Themes in The Garden Party

Class Structure: “The Garden Party” focuses on the contrast between two neighboring families: the wealthy upper-class Sheridans and the working-class Scotts. When Laura Sheridan hears of the death of Mr. Scott, she urges her mother to call off the party. However, Laura’s feelings are eased when she tries on her mother’s hat. This moment demonstrates how the upper class remains indifferent to the tragedy of others through frivolous distraction and entertainment. While the Sheridans express sympathy for the Scotts, they are careful to maintain the distinct division between their worlds. However, Mansfield takes care to mark Laura apart from the rest of her family. Earlier, Laura ponders the nature of the working class when talking to the workmen who set up the party. Later, when Laura visits the Scotts’ poverty-stricken household, she sees first-hand both the divisions of class structure and their shared humanity.

Death: Throughout Mansfield’s stories, death is often used as a method for enlightenment. In “The Garden Party,” the indifference of her family to her neighbor’s death causes Laura to view her family in a different light. When she visits the Scotts, Laura is surprised to find the dead man’s face “wonderful” and “happy.” Laura’s journey across the threshold of the Scotts’ dwelling represents her transition from sheltered adolescence to the maturity of adulthood. In confronting the reality of death, Laura learns something about the nature of life and living. Laura is unable to fully communicate her experience with death at the conclusion of the story, suggesting that her epiphany goes largely beyond words.

Themes Examples in The Garden Party:

The Garden Party 20

"Oh, so remote, so peaceful. He was dreaming. Never wake him up again...."   (The Garden Party)

The description of the man’s wake is foreshadowed by Jose’s song in the middle of the story. In particular, her characterization of death as an exit from a “weary” life is picked up again and further developed here. Death has released this man from his weary life and bestowed upon him the peacefulness of sleep. In this way, Mansfield’s characterization of death as sleep subtly refers back to the song and brings its lyrics to fruition.

"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.

"People like that don't expect sacrifices from us..."   (The Garden Party)

The word “sacrifice” is interesting here. “Sacrifice” invokes the ritualistic offering to the gods as a form of praise to a higher power. In using this word, Mrs. Sheridan symbolically aligns the upper classes with deities: they are the ones to whom things are sacrificed; they do not make sacrifices themselves.

"Don't be so extravagant...."   (The Garden Party)

The use of the word “extravagant” is quite telling. It comes from the Latin root “vagari,” which means “to wander” or “to roam.” The prefix “extra” denotes “outside.” Extravagant is thus an ideal description of Laura throughout the story. Laura’s role in the story is to be the one who “wanders outside” the garden, literally and figuratively.

" "Isn't life," she stammered, "isn't life—" But what life was she couldn't explain. No matter. He quite understood...."   (The Garden Party)

Laura doesn’t complete her final thought in the story, which suggests that she has had such an intense experience with death that she cannot formulate any conclusive statement about life. Instead, she and Laurie share a mutual understanding about the experience: the nature of life and death is so complicated that it cannot actually be put into words.

"At the corner of the lane she met Laurie. ..."   (The Garden Party)

Mrs. Sheridan was getting anxious about her daughter and sent Laurie to retrieve Laura. If we look to Greek and Roman myth one final time, we can view Laurie as an embodiment of Hermes, the messenger god and guide to the underworld. In the Persephone myth, Hermes is tasked with retrieving Persephone from the underworld and returning her to her worried mother, Demeter. This comparison brings both stories to a similar ending as Laura/Persephone leaves the underworld with a new relationship with, and understanding of, death.

"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.

"He was far from all those things. He was wonderful, beautiful...."   (The Garden Party)

In this moment of epiphany, many of the story’s elements come together to reveal the result of Laura’s journey: her identification with the widow, her admiration of the dead man, her mother’s garden, and her association with Greek-and-Roman myth. If we build on these moments and analyses, then it’s possible to see the scene as an allusion the Persephone myth, in which Persephone becomes Hades’s bride. Laura’s quest into the “underworld” brings her a level comfort with death: in essence, Laura becomes “wedded” to a new understanding of life and death.

" "This Life is Wee-ary,..."   (The Garden Party)

Jose’s song represents an interesting shift in tone. The lyrics are somber, introducing a tone that contrasts the pleasant mood of the garden party. The operative word in the song is “weary,” which is most often used to describe people in a state of fatigue. “This life” refers to the upper-class life of the Sheridans, which is “weary” in the sense that Laura is bored of it, ready to move beyond its boundaries—one of the story’s central themes.

"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.

"A big dog ran by like a shadow...."   (The Garden Party)

If we build on the idea that Laura has left the land of light and life for one of shadow and death, then the presence of a large dog immediately calls to mind a key figure from Greek and Roman mythology: Cerberus, the three-headed dog who guards the gates to the underworld. Further allusions to Greek and Roman mythology arise during Laura’s journey, representing strong evidence that her tale extends beyond a mere quest.

"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.

"And the perfect afternoon slowly ripened, slowly faded, slowly its petals closed...."   (The Garden Party)

Mansfield’s narrator depicts the perfection of the afternoon through the metaphor of a flower that blooms in all its splendor and finally closes its petals. In addition to the flower imagery aptly suiting the garden party, Mansfield’s choice here suggests that perfection is fleeting and that beauty is temporary.

"a bang slap in the eye..."   (The Garden Party)

Mansfield uses this colloquial phrase to show how class distinctions play out on the level of speech. For the marquee to give someone “a bang slap in the eye” is for it to be featured prominently, to be well in view. The phrase “bang slap in the eye” is inexact and carries a crude tone, causing Laura to react with mild alarm. It is interesting that Laura understands the worker nonetheless: “she did quite follow him.” The phrase is ultimately effective, and Laura’s willingness to “follow him” bespeaks her keen interest in the working class.

"What nice eyes he had, small, but such a dark blue!..."   (The Garden Party)

The class distinctions in the story are expressed through the symbolic contrast of light and dark. The environs of the Sheridan home are bright and light, echoing the perfect clarity of the day, while the cluster of cottages that house the working classes, is cloaked in shadows and darkness. That darkness appears in the workman’s “dark blue” eye. That Laura admires his eye illustrates her desire to cross class boundaries, to explore the darkness beyond her upper-class world.

"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.

"they had big tool-bags slung on their backs. They looked impressive...."   (The Garden Party)

One characteristic which separates the working-class men from the upper-class Sheridans is the nature of their work. The workmen perform physical labor and possess an accompanying quality of robustness that Mansfield and, in turn, Laura points out. One of the primary themes of the story is the crossing of class boundaries. Laura does so here in her acknowledgement of the “impressive[ness]” of the workmen.

"the green bushes bowed down as though they had been visited by archangels...."   (The Garden Party)

The reference to archangels places the garden in the context of Christian theology. This passage could allude to the the Garden of Eden, where according to the Book of Genesis, humanity lived briefly in a state of innocence and grace. After learning of sexuality and mortality, the humans are expelled and forced to live in the real world. In “The Garden Party,” Laura’s journey may reflect such themes of innocence lost and the necessary departure into the darkness and ambiguity of the world. Finally, regardless of any allusion, the suggestion that the garden has been visited by archangels further adds to the supernatural beauty of the garden.

"flowers..."   (The Garden Party)

Mansfield uses flowers in this opening passage to describe the setting and lay the foundations for many themes within the story. Throughout the story, she will continue to use flowers for their appearance and their metaphorical significance.