Howard is an avid short story reader who likes to help others find and understand stories.
Katherine Mansfield's "Miss Brill" is a frequently anthologized short story. At about 2,000 words, it's a quick read. Despite its brevity, it's a powerful character study that creates an understated but moving effect.
It's told by a third-person limited narrator. We're given access to many of the protagonist's thoughts, including some direct inner monologue.
I read this story years ago and liked it well enough. After rereading it many times, I understand why it's so highly regarded. It's so much more than the simplicity of its plot.
Summary of "Miss Brill"
It's a fine day with a slight chill in the air in the Jardin Publiques, a park in France. Miss Brill wears her fur stole, which is starting to show its age a bit. She'll touch it up when it's necessary. She had taken it out of storage that afternoon and brushed it.
It's more crowded than last Sunday; the busy season has started. The band plays louder and the atmosphere feels lighter.
Seated next to Miss Brill is an old couple who don't speak. She's disappointed as she's very good at surreptitiously listening in on people's conversations.
Miss Brill hopes they'll leave soon. Last week wasn't that interesting, either. A couple had a dull conversation about the wife needing glasses that went nowhere.
Miss Brill turns her attention to the crowd. There are people walking, talking and buying flowers, and children wearing their best clothes. Others sit on benches and chairs—they're old and odd, like they've come out of dark rooms or cupboards.
She continues watching—young people pair off; two peasant women lead donkeys; a nun hurries by; a beautiful woman drops flowers, has them returned, and discards them again.
A woman in an ermine toque has a conversation with a dignified looking man. He abruptly ends it by blowing smoke in her face and walking off. The woman waves like she sees someone and leaves.
The old couple next to Miss Brill get up and march off.
She loves sitting there watching it all. It's like a play and they're all part of the performance, including her. Someone would notice if she was missing. It's the first time she's realized this.
She's shy about telling her English pupils what she does on Sundays, and she gets there the same time every week because she's an actress. She thinks of the old invalid man she reads to four times a week, and imagines him realizing she's an actress.
The band starts up again. It's a light, uplifting tune and Miss Brill feels that everyone could start singing. She senses that everyone shares an understanding of some sort.
A really young, beautiful couple sit next to her. They seem like the hero and heroine of the performance. Miss Brill listens in. The girl rebuffs an advance. The boy asks if it's because of Miss Brill's presence. He calls her a "stupid old thing" and asks, "who wants her?" The girl makes fun of her fur stole.
Miss Brill walks home. She usually buys a slice of cake at the bakery as a Sunday treat. Today she doesn't. She climbs the stairs to her dark, little room and sits on the bed. She takes off her fur and quickly puts it back in its box. She closes the lid. She thinks she hears something crying.
Alienation is one of the most prominent themes, which we'll expand here to include loneliness and isolation.
First, Miss Brill lives alone in a small room. She also goes on her recurring Sunday outing by herself. She goes all year round, in the busy and slow seasons. This implies she doesn't have any other engagements. These things in themselves wouldn't necessarily indicate loneliness, but they're part of a larger pattern.
She considers herself an expert eavesdropper. This seems like a substitute for personal interaction. She would no doubt like to have the conversation herself; lacking any connections, the best she can do is pick up some of the scraps around her.
The people who enter the protagonist's thoughts also tell us how isolated she is. She spends much of the time thinking about the strangers who sit next to her and strangers whom she can see from her seat. She briefly thinks of her English students, who have a practical reason for spending time with her. She thinks of the old man she reads to, how he could be dead without her noticing—they clearly don't talk much.
Also noteworthy is who Miss Brill doesn't think about. There's no mention of any family or friends. As an English expatriate in France, it's understandable that she has no relatives near. The circumstances around her move aren't given. It's easy to imagine that she had no close ties in her own country, and thus, had no reason to stay there.
It's noteworthy that Miss Brill doesn't say a single word to anyone during the story. Despite her desire for a connection, she doesn't greet the people who sit next to her. Her alienation is strong enough to prevent this small step.
The only people in the story to whom we could infer that she speaks are her students, the old invalid man and the baker. These interactions are obligatory, rare and transactional.
The most overt example of her alienation is seen in how the young couple reacts to her. At the moment she feels most connected to everyone, their harshness shatters her epiphany. Their tactless rudeness makes it clear that she's on her own.
Miss Brill is in denial throughout the story. She doesn't accept her alienation or how she appears to others.
She denies her loner status early in the story. It starts with her noting that the band is playing better because out of season it's like they're "playing with only the family to listen", that is, they're not trying to impress anyone. As one of the regulars who attends out of season, Miss Brill has a sense that she's part of the family. This is before this idea fully forms in her mind near the end.
She's disappointed that the old couple who first sit next to her don't speak, and hopes they'll leave. She doesn't realize she's in a similar position; she's not talking to anyone, and people might hope she leaves.
She's uninterested in "The old people [who sit] on the bench, still as statues." Ironically, she would look much like this to others.
She sees the other Sunday regulars as "odd, silent, nearly all old," and imagines them being from "dark little rooms or even—even cupboard!" Again, there's strong irony here as Miss Brill sounds like she's describing herself. At the end, her room is described exactly this way.
She notices the woman in the ermine toque looks older and shabby, without any awareness that she's the same.
Miss Brill's delusion builds as she thinks of everyone there, including herself, as being actors in a play, each with a part that would be missed if it were absent. She has a short fantasy about identifying herself as an actress. The denial of her alienation continues as she feels everyone could break into song, sharing a beautiful moment. Her delusion culminates as she's moved to tears, believing they all share some vague understanding.
Her denial of reality also makes her assume the young couple who arrive are "the hero and heroine of the story"—ironically, they turn out to be the villains.
1. Is there any foreshadowing?
The climax of the story is when the young couple bluntly destroy Miss Brill's perception of herself as connected to those around her. This moment is foreshadowed.
The first instance is understated. When she arrives at the park, there's a faint chill in the air. She feels it again right before her epiphany. We get the sense that something will leave her "cold"; the mood isn't as "warm" as she believes.
The second instance is more obvious. The woman in the ermine toque, who is similar to the protagonist, is unceremoniously rejected by the dignified looking man in gray. This parallels Miss Brill's rejection by the attractive young couple.
2. What's happening in the incident with the woman in the ermine toque and the dignified gentleman?
This is an example of something I didn't pay much attention to on the first reading. I thought the guy was a jerk but, otherwise, I glided over it.
On a superficial reading, it seems like a friendly, older woman makes some dull conversation with an aloof man who then rudely leaves. To be honest, I'm not totally sure that isn't what's happening.
However, there could be more. The hint is in the last thing the woman says: "And wouldn't he, perhaps? . . ." She doesn't finish her request. The woman is talkative, so if she wanted him to walk with her or go for coffee, she probably would have said it. It seems she's asking something that is both indelicate and that is understood. It's possible she's a prostitute who's propositioning him. They might have had a rendezvous in the past, when she looked younger. Now she's older and shabby, so he rebuffs her.
Regardless of what's happening here, there's a parallel between this woman and Miss Brill. They're both poor, aging and looking for connections, and they both get their isolation thrown in their faces.
3. What does Miss Brill's fur necklet symbolize?
The necklet represents the protagonist. Here are some of the parallels between them:
- They both come out of their "boxes"—a literal one and Miss Brill's small, dark room.
- The necklet's nose looks like its taken a hit; Miss Brill is figuratively hit in the face by the young couple.
- The necklet literally keeps the chill away, while she figuratively keeps the "chill" of her isolation away.
- The young man insults Miss Brill's looks, while the young woman insults the necklet's.
- The protagonist identifies with the necklet when she thinks she hears it crying.