Historical Context in The Garden Party

Mansfield was born and raised in New Zealand, a country in the South Pacific region colonized by Britain in 1840. The Sheridan family is of wealthy origin, demonstrated through possession of various luxury goods and their throwing lavish garden parties. In colonial New Zealand, the division between upper and lower classes was often very stark. Items such as the kimono, or Laura’s luxurious hat, would likely have been imported from Europe. Mansfield visited London as an adolescent and later moved there permanently. Mansfield’s texts contain many references to English and European texts and mythology.

Historical Context Examples in The Garden Party:

The Garden Party 11

"No, better not put such ideas into the child's head! "Nothing! Run along."..."   (The Garden Party)

This unspoken warning from mother to child invokes a literary tradition of myths about the consequences of not obeying one’s mother. Most pertinent among these myths is the Greek story of Persephone. In it, Persephone, the daughter of Demeter, goddess of the harvest and fertility, is kidnapped by Hades while picking flowers. Hades takes her to the underworld and makes her the queen of the dead. Distraught, Demeter curses the land with perpetual winter. Zeus agrees to return Persephone to the land of the living as long as Persephone has not eaten anything in the underworld. Demeter is certain that her daughter will be returned since she had warned the girl never to take food from strangers. Mrs. Sheridan’s attempt to warn Laura before she travels out of the safety of their home invokes this mythological tradition.

"lilies..."   (The Garden Party)

White lilies signify death and one’s ability to regain their lost innocence and purity in death. In many Eastern cultures and in medieval Europe, white is seen as the deepest mourning color. Thus, Mrs. Sheridan wants to send white lilies, literal symbols of death, in order to comfort a grieving widow.

"cabbage..."   (The Garden Party)

“Cabbage” is historically a famine or poverty food. Famine food is any inexpensive and readily available food that can offer nutrients to poor residents during times of starvation, famine, or extreme poverty. These foods are associated with hardship and social stigma. While the Sheridan’s garden is populated with delicate, symbolic flowers, this garden grows only famine food.

"And I suddenly thought for once in my life I shall have enough canna lilies..."   (The Garden Party)

Canna lilies are also symbolize rebirth or resurrection. In the Christian tradition, Jesus rose from the dead on Easter three days after his crucifixion. Canna lilies bloom around Easter and are shaped like trumpets making them symbols of triumph and celebration. In stating that she will “finally have enough canna lilies,” Mrs. Sheridan could be drawing on this symbolic resonance: the flowers become a symbol of both the celebratory nature of the party and the distancing of death. In a garden full of robust flowers that symbolize rebirth, death and gloom have no place.

"lilies—canna lilies..."   (The Garden Party)

Lilies, like daisies, are symbolic of innocence and purity. In Greek and Roman mythology, they were believed to have been born out of Hera’s spilled milk. The flowers were so beautiful that jealous Venus inserted an ugly pistil into the middle of them to distract from their beauty. These delicate flowers are white, purple, red, and often associated with springtime.

"sprig of lavender..."   (The Garden Party)

Lavender has been imbued with heavy symbolism throughout history. Romans and Egyptians used it for its antiseptic qualities and pungent fragrance. In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, people used the plant to ward away evil and protect the living from disease. Biblical tradition claims that it is the only plant that Adam and Eve brought with them from the Garden of Eden, and that its smell came from Jesus’s robes. The workman's fascination with the plant demonstrates his connection to the earth and could symbolize his belief in the supernatural power of the plant.

"turban..."   (The Garden Party)

“Turban” in this context refers to a headdress worn by upper-class European and American women during the late 18th and early 19th century. It was supposed to resemble headdresses worn by women in Asia and can be read as a sign of colonial influences on upper-class culture.

"a dark wet curl stamped on each cheek..."   (The Garden Party)

The narrator describes Meg’s wet curls stamped on each cheek to create a two-dimensional image; Meg’s hair is flattened onto the plane of her face. Coupled with the lavish images of coffee and her bright turban, the two-dimensional quality of this description likens Meg to a subject depicted before perspectivism was invented, such as figures on an ancient urn or in a medieval portrait. This quality adds to the idyllic nature of the day and the god-like quality of these aristocrats.

"a kimono jacket...."   (The Garden Party)

A kimono is a traditional Japanese garment, a kind of silk robe. The appearance of the kimono speaks to the wealth of the Sheridan family, who can afford to clothe themselves in luxury goods. The kimono also points to the colonial backdrop of the story, which takes place in the British colony of New Zealand among people of English origin. Mansfield herself, who was born and raised in New Zealand, had grandparents from England. Items like the kimono reveal the breadth and power of the British empire’s networks of trade and colonial rule.

"marquee..."   (The Garden Party)

A “marquee” is a large tent that it often used for social and commercial functions. Today, one might see marquees at outdoor wedding ceremonies, conventions, or festivals. This detail subtly informs the reader of the Sheridan’s socioeconomic status, as during this time, marquee’s would have been used for social gatherings of middle to upper-class individuals.

"daisy..."   (The Garden Party)

Daisies are symbolic of innocence and purity. In Celtic mythology it was believed that god sprinkled the flowers over the earth when a child died in order to cheer up the child’s parents. As it is a flower that blooms all year round, it is also a symbol of immortality. The presence of daisies in the garden suggests that there is a dark undercurrent to all of the joy and perfection that make up this setting.