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In this essay, I will be looking at Katherine Mansfield’s and Jean Rhys’ use of symbolism in two of their short stories: Mansfield’s “The Garden Party” and “The Doll’s House” and Rhys’ “Goodbye Marcus, Goodbye Rose” and “The Day They Burned the Books”. These four short and quite simple at the first sight stories possess an immeasurable power of universal truths that are similar even in totally different cultures. In what way do these two authors use symbolism – especially that of innocence and experience – in their works and to what effect, is a question which will be discussed.

First of all, the stories in question are different, but in all of them the protagonists are young females, innocent girls who are going through the phase of growing up. This innocence is not always sexual, but more moral. However, both authors aptly outline how easily it can be destroyed, or better say changed into another phase of growing, by a slight movement, random word, or a simple event which may have no meaning to some people, but be life-changing for others.

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Phoebe (Goodbye Marcus, Goodbye Rose, Rhys) is a young girl growing up on a small island in the Caribbean who quickly finds the innocence of her youth disappearing. The older man decides that it is time for her to become a woman, and in doing so he does not find a protest from a young lady who may not even understand completely what is going on with her. What she knows is that she is changing. She earns that valuable experience which shapes her perception of the entire world. Like a butterfly effect – the chain reaction is triggered, change comes into her world. With this new experience, Phoebe becomes older and more cautious about life. She understands that nothing can be now the way it was before as something not only in her body but also in her heart and brains took on a new course.

Symbolically, Phoebe is a reflection of the Jean Rhys herself: Being a young girl she had to go through a lot of life challenges which made her life quite complicated and unhappy. On the one hand, she was attending a prestigious school in Dominica where women’s education was taken seriously on the contrary of the widespread at that time belief that women did not need any education at all apart the one which teaches them how to please their husband and do work about the house. However, life in Dominica was too difficult as people were rude and too simple lacking the sophistication the author liked so much. This broken dream for a beautiful life is well depicted in Phoebe’s hopes and desires, in her understanding of the change that came and made her experience new feelings which deprived her of her childish naivety. Phoebe concludes her sorrowful thoughts:

If no one ever marries me

And I don’t see why they should.
For nurse says I’m not pretty

And I’m seldom very good...

Process of Experience in Stories

In Rhys’ “The Day They Burned the Books” the narrator is an unnamed female adolescent growing up on the island of Trinidad in the Caribbean. There are many similarities to be found in the two works of Jean Rhys, with one of those similarities having been mentioned already, both of these girls are growing up on colonized islands (as did Jean Rhys herself) and they are going through the process of experience, chiefly by learning from the British culture which seems intriguing to both girls. Before taking a closer look at this act of growing up which they both go through, I will briefly look at Mansfield’s protagonists in her two short stories.

In “The Garden Party” Mansfield introduces us to Laura, who like the girl in Rhys’ “The Day They Burned the Books” is narrating the story in retrospect. Laura is, like Phoebe and the unnamed girl who I from now on will refer to as “NN”, growing up on an island, albeit not colonized. She is in charge of arranging the family’s garden party and as with Phoebe and NN, she too encounters the question of equality. In her case it is the question of class consciousness which is raised. Her family being of the upper class, which is emphasized by Mansfield’s symbolism: “ […] for the little cottages were in a lane to themselves at the very bottom of a steep rise that led up to the house.”. The question of class consciousness is at the center of “The Doll’s House” as well, where we meet Kezia, the youngest of the characters mentioned so far. She is like the others, a young girl growing up, still encountering new experiences, which shape her view on the world.

Turning back to Jean Rhys’ second story “The Day They Burned the Books”, I would like to mention that the author introduces us at once to the values of people at that time: NN, a small girl, recognizes how important it is for her to be a white girl, with English roots, and exceptionally pretty. As it was common at those times, African Americans were not respected well enough, and the discriminating difference was imbued into children from the early age: Do not play with the poor or black because they are a lower class, and it is very bad to be around people of lower class as they are wrong-doers. Such a belief was spread across the whole American continent due to the diminutive desire of the Europeans to have someone to rule upon.

NN had a friend who always very nice to her, however, his mother was a different character who NN could not learn to like because of the woman’s behavior: After the death of Eddie’s father, Mrs. Sawyer decided to throw away and burn all the books in the house. Already at that time, NN found books to be a fascinating source of other worlds, other people who she never saw, but who often reminded her the innermost wishes and dreams she cherished deep in her heart. The narrator was happy to grab a book from the pile which was doomed by the evil spirit to be destroyed on a stack of fire. Since then, that book became her treasure.

Deep Meaning in “Fort Comme La Mort”

The book appeared to be profound titled with a French name of “Fort Comme La Mort” which Jean Rhys did not translate into her language. It is a very symbolic moment why the author decided to keep the name as in original. The title has a deep meaning which should not be simply read but pondered over and comprehended. “Strong as Death” shows a certain absurdity of people’s earthy worries and challenges they face – all of us will surrender to her majesty, Death, one day anyway (Hung n.d.). However, on the other hand, death is undefeatable, powerful, and equal for all. The author as if tries to show how much people lack this equality in treating their fellows, how weak they are in the face of problems preferring to complain about them and not to solve them, and how important it is for humans to learn to be stronger and braver in order not to run from responsibilities and be able to take on risk and leave their comfort zone in order to achieve success in life.

Mrs. Sawyer is not a negative character, her theory of life is quite contemporary and decisive on the contrary to many of her fellow citizens who always stuck to the old things with meaning which they or their relatives ascribed to it. However, things will always remain just things and it is vital to learn how to treasure feelings and people around us and give less power to things which can either be substituted, created again, or simply forgotten. People are losing their most important values of love and friendship nowadays, ascribing too much significance to the needless things that cannot bring humans full happiness, just a mere satisfaction that you keep up the pace with the outer world and its high development of sophisticated technologies and abundant little objects which show someone’s status and social position. However, things are not people, they cannot comfort us when we are in sorrow, or warm up during cold winter nights. Things are soulless, and Mrs. Sawyer seemed to understand it very well, throwing away all her late husband’s book collections and deciding to buy a new one in case she wants to read because those books treasure memories which are long gone, and can never be returned any more. Death comes and takes with it a part of the soul which cannot be substituted as it is not material, it is not a thing. Deciding to move on to a new life, creating new feelings, and leaving memories to its most apt place – past – is the way of growing up, becoming more experienced and educated on life lessons.

Problem of Class Discrimination in “The Doll’s House”

Katherine Mansfield presents us with similar ideas in her short story “The Doll’s House”. Mrs. Hay has presented a doll's house to the children of Burnell family; it is described with a strong emphasis on a small lamp inside it as if telling everyone that there is still a certain hope for the town to eliminate forever class discrimination. For Kezia, the youngest girl, this is the most beautiful part of the doll’s house. The following morning children cannot wait to show their precious gift to their schoolmates; Isabel authoritatively announces that she will be the one who decides which people are allowed to see the house as she is the eldest. Two poor girls from the Kelvey family will see it as they belong to a much lower social class. In a while, Isabel together with two of her friends would jeer at the Kelveys because of their low social status. Later, Kezia hastily decides to show those two poor kids the house revealing her generosity and bravery as she does not support that the Kelveys should be treated like this. The Kelveys have seen the lamp which gave them the hope that one day that would treated with due respect and equality as is proved by the enigmatic smile of one of the sisters who smiles only in very rare occasions due to the bitterness of her discriminated existence.

Kezia’s innocence seems to fight with the experience which she earned from observing other people’s treatment of the Kelveys. However, she decides to try to make friends with the two girls who are considered to be outcasts by anyone else as Kezia is not so instilled with the class consciousness yet which spoilt her elder sisters. The author beautifully combines the innocent views of the small girl with the experienced world perception of older people. Surprisingly, but despite everyone talking about Kezia’s high social status, she still rejects everyone by promoting her thoughts on equality so opposite to the stereotyped and prejudiced views of her family. In doing so, the small girl metaphorically tries to break the unequal hierarchy that ruined relationship among people for centuries.

Unfortunately, that day’s society was completely based on class and wealth – the more of it you possessed, the higher privileges were granted to you , and the more people were tended to respect you. No one took into consideration the creative soul and quick mind, however, the thickness of wallet, and the near relative in the presidential seat of the bank. In the end of the story, Mansfield outlines the predicament especially well, when aunt Beryl scolds Kezia, “How dare you ask little Kelveys into the courtyard? Run away, children, run away at once. And don’t come back again!... Burning with shame, shrinking together, the Kelvey sisters huddled through the big courtyard and squeezed through the white gate”.

The small girl symbolically tries to bring down the prejudiced traditions of the whole generations of older people who cannot recognize simple truth that everyone is equal and deserves its place under the sun.

Questions of Discrimination in “The Garden Party” 

“The Garden Party” by Katherine Mansfield continues to relate the readers about the sorrows that discrimination brings upon people who were unlucky enough to become its targets. In this short story, the author outlines three major themes which broaden social inequality of “The Doll’s House”. First of all, as it was already mentioned, class consciousness is the pivotal topic of Mansfield’s works. Laura, despite all biased beliefs of her family feels a slight sense of kinship with the simple workers who cannot boast to belong to higher class but the lowest one. She especially reminds Kezia in her behavior. Her mother also thinks that it would cause a lot of embarrassment to the whole family if they receive flowers. The author reveals that children from the higher class were never allowed to go any near to the dwellings inhabited by the poor, and which spoilt the vista from the rich’s house.

Secondly, Laura totally is stuck in a narrow world of high-class food, housing, family, and parties in the gardens. And then, suddenly, she finds out about different life which her neighbor from a lower class leads. With the death of this neighbor, Laura as if turns back to reality having to face death so close to her. In this case, we see a close connection of the Mansfield’s story with the Rhys’ “The Day They Burned The Books” who contemplates the idea of death, however, under a little bit different angle, stressing that the life should always go on no matter what as death is just the end of one phase, a good lesson, but not a stop of life for everyone but the dead.

Thirdly, the author skillfully handles the theme of life and death in this short story. The comprehension of Laura that life is basically marvelous no matter what happens, shows death of the person in quite a positive light depriving it the sorrows for the lost. Life and death co-exist as close as possible to imagine, and death appears to Laura just a sound sleep somewhere far away from routine troubles that haunt human’s life. The young girl understands death better than the adults who are afraid even the thought of it, running away from getting older but only nearing the end of their days by their inability to enjoy each moment of life as it is, finding positive sides in everything.

Symbolism Colonialism in Stories

We have looked at the similarities of the protagonists in these works as well as the abundant application of symbolism that concerns innocence and experience which the two writers made as their main themes. Now, the focus will lie on the experiences of these girls, and how they are portrayed as innocent, and through the story, change through these experiences. It is tempting to look at other symbols as well, such as those concerning colonialism in Rhys’ works and those concerning class in Mansfield’s, but they will only be mentioned if they become relevant to the symbolism of innocence and experience. Therefore, it is time that we go back to Rhys and see if there are clues which might reveal Phoebe’s innocence.

Symbolism of Colors in “Goodbye Marcus, Goodbye Rose”

From the very beginning of “Goodbye Marcus, Goodbye Rose”, Phoebe’s admiration for Captain Cardew becomes apparent “and Phoebe thought what a wonderful bass voice he had.”, it might even seem to be more than mere admiration, she does admit liking him “Anyway, she liked him, […]” (Rhys, p. 64). It is clear that Phoebe liked the Captain, but to an unsuspecting young girl, his intentions which might seem questionable to the reader, get lost in her naivety. The “large box of chocolates” are mentioned by the narrator already in the opening paragraph.

One has to pause for a minute and question if this is given out of kindness, or if the Captain has other intentions in mind. The narration of the story is in the third person and it is suggestive to think that it is Phoebe herself who is telling the story in hindsight. John Donne’s famously coined metaphor of “no man is an island” is to some extent used by Rhys in this story, where Phoebe is the island, she is alone and Captain Cardew, who is visiting the island, describes it as being “attractive and unspoilt”. But is it the island which is attractive and unspoiled, or is he using the island as a metaphor for Phoebe? Since Cardew continues to take Phoebe out for walks and judging from his intentions, one has to believe that at least the Captain finds her attractive. That she is unspoiled becomes clear from her naivety, the fact that she continues to go on long walks with him without questioning his intent. Her innocence is unmistakable and is symbolized by the colors of her clothes, the “white blouse”, “white skirt” and “white hat” (Rhys, p. 64).

The innocent and untainted white color is put into contrast by her “black stockings” and “ black buttoned boots”, something which might hint at Phoebe progressing from childhood and into adulthood. This contrast – or tension – between these two stages of life is strengthened by the hat which is “[…] anchored firmly with elastic under her chin.” (Rhys, p. 64)and the setting of this particular scene. They are in a botanical garden, where the plants undergo the natural process of growth, but so does she, albeit a growth which skips some of the regular stages. The hat symbolizes the parental control, or the control which the Captain seems to have over her, hence the use of the word “anchor”. What Rhys is doing is bringing additional attention to her growth and innocence by using these specific symbols. Her beauty is also reflected in the setting, drawing on our connotations of a botanical garden, and “[…] the yellow dancing patches of sunlight.”. Rhys is able to create an image in our minds of just how lovely the afternoon in question is.

Experience and Inner Struggles  in “The Day They Burned the Books”

“The Day They Burned the Books” there is no Captain who NN looks up to, although Mr. Sawyer is similar in some ways. From the story there is no clear contact between our protagonist and Mr. Sawyer, but like Captain Cardew, he is a colonizer, while NN and Phoebe are natives of their respective islands. Phoebe is fascinated by the Captain’s experiences an d his knowledge of what England is like, NN on the other hand is more fascinated by a boy her own age, Eddie Sawyer.  Her fascination for Eddie is fueled by the fact that he has been to England, he has experienced a world that she can only dream of. When she and the others talked about “home” they spoke of it in words which revealed their innocence. Their romantic portrayal of England is apparent: “[…]London, the beautiful, rosy-cheeked ladies, the theatres, the shops, the fog, the blazing coal fires in winter, the exotic food (whitebait eaten to the sound of violins), strawberries and cream […]”. It is Eddie’s experience of “home” that in turn encourages her skepticism of the romantic image which she has been taught through her schooling.

Her experiences and inner struggles are clearly illustrated by Rhys’ use of symbolism. It is not only her questioning of the teachings which she has experienced that shows us this, that she is growing up and becoming a sexual being by the use of nature as a symbol. “‘Now we’ll run twice round the lawn and then you can pretend you’re dying of thirst in the desert and that I’m an Arab chieftain bringing you water.’” (Rhys, p. 39) As with the botanical garden in “Goodbye Marcus, Goodbye Rose”, the lawn symbolizes the ongoing growth which NN is experiencing. In stark contrast, the infertile desert which Eddie talks of is showing how he helps her grow. She does not obtain the water by herself, it is brought to her by Eddie, clearly showing that although she is undergoing the process of growth, she has not yet become independent. This symbolism plays out a duality of both NN’s growth and that of the aspect of colonist versus native.

Natural Process of Growth in “The Garden Party”

In Katherine Mansfield’s “The Garden Party”, the setting is quite different from the settings used by Rhys. However, this does not mean that the symbols used are all that different. It has become clear that in order to symbolize growth, nature plays an important role. The title of Mansfield’s short story reveals that she too will use nature as an important symbol. It is important to note that the symbols being used by both authors draw on the natural process of growth. While nature can be both cruel and kind, Rhys and Mansfield draw on our positive connotations toward nature. What we see are the beauties which nature conveys, we see nature as a symbol of fertileness and growth. Something which will be discussed after we have looked at the symbolism in Katherine Mansfield’s  two works.

The first clue of Laura undergoing a process of growth is revealed when her mother hands down the responsibility of arranging the annual garden party to Laura. “‘My dear child it’s no use asking me. I’m determined to leave everything to you children this year. Forget I am your mother. Treat me as an honoured guest’”. But before that, the underlying theme of that has been foreshadowed by the symbolism of the setting. Nature’s growth has taken place, showing us the natural process of growth “Hundreds, yes, literally hundreds [of roses], had come out in a single night; […]” (Mansfield, p. 1), yet the unnatural process of trying to control growth is also touched upon in the opening paragraph: “The gardener had been up since dawn, mowing the lawns […]”. Ironically enough it is the gardener who is hindering the natural process of growth, but more on that later.

What makes Laura different from the other protagonists is that she does not hide the fact that she wants to be seen as older than she is. Her response to seeing the workmen reveals both this and the sexual tension inside her. Blushing and trying to copy her mother’s voice she approaches these “impressive” men. Mansfield, pp. 1-2) Her adolescence is symbolized by the lilies and the fact that it is the workers who in the end decide where the marquee should stand. While Laura wants the marquee to be placed among the lilies, it ends up being placed in front of the karakas. While the lilies symbolize her innocence, the marquee shadowing the karakas symbolizes the changes going on within her. The karakas are described by Laura as being “trees you imagined growing on a desert island, proud, solitary, lifting their leaves and fruits to the sun in a kind of silent splendour”. This desert island is a metaphor for the hill on which she resides, where the sun is a metaphor for her mother and the trees themselves can be seen as the Laura and her siblings. The infertility of the desert island symbolizes the obstacle which hinders Laura from growing. This touches upon the ever-present theme of “class-consciousness” as well. The island shows us the isolation of her aristocratic family, while the sun (her mother) is the only one responsible for the children’s growth. With the act of placing this metaphor in the shadow of the marquee, Mansfield opens up the theme of class-consciousness and growth.

Symbolism of Inner Beauty in “Goodbye Marcus, Goodbye Rose”

Katherine Mansfield’s use of symbolism in “The Doll’s House” is quite different from that in “The Garden Party”, it is also quite different from Rhys’ symbolism in her aforementioned short stories. The main difference lies within the usage of the symbols of nature. Instead of focusing on the beauty of nature, nature is in “The Doll’s House” used for its negative connotations. Kezia’s growth is not something which is symbolized through the natural growth of plants, instead it is the Kelveys who are described through the symbols of nature, albeit in a negative manner. This might have something to do with Kezia’s age, she is clearly younger than Phoebe, Laura and NN, which suggests that she might not have arrived at the stage of pubescence yet. Another reason as to why Mansfield chooses to avoid nature’s images of beauty is the fact that this short story is about inner – not outer – beauty.

Kezia is overly obsessed with one particular aspect of the doll’s house, its lamp. This lamp symbolizes the inner beauty and hope which seems to only exist within Kezia. In turn, this shows Kezia’s maturity, despite her age. She is able to look past the outer conventions and traits, she sees that there is some light inside everyone, even the Kelveys. Kezia is growing up, able to step out of the courtyard of innocence. This is illustrated when the Kelveys are walking up the road towards the white courtyard gates which Kezia is swinging on. The white gates symbolize the caging of her innocence, how her innocence is protected by her matriarchal family. After briefly considering her chances of avoiding the Kelveys, she chooses to take a leap of faith and invites them in to see the doll’s house. What she does might be out of naivety, but nonetheless it is, for the reader, quite brave and mature.

Both Katherine Mansfield’s and Jean Rhys’s symbolism seems to be quite obvious due to the application of the world’s burning problems on racial and social discrimination which greatly allow to read between the lines and understand well the hidden signs of the authors who aim to show the topicality of these issues to as many people as possible. The usage of colors, nature, behavior, settings, material objects allows to depict the real life situations which depict the acuteness of the problem exceptionally well, as each reader can feel himself or herself in the place of both the narrator of the story which usually belongs to the higher social class and those in predicament.

Positive Symbolism in Stories

It is very interesting to note that both writers use exactly the rich’s perspective to show the miseries of the poor. This approach is quite interesting as it does not show all possible problems the poor suffer from, however, only some sides of it. Nevertheless, such a method does not make these problems look minor, on the contrary, the reader may start creating a large scene in his head which will allow to see all the depth of the issue.

Both authors’ depiction of symbolism is marked by positivity despite the obvious outline of negative sides of human life. The death seems to be just another peaceful dream, the half-hidden smile of a little girl shows the hope of the future, the understanding of the vital change that passed through girl’s life after her adult experience does not mean to her the end of everything, it just means a new phase that came into her life. The lightness of the prose is easy to understand for everyone.

Interestingly, that Mansfield and Rhys chose very young girls for their works. The symbolism here is very strong: Young means innocent, young means naïve especially when the talk goes about girls who tend to be more emotional, trustful, and open-hearted, young means still unbiased and deprived of the stereotypes that adult stick to so enthusiastically. Autobiographic moments are also strong in the stories, however, they are blended with the fact that the protagonists can remind each of us at a certain stage of life. Innocence in all four works is ascribed all the best features which include kindness, openness, helpfulness, understanding, equality (no matter what age, color, height, or status you have – you are still a human being if your heart is filled with love and respect towards everything and everyone),  and ability to see beauty everywhere.

Experience, on the other hand, is depicted as a negative aspect of human existence. Such application makes Mansfield’s and Rhys’ works different from many others that were dedicated to the same or at least similar issues. From one point of view, experience comes after understanding, after the loss of innocence in perception of the world as well as sexual way. It seems to be vital and unchangeable for the entire generations of human beings. Moreover, it brings necessary knowledge. Despite this, the writers depict experience as inability to see beauty in simplicity, as callous behavior, and rude manners as well as narrow-mindedness and loftiness. Probably, the word ‘experience’ is not good enough for such stories as they relate us more about stereotypization and lack of the positive knowledge, positive experience that can change the attitudes of people to many aspects of life, making it better and, therefore, happier.

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