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The central theme of the short piece Miss Brill by Katherine Mansfield is the pain of loneliness and undeniable attempts people who are alone make to live their lives vicariously and insidiously through others and the environment around them. Rather than finding company through interaction with others the lonely among us uncover fulfillment by experiencing life’s pleasures through others. A combination of the circumstances and misfortune of the time Miss Brill was born in leads to the English teacher to a lonely existence out of school hours. To the point of admittance that she is uncomfortable to even reveal to her own pupils how she passes time on the weekends. The scene setting made by the author is key, the ironic beauty of an autumn day as life around her begins to show first signs of dying and bedding down for the cold months.
Miss Brill’s loneliness is a reflection of the time, the years leading up to and around the 1920s were not easy for women, the lack of respect was still absolutely there. The traditionalist views still raged and women were very much oppressed in that society, Miss Brill as an assumedly single woman could not at all live her life with absolute freedom. The stern foot of oppression was a main reason why Miss Brill fell into her ways of living vicariously through others. Society limited her opportunities to find her fulfillment through her own life and her environment by constricting what she could and couldn’t do via social norms.
Miss Brill’s theory about the world and everyone in it being part of an elaborate stage production offers a rationalization for how she spends her life. She is frustrated by her employment, and her theory gives her a way to imagine that even as she is reading to him while he ignores her, that she is at the same time part of something greater than herself. Miss Brill’s self-delusion becomes more evident to the reader as she has these self-justifying, self-protective thoughts, which she does not recognize as self-justifying or self-protective. Miss Brill is imaginative and optimistic about the way she sees the world. Though she has only spoken to her fur coat so far in the story, her idea of a kind of universal play displays her sense of deep connection between all people. And she asserts her own essentialness in this world as well—if all the world is a play, then every actor is important, is critical to the scene.
The way that Miss Brill talks to her coat – a decidedly odd thing to do – suggests to the reader that she might be crazy. Yet the precision of her observations quickly makes it clear that she isn’t really crazy, while the details about bringing her coat out of storage and “rubbing the life into it” clearly refer to Miss Brill herself as well. And so it becomes clear that Miss Brill is someone who has herself been in a kind of “storage” – who is intensely alone and lonely – and these trips to the park are what “rub the life into her.” Yet her loneliness seems not entirely evident to her, and she seems to intensely love this trip to the park, and to feel a kind of power in her connection to what’s going on. Whether it really is amazing that she can predict the next note, she feels that it is.
Endlessly curious, Miss Brill pays very close attention to the world around her and notices the minute interactions people have with one another. Miss Brill’s observation of the people in the stands shows the distinction between those in the stands and those on the field. The people in the field are all differentiated and lively, whereas those in the stands are meek, lonely, old. In one way or another, Miss Brill notices, life has passed these people by. Yet at the same time that Miss Brill makes such acute observations, it is obvious to the reader that she has no such ability to observe herself. She, too, is in the stands. But she sees herself as different from those seated around her.
The part of the story in which more negative occurrences begin to happen begins to foreshadow the twist that Mansfield throws in the reader’s path later on. It turns out that not every human interaction that Miss Brill notices around her is a positive one. The boy’s kindness is not acknowledged, and in fact it is rebuffed. A man nearly gets knocked over. Nor are all the people glamorous: the ermine toque—the white hat that is the sole descriptor applied to a woman, as if to indicate the centrality of clothing to one’s appearance and even social position—turns out to be shabby.
The boy and the girl, who seem so perfect at first, turn out to be arguing; and there is an implication in their words that perhaps the argument is sexual—the boy wanting something, the girl saying not here—and not Miss Brill’s romantic idealization of love. The boy, in anger, then lashes out at Miss Brill, and the two young people then unite against Miss Brill in mockery. It almost seems as if the way for them to resolve their argument is to turn against someone else. Miss Brill herself. Rejecting Miss Brill, they find a way to agree with each other. Yet in doing so they also break the romance of Miss Brill’s illusion of people united in a universal play, and of her own important role in that play. Through the eyes of the boy and girl, Miss Brill finds her sense of her own specialness punctured. Her beloved fur coat is actually shabby, not unlike the ermine torque.
The climax of the story, the revelation to Miss Brill of how others see her, changes her. She can no longer delight in the small surprises that she waits for and thus manufactures for herself. The repetition of the “cupboard” image demonstrates that Miss Brill now sees herself as the boy and girl see her: as just another of the people in the stands, as “odd, silent, old.” Her fur coat, which before seemed to connect her to a time when it was new and she was younger, now becomes a symbol of her shame and loneliness. When she presses it back into its box she commits the same sort of rejection of which she is herself a victim. No longer can she believe the illusions of inclusiveness and grandeur that always accompanied her on the way back and forth from the park every Sunday. And the sound of crying that she hears suggests that she knows that in shutting away the fur coat she is committing also to shutting herself up in her “room like a cupboard,” in her lonely life.
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