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The main theme of Katherine Mansfield’s “A Cup of Tea” is the selfishness often displayed by rich, arrogant women of the British aristocracy. Set in turn-of-the-century England, rigid social classes separate the rich and the poor. As a member of the upper class, the story’s protagonist Rosemary Fell lives a luxurious life. Her encounter with Miss Smith, a young beggar, exemplifies the rich woman’s need to constantly be pleased. Rosemary’s exclusive shopping habits, romanticism of the poor, and frivolous requests expose her self-serving personality.
Although the rich are considered to have everything, human nature rarely allows people to be completely satisfied. As a wealthy woman, Rosemary needs everything of hers to be better than what is already considered exquisite. While most wealthy ladies shopped in posh London, “if Rosemary wanted to shop, she would go to Paris”(1036). By wanting to imitate the characters in her Dostoyevsky novels, Rosemary takes Miss Smith home simply because she believes “it would be thrilling”(1037), and she will be the only one of her friends able to share a story about rescuing an impoverished woman. Even though Rosemary decides that 28 guineas is excessive for an ornamental box “even if one is rich”(1036), she later asks her husband for the money to purchase the box and he refers to her as a “little wasteful one”(1041). Rosemary Fell’s excessive desires seem to never be fulfilled and she continues to strive for an exquisite quality of life.
As a selfish and spoiled member of the aristocracy, Rosemary fails to value life outside of corporeal pleasures. Her shopping locations must exceed those of other rich ladies, her service to others is a result of an internal desire to be thrilled, and she is interested in owning things not because she needs them, but because she craves materialistic superiority over others. These characteristics portray to the reader the superficiality of both Rosemary and the rich as a whole. This egocentric way of life led by many of the rich in England actually leaves them feeling unfulfilled, ironically putting them on an equal or lower level spiritually than the poor. Although many believe money will solve their unhappiness, Rosemary Fell substantiates the inaccuracy in that belief.
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