a little boy ran after to hand them to her, and she took them and threw them away as if they'd been poisoned. Dear me! Miss Brill didn't know whether to admire that or not! And now an ermine toque and a gentleman in grey met just in front of her. He was tall, stiff, dignified, and she was wearing the ermine toque she'd bought when her hair was yellow. Now everything, her hair, her face, even her eyes, was the same colour as the shabby ermine, and her hand, in its cleaned glove, lifted to dab her lips, was a tiny yellowish paw. Oh, she was so pleased to see him—delighted! She rather thought they were going to meet that afternoon. She described where she'd been—everywhere, here, there, along by the sea. The day was so charming—didn't he agree? And wouldn't he, perhaps?... But he shook his head, lighted a cigarette, slowly breathed a great deep puff into her face, and even while she was still talking and laughing, flicked the match away and walked on. The ermine toque was alone; she smiled more brightly than ever. But even the band seemed to know what she was feeling and played more softly, played tenderly, and the drum beat, "The Brute! The Brute!" over and over. What would she do? What was going to happen now? But as Miss Brill wondered, the ermine toque turned, raised her hand as though she'd seen some one else, much nicer, just over there, and pattered away. And the band changed again and played more quickly, more gayly than ever, and the old couple on Miss Brill's seat got up and marched away, and such a funny old man with long whiskers hobbled along in time to the music and was nearly knocked over by four girls walking abreast.

Oh, how fascinating it was! How she enjoyed it! How she loved sitting here, watching it all! It was like a play. It was exactly like a play. Who could believe the sky at the back wasn't painted? But it wasn't till a little brown dog trotted on solemn and then slowly trotted off, like a little "theatre" dog, a little dog that had been drugged, that Miss Brill discovered what it was that made it so exciting. They were all on the stage. They weren't only the audience, not only looking on; they were acting. Even she had a part and came every Sunday. No doubt somebody would have noticed if she hadn't been there; she was part of the performance after all. How strange she'd never thought of it like that before! And yet it explained why she made such a point of starting from home at just the same time each week—so as not to be late for the performance—and it also explained why she had quite a queer, shy feeling at telling her English pupils how she spent her Sunday afternoons. No wonder! Miss Brill nearly laughed out loud. She was on the stage. She thought of the old invalid gentleman to whom she read the newspaper four afternoons a week while he slept in the garden. She had got quite used to the frail head on the cotton pillow, the hollowed eyes, the open mouth and the high pinched nose. If he'd been dead she mightn't have noticed for weeks; she wouldn't have minded. But suddenly he knew he was having the paper read to him by an actress! "An actress!" The old head lifted; two points of light quivered in the old eyes. "An actress—are ye?" And Miss Brill smoothed the newspaper as though it were the manuscript of her part and said gently; "Yes, I have been an actress for a long time."

The band had been having a rest. Now they started again. And what they played was warm, sunny, yet there was just a faint chill—a something, what was it?—not sadness—no, not sadness—a something that made you want to sing. The tune lifted, lifted, the light shone; and it seemed to Miss Brill that in another moment all of them, all the whole company, would begin singing. The young ones, the laughing ones who were moving together, they would begin, and the men's voices, very resolute and brave, would join them. And then she too, she too, and the others on the benches—they would come in with a kind of accompaniment—something low, that scarcely rose or fell, something so beautiful—moving... And Miss Brill's eyes filled with tears and she looked smiling at all the other members of the company. Yes, we understand, we understand, she thought—though what they understood she didn't know.

Just at that moment a boy and girl came and sat down where the old couple had been. They were beautifully dressed; they were in love. The hero and heroine, of course, just arrived from his father's yacht. And still soundlessly singing, still with that trembling smile, Miss Brill prepared to listen.

"No, not now," said the girl. "Not here, I can't."

"But why? Because of that stupid old thing at the end there?" asked the boy. "Why does she come here at all—who wants her? Why doesn't she keep her silly old mug at home?"

"It's her fu-ur which is so funny," giggled the girl. "It's exactly like a fried whiting."

"Ah, be off with you!" said the boy in an angry whisper. Then: "Tell me, ma petite chere—"

"No, not here," said the girl. "Not yet."

On her way home she usually bought a slice of honey-cake at the baker's. It was her Sunday treat. Sometimes there was an almond in her slice, sometimes not. It made a great difference. If there was an almond it was like carrying home a tiny present—a surprise—something that might very well not have been there. She hurried on the almond Sundays and struck the match for the kettle in quite a dashing way.

But to-day she passed the baker's by, climbed the stairs, went into the little dark room—her room like a cupboard—and sat down on the red eiderdown. She sat there for a long time. The box that the fur came out of was on the bed. She unclasped the necklet quickly; quickly, without looking, laid it inside. But when she put the lid on she thought she heard something crying.

Footnotes

  1. The boy’s rude and callous remark reinforces both the split between the young and the old and how society marginalizes the latter. This disregard for Miss Brill as a person represents how generations succeed one another and the contempt the young can have for the old.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  2. Notice the way Miss Brill describes the ermine toque and the woman. She does not say that the woman bought the toque when she was younger; she says when the woman's hair was yellow. This focus on color, clothing, and style, but not on the woman's age, possibly supports the notion that Miss Brill is blind to her own age and appearance. Indeed, the woman's ermine toque is a similar kind of garment to Miss Brill's fur.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  3. As Miss Brill sits in her special spot, she notices that everyone sitting around her looks similar: “odd, silent, nearly all old.” In contrast to the brightly colored children, these people have been relegated to the sidelines. The juxtaposition between the active youth and the ignored old demonstrates the association between becoming marginalized with becoming old.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  4. Miss Brill’s talking to her fur demonstrates her fondness for the garment, which in turn reveals her nostalgia for her youth. When the fur was new, Miss Brill was likely at a marriageable age. In the early 20th century, women got married at quite a young age, and if a woman did not getting married, she was deemed a “spinster.” Such women were often pitied, looked down upon, and shut out of a great deal of social life.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  5. Similar to the passage at the beginning, this line reiterates how Miss Brill is unwilling to acknowledge negative feelings and strives to keep them out of her mind. She takes these feelings of melancholy or loneliness and tries to turn them into positive ones, striving to feel connected to others around her.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  6. Miss Brill not only wants everyone to be connected to each other, but she also wants these connections to be positive. Miss Brill’s wanting to shake the woman demonstrates the visceral effect that her observations of others has on her, and it suggests that she feels very strongly connected to the people she watches. This means that because she feels connected, the connection is real for her.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  7. The pain that Miss Brill feels affirms both the significance of feeling connected to others and how trying to create such connections makes one vulnerable. Even though Miss Brill feels such pain at the end, it is important to note that her sense of a universal connection to others is far more noble and exciting—especially compared to the callousness of the boy and girl. This story’s power comes not only from Miss Brill’s realization of how others perceive her, but it also comes from how her beautiful vision of being connected to everyone is ruined.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  8. Garments and clothing in general have additional meanings in the story. They serve as markers of class and importance for people, and we can find evidence for this based on the effort Miss Brill put into getting her fur ready to wear and her attention to others' clothes. For Miss Brill, not being well-dressed means not being well-regarded.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  9. Now seeing herself as similar to the old people who live in “cupboards,” Miss Brill finds her fur old and shameful. When she places it back in the cupboard, she is rejecting herself in the same way the boy and girl did. The crying that she hears symbolizes the sadness she feels, as putting away the fur is akin to at locking herself in the cupboard.

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  10. Miss Brill has brought her fur coat out of storage for the season and “[rubbed] the life into it.” This detail refers to Miss Brill herself: She is alone, lonely, and the trips to the park help give her life and feel connected to others. This speaks to the themes of delusion and alienation present throughout the short story. She does not appear to realize how lonely she is; although this line reveals that she is aware of a kind of sadness, but she immediately disregards that feeling and replaces it with something more positive.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  11. Notice here that Miss Brill doesn’t just sit in any available location. She sits in a particular, “special” seat. This word accomplishes a couple of things. First, it shows how going to the park is a regular habit of hers. Second, by calling the seat special Miss Brill is also attributing this quality to herself. She is a very curious woman who listens in on the lives of others and judges them for what she hears.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  12. Miss Brill wants to be included in the community, so she imagines the world as a stage. This allows her to feel connected to those around her. Because the success of a play requires that all individual parts contribute to the whole, this fantasy offers Miss Brill the illusion of having a significant, unique, and indispensable role in society—one that she lacks in the real world.

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  13. Miss Brill delights in the little things, such as finding an almond in her cake. Since the almond is hidden until she gets to the middle, it is usually a nice surprise for her. The almond in a way represents how Miss Brill imagines her role in society. While she may be unnoticed at times, she still sees herself as an important member. Imagining the almond as a “tiny present” makes Miss Brill feel a connection to those around her—as if someone has given her a gift. Considering this connection, her not buying a cake on the way home symbolizes the loss of these illusions of connections and status between her and her community.

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  14. An ermine toque is a type of fur hat, and in this instance it is also being used to identify the woman that Miss Brill encounters. Using this article of clothing to identify a character illustrates Miss Brill’s impulse to consider clothing as an adequate indicator of societal status. This tendency is exemplified in her comparison of the hat to the woman’s hair—both of which have faded or gone “shabby.”

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  15. Recall how earlier Miss Brill described the “odd, silent, and nearly all old” people as having come from “dark little rooms or even—even cupboards.” By comparing her own room to a cupboard, Miss Brill now not only sees a connection between herself and the other people, but she also sees more clearly into her own life. She is not as young as she once was.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  16. This line establishes the setting as a public garden in France—likely Paris. “Miss Brill” takes place after World War I at a time when the country had started to become prosperous again, as shown by the spirited band. However, Mansfield includes details that demonstrate the toll the war took on the country by contrasting the elements of new love and young children with the older people who seem fatigued, likely due to the difficult effects of the war.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  17. A whiting fish is a common and unremarkable fish that is commonly served fried. The girl uses this comparison to quickly describe and then dismiss Miss Brill. The girl's statement suggests that Miss Brill is also commonplace, unremarkable, and, therefore, undesirable. She blends into society, and no one would miss her if she weren’t there.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  18. *ma petite chère* [French]—"my little dear" This is a French term of endearment in that can generally be used between loved ones. The boy uses it here to try and return his conversation with the girl back to romantic topics and away from Miss Brill.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  19. Example of a simile. The metaphor of the blue sky is further compared to something else. 

    — M.P. Ossa
  20. The public gardens of an unnamed French town, presumably Paris. Miss Brill is an English expat (expatriate) who lives in France now. 

    — M.P. Ossa
  21. Miss Brill comments on others, but she is really describing herself.  This is her life, and as she projects it onto others she is passing judgment on herself.  She is the one who is lonely.

    — Trinity Tracy
  22. This demonstrates Miss Brill's perception.  She considers herself part of the action of the park, but as a people watcher she does not get involved.  She is unaware that while she is a fixture at the park, she is seen as odd and a target for making fun.

    — Trinity Tracy