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Character Analysis in The Garden Party

Laura Sheridan: Often seen as an autobiographical depiction of a young Mansfield, Laura is described as more sensitive and artistic than the rest of her family. This is demonstrated by her reaction to the news of Mr. Scott’s death. While her other family members see no issue with the continuation of the garden party, Laura finds the festivities insensitive so close to the neighboring tragedy. However, Laura is distracted by the dazzling flowers of her new hat and is consequently enveloped back into the party atmosphere. Later, Laura experiences a major epiphany when visiting the Scott residence, as she is forced to contemplate the nature of death and the humanity of the working class. Returning home, Laura struggles to put her epiphany into words.

Mrs. Sheridan: Mrs. Sheridan is the matriarch and commanding figure of the Sheridan family. As the family sets up for the party, the readers get a sense of Mrs. Sheridan’s overwhelming influence over everyone’s actions. Guests and family alike ask her opinion on every detail from where flowers should be placed to what they should wear. When the family hears of the death, she expresses detached pity for her working-class neighbors. But she dismisses Laura’s sympathetic response to cancel the party stating: “People like that don’t expect sacrifices from us.” Unlike her daughter Laura, Mrs. Sheridan is a static character. However, she orchestrates Laura’s final epiphany. Mrs. Sheridan sends Laura to take leftovers to the poor grieving family after the party has ended. Her actions and statements throughout the story create the impression of a privileged woman of the upper class who is largely sheltered from the troubles of the poor.

Laurie Sheridan: Laurie is Laura’s brother and the last character Laura speaks to at the conclusion of the story. Laura struggles to express her epiphany to Laurie, stating “Isn’t life—” to which Laurie replies “Isn’t it, darling?” Mansfield’s ambiguity leaves readers wondering if Laurie understands what Laura is trying to express.

Character Analysis Examples in The Garden Party:

The Garden Party

🔒 19

"Happy... happy... All is well, said that sleeping face. This is just as it should be. I am content...."   (The Garden Party)

This is the moment of Laura’s epiphany. Within her mother’s garden, Laura is protected from the outside world and reality. However, once she ventures out of the garden and confronts death, she must grow up a little. Her epiphany is a confrontation with death in all of its incomprehensibility. She is astounded that, for the deceased man, death is merely a peaceful sleep. This encounter with the mysteries and nuances of reality is the culmination of Laura’s quest in this story.

"She had one of her brilliant ideas...."   (The Garden Party)

Characterizing this idea as only “one of” many brilliant ideas suggests that Mrs. Sheridan is the head of this family. Throughout the story, she is depicted as commanding everyone in the house and her family, and here she is shown to orchestrate the family’s relationship with the outside world as well.

"and I can't understand how they keep alive in those poky little holes..."   (The Garden Party)

“Poky” is an outdated term that means “cramped” or “shabby.” Mrs. Sheridan’s comment reveals a disdain and lack of empathy for the working classes. The description of their homes as “holes” is dehumanizing in its suggestion that cottages are like animal lairs dug into the ground.

"Laura helped her mother with the good-byes. They stood side by side in the porch till it was all over...."   (The Garden Party)

Mrs. Sheridan chooses Laura to help bid her guests goodbye. This signifies the connection between Laura and her mother: she is the chosen youth, or favorite child, of the matriarch.

"gold daisies..."   (The Garden Party)

Contrary to the natural flowers that have been thus far described in the story, the “gold daisies” of this hat take on an artificial and dazzling quality. When Laura wears the hat, she becomes both one with the garden and distinct from it. Since gold is symbolic of wealth and power, this could be Mrs. Sheridan crowing Laura with power over the garden. This metaphorical crowning represents the close relationship between Mrs. Sheridan and Laura.

""You won't bring a drunken workman back to life by being sentimental," she said softly...."   (The Garden Party)

Jose’s comment reveals the prejudice she holds against working-class people. She fabricates the man’s drunkenness, passing it off as if it were fact and subtly shifting the responsibility for the accident onto the man. Jose is playing on a stereotype that working-class people are more prone to alcoholism. Jose’s comments ultimately reveal her own close-minded nature.

"Nobody expects us to...."   (The Garden Party)

Jose cannot understand why Laura would think of canceling the party on behalf of a dead man from the lower class. This haughty opinion signals Jose’s classist mentality. She believes that their high-class position relieves them of social obligation to those beneath them.

"what the band would sound like to that poor woman..."   (The Garden Party)

Mansfield again characterizes Laura as compassionate and empathetic. She places herself in the shoes of someone who has lost their loved one and acknowledges that it would be difficult to hear the sounds of celebration in such a difficult time. Mansfield appears to ask the reader to question whether Laura is being “extravagant” or simply being thoughtful.

"Stop the garden-party, of course..."   (The Garden Party)

Laura is “horrified” upon hearing the news of the man’s death and immediately assumes that the entire garden party must be stopped. On the one hand, Laura’s hasty reaction emphasizes her youth, but on the other hand, it underscores her empathetic nature. Laura feels a connection with the people in the “little cottages” and, in some ways, is the only person who treats them with compassion and respect in this trying time. Her youth may be exemplified here, but her reaction to this situation actually seems more appropriate than that of the adults who surround her.

"Mrs. Sheridan's voice floated down the stairs. "Tell her to wear that sweet hat she had on last Sunday."..."   (The Garden Party)

Notice that Mrs. Sheridan mostly speaks in imperatives. She assumes an authoritative quality and appears to control everything. What is interesting about this command is that it comes from a disembodied voice that floats down from above. These qualities further the supernatural elements of the story; it is as if Mrs. Sheridan has the ultimate power and authority to manipulate all of the pieces of this event.

"Wait. I'll ask Mrs Sheridan..."   (The Garden Party)

Sadie’s immediate reaction to the florist’s arrival is to ask Mrs. Sheridan for guidance despite Mrs. Sheridan’s declaration that she will leave the arrangements for the children. Mansfield again emphasizes Mrs. Sheridan’s authority here. Although Sadie could supposedly ask Laura for direction, the careful reader might notice that Mrs. Sheridan’s input is the ultimate decider. Mrs. Sheridan’s powerful presence looms over her children, regardless of her proclaimed desire to be treated as merely “an honoured guest.”

"wonder at him caring for things like that—caring for the smell of lavender. How many men that she knew would have done such a thing?..."   (The Garden Party)

Laura’s surprise that this workman cares about the scent of the flower demonstrates both her distance from the natural world and her distance from the minds of common people. Paying attention to a flower does not occur to her or the people who visit her house. The tone of this statement also communicates a type of superiority since Laura is surprised that this man has the curiosity or interest in the flower.

"she didn't feel them..."   (The Garden Party)

Laura is extremely aware of the “absurd class distinctions” that govern her society, but she denies that they have any tangible effect on her. Laura’s denial here underscores her youth and naivety. She refuses to acknowledge that her social reality has the capacity to alter her own perception and operates as if she can be exempt from the influence of her society.

"They were like trees you imagined growing on a desert island, proud, solitary, lifting their leaves and fruits to the sun in a kind of silent splendour..."   (The Garden Party)

Laura reveals her romantic view of the world in this characterization of the trees on a desert island. She imagines that they are similar to people: “proud”and “solitary,” “splendid.” This romantic vision demonstrates Laura’s separation from reality and relative naivety.

"Well, for her part, she didn't feel them...."   (The Garden Party)

Laura’s reflection that she doesn’t feel “these absurd class distinctions” reveals the peculiarity of her position. She is a member of the upper class, and yet makes an effort to understand and cross the boundaries of class. Thus her statement is true and untrue. It is true in that she does not subscribe to or respect the distinctions between the upper and working classes. She is deluded in thinking that she does not “feel them.” She surely does, as illustrated by the puzzlement she experiences in her interactions with the workers. Laura’s attempt to dissolve class boundaries is one of the story’s central themes.

"practical Jose..."   (The Garden Party)

Since Laura and Jose have already had an argument about the party, calling Jose “practical” further illustrates the differences between these two sisters: Laura is the “artistic” and romantic one while Jose is “practical” and plain. On a deeper level, Jose is Laura’s conventional counterpart, unable to see beyond the confined perspectives offered by her family and society. Laura’s “artistic” temperament puts her in a position to question her culture and surroundings. Her questioning leads her out of the garden and out of a state of innocence.

"copying her mother's voice..."   (The Garden Party)

Much like the last line in the passage above, here Laura reveals her enthusiasm for being perceived as an adult. However, this line works on a few levels. On the surface, Laura’s copying of her mother is an attempt at stepping into the role of an adult, which feels silly and childlike in itself for Laura. On another level, she is also trying to assume a new, more dominant role, which she realizes that she in not ready for. Her stammering in the following sentence indicates the lack of confidence she currently has in such a role. Mansfield further emphasizes Laura’s conflicting position: she is not a child, but not yet an adult.

"Wherever you looked there were couples strolling, bending to the flowers, greeting, moving on over the lawn...."   (The Garden Party)

Having seen all the planning and preparation that happens to orchestrate this party, we can now examine how the guests are behaving in Mrs. Sheridan’s garden. First, they walk about in couples, which suggests that they have romantically paired off. Second, they bend to the flowers, which we associate with beauty, fertility, and growth. With these two readings in mind, we can perhaps view Mrs. Sheridan’s garden party as more than a simple gathering; it is an opportunity for people to meet and marry and Mrs. Sheridan to play matchmaker.

"She blushed and tried to look severe..."   (The Garden Party)

Laura’s attempts to look more “severe” and “even a little bit short-sighted” around the working-class men reveals her desire to be viewed as sophisticated and mature. At around the age of sixteen, Laura wants to be taken seriously, but she is still young. Mansfield uses telling details like this to give us a closer look into the mind of Laura and her growth as an individual on the edge of adulthood.

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