Katherine Mansfield expressed her preoccupations through highly effective literature. Her choice for the short story form is perhaps what had enabled her to put into practice her innovative blend of realism and symbolism. Despite alternating the themes of her stories, her usage of literary techniques remains the same throughout her writing, helping her to develop a higher level of aesthetic literature.
‘A Cup of Tea’ is certainly no different in techniques and subject matter from any of her other stories. It displays many of her writing features. The language and the narrative have primary importance towards reaching what is so characteristic of Mansfield’s writing: ‘the plotless story’ and the ‘psychological moment’.
The story is presented in third person narrative which allows the readers to experience the story through the eyes of Rosemary Fell. This works towards the reader’s understanding of the text through the emotion and the psychology of the character. The narrative’s function is to unveil the close details. This technique is important for the sake of clarity and the cursive running of the text. It has a descriptive attribute meant to swiftly shift through the images and the characters’ minds.
As expected, ‘A Cup of Tea’ deals with gender issues and a feminine experience of reality. Right from the beginning, the voice introduces us into the life of the main character as well as her most exquisite features. Rosemary Fell appears to be a woman of the new generation with modern ideals and a fine taste for art. The introduction into her persona is achieved through no direct implication from the author but through an intentional focalisation on the details which work to offer the reader a clear point of Rosemary’s psyche and class. The description of one of her typical shopping mannerisms provides a first clue into Mansfield’s usage of perceptions as it ‘manages to achieve sophisticated effects while conveying the perceptions of an unsophisticated character.’ (Aestheticism and Modernism, 2005, p.74) Here, the language and the narrative are used to present a side of Rosemary’s personality. At the same time, however, it subtly dwells on the reader’s need for immediacy. The meticulous phrase and the employment of the sensory perceptions engages the reader’s attention.
Mansfield’s style of writing involves a high degree of eloquence through carefully constructed language, unusual form and personalised narrative functions. ‘A Cup of Tea’ is abundant in literary techniques whose stylistic effects customize the entire course of the story. Rather than working towards an evident climax, the story’s center of interest is the interaction between the characters and ‘the power of the moment’. The storyline shifts from one image to the other in order to corroborate and empower Rosemary’s psychological profile. For example, the interaction with the shopkeeper, the mysterious lady and even her husband are forcibly induced aspects of her moods and frames of mind, at given times. These interactions are very important because the audience is able to judge Rosemary’s character directly (through her words and actions) and indirectly (through other characters’ eyes).
The form of the story has its origins in the free indirect discourse which allows the narrative to move through the character’s minds. The reader’s engagement with Rosemary is attained through special attention to detail, gestures and the power of the language. Most of the story is conducted through high effectiveness and strength of sensory perceptions. The author uses a lot of adjectives, verbs and nouns to obtain the desired effect of intimacy and involvement. Colours, shapes and gestures are only a few of Mansfield’s tools to create strong atmospheres and moods which identify with Rosemary’s various frames of mind. A strong example is Mansfield’s depiction of London’s weather which works to capture Rosemary’s mental condition. It is exquisite how Mansfield succeeds in creating such a strong image with very little material. In this case, the third person narrative and the succinct depiction of the weather are just enough to describe the mental decadence.
Despite being plotless, the strength of the story lies in the direct and numerous interactions between the characters. The atmosphere is achieved through punchy sensory perceptions which work to undermine the importance of direct interventions from the author. Lines such as, ‘…he beamed’, ‘…he clasped’, ‘…he could scarcely speak’ are sufficient to tell us what the characters feel and what their concerns are.
The rhythmical structure has a leading role in the storyline and it actually lies at its foundation. The constant patterning of images and the fluctuating changes between the eyes of the characters build the foundation of the story. Simply put, the plot is in fact each character’s reality travelling from one mind to the other: ‘(…) she couldn’t help noticing how charming her hands were against the blue velvet. The shopman, in some dim cavern of his mind, may have dared to think so too.’ The rhythm comes and goes periodically and is very well achieved through plenty of interruptions and ellipsis. The narrative discontinuities of this story have a crucial importance in the way they contribute to the psychological moment. In addition, they seem to commit to revealing some very sensitive areas in the character’s life: ‘Flattery, of course. All the same, there was something …’ and ‘Well, keep it for me-will you? I’ll…’.
The ‘plotless’ story is what makes room for the usage of aesthetic language. Undoubtedly, Mansfield shows a deep seated commitment towards an interiorized style of writing and its sharp effects on the reader. It is interesting how powerful emotions emerge through carefully descriptive passages such as the studying of the ‘exquisite enamel box’. The abundance of the sensory perceptions takes over the character’s attention as much as the reader’s. It is short images like these that create the necessary conditions for the perfect emotional bondage between character and reader: we see what she sees and we feel what she feels. The slow movements, the bright colours and the emotional charge – they all work to create a productive ground for aesthetic language.
Like ‘Frau Brechenmarcher Attends a Wedding’, ‘Prelude’ and ‘Bliss’, ‘ A Cup of Tea’ is also governed by the gender issue and the feminine approach to life. The story is told through a feminine voice and describes both physical and spiritual feminine delicacy. Rosemary is not a beautiful woman but she acts charmingly enough to force the shopkeeper to adopt a gallant attitude around her. Her femininity is unquestionable. She has frail touches and interest in fine arts and flowers. Her mind is susceptible towards noticing emotional and psychological details in the things surrounding her. She also has a deep capacity to interpret them. She realises that the atmosphere outside the shop has a sad connotation – both internal and external. Observation and comprehension form a strong and categorical side of Rosemary’s femininity. Mansfield’s depiction of Rosemary is undoubtedly a triumph into the female perspective of life but it could also be interpreted as a satire. The studying of the glazed box causes quite a daunting experience for Rosemary; it has an ambivalent effect on her. We can definitely sense the sudden enthusiasm and the pleasure with which she analyses the little craft. It is a curiosity which is gradually transformed into an antagonist feeling of self awareness: her condition as a woman in a man’s world. The realisation of the moment, or epiphany, is a powerful literary technique on which Mansfield relies a great deal. The tossing and turning of the little box somehow brought something very powerful into Rosemary’s mind. The emotional conflict that she feels is a trial of her repressed feelings of sadness and displeasure. Just like ‘Frau Brechenmarcher Attends a Wedding’, Mansfield chooses to get involved into Rosemanry’s precarious mental condition through a comment: ‘There are moments, horrible moments in life, when one emerges from shelter and looks out, and it’s awful. One oughtn’t to give way to them.’ This brings the psychological moment to another level of tension and emotion. It creates a strong psychological scene. It is unafraid to probe into some dark aspects of female identity.
There is also a slow introduction to suspense with the appearance of the mysterious young girl. Mansfield anticipates the importance of this event very well. It creates a sudden interruption of Rosemary’s thoughts . At the same time, it offers a chance for her own psychological closure. Helping the girl actually means that Rosemary is helping herself: ‘(…) women were sisters.’
Freed from the storyline, ‘A Cup of Tea’ is very wealthy in literary techniques which are firm in their contribution to the story. The literary techniques alone push this story forward. They have an immediate impact on the reader’s mind subtly linking them emotionally with the chief character. They also capitalize and complement the story. The literary techniques mentioned above are perhaps the most encountered throughout Mansfield’s style of writing. The employment of these techniques is decisive in achieving the desired effect. They are the substance of her literary thinking. Her artistic skills work towards reaching the conclusive aestheticism of her language and structure. The idea of building a story’s plot by making several human realities interact is purely astonishing. The patterning images and the emotion emerging from what is shown rather than told construct the foundation of how she expresses her inner vision. The power of the moment follows naturally. Like ‘A Cup of Tea’, her stories are significantly impregnated with deep emotions. This is why it is very hard to resist giving into the struggles of Mansfield’s heroines. The story reveals a lot of Mansfield’s complicated technical blending which nevertheless looks effortless. Her distinctive style is at the foundation of this story showing her strong belief in sentimental writing as well as a harsh critique on how society exerts too much strain on people and their differences. Human interactions are observed in great detail as is the significant impact it has on the characters. The avoidance of the climaxes reveals a typical characteristic of Katherine Mansfield as does the focalization on the ‘psychological moment’, both achieved with great dexterity.
Brown, R. D. and Gupta, S. (2005) Aestheticism and Modernism: Debating the Twentieth-Century Literature 1900-1960, London, Routlage.
Brown, R.D. and Gupta, S. (2005) A Twentieth- Century Literature Reader: Texts and Debates, London, Routlage.
Mansfield, K (2002) Selected Stories, Oxford University Press.