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Miss Brill Essay Theme

Katherine Mansfield’s 1920 short story “Miss Brill” is about loneliness and self-delusion, and about the fragility of one so isolated yet yearning to be a part of the world around her.  Mansfield’s protagonist is a single woman, probably middle-aged or a little older, obviously employed as a teacher (her “English pupils”) who, in an earlier time (i.e., the time frame in which “Miss Brill” was published) would have been referred to as a “spinster.”  She clearly relishes the thought of interacting with other people, but for unspecified reasons, lacks the innate ability to assimilate into the broader society in which she lives.  Miss Brill compensates for her inability to form human relationships by fantasizing about a make-believe world, specifically, a play for which she is the audience. 

An early indication of Miss Brill’s (she is not given a first name, symbolizing both her anonymity and her formal, infinitely dignified manner) social isolation is her relationship to a prized inanimate object, her fur, which substitutes for human companionship:

“Miss Brill put up her hand and touched her fur.  Dear little thing!  It was nice to feel it again.  She had taken it out of its box that afternoon, shaken out the moth-powder, given ita good brush, and rubbed the life back into the dim little eyes.  ‘What has been happening to me?’ said the sad little eyes. . .Little rogue! . . .She could have taken it off and laid it on her lap and stroked it.”

Children routinely invest their stuffed animals with nonexistent emotions, but Miss Brill is no child; she is a lonely alienated individual who transfers her emotions to her fur, which is clearly of a type no longer in vogue (although it was common at the time Mansfield’s story was published) and which included the head of the dead animal from which the fur wrap was fashioned.  She clearly has a routine of spending Sunday afternoons at the park (“there were a number of people out this afternoon, far more than last Sunday”; “Other people sat on the benches and green chairs, but they were nearly always the same, Sunday after Sunday . . .”) and routinely sits on a bench listening to music from the band, the themes of which she imagines punctuate her own emotional state at any given moment (“ . . .there came a little ‘flutey’ bit – very pretty! – a little chain of bright drops”), while observing mankind pass her by.  She clearly enjoys listening in other peoples’ conversations, a substitute for the absence of her own exchanges with a fellow human being (“She had become really quite expert, she thought, at listening as though she didn’t listen, at sitting in other people’s lives just for a minute while they talked round her”), and possibly fantasizes about an encounter with a dignified gentleman, as she ‘watches’ another woman, representative of herself, including wearing fur, albeit on her head rather than around her shoulders, have a brief exchange with this gentleman, who shows no interest:

“She rather thought they were going to meet that afternoon. . .The day was so charming – didn’t he agree?  And wouldn’t he, perhaps? . . .But he shook his head, lighted a cigarette, slowly breathed a great deep puff into her face, and even while she was still talking and laughing, flicked the match away and walked on.  The ermine toque was alone; she smiled more brightly than ever.  But even the band seemed to know what she was feeling and played more softly, played tenderly, and the drum beat, ‘The Brute! TheBrute! over and over.”

Miss Brill’s loneliness is a constant theme throughout this brief tale, and even her mental manipulations of her surroundings -- “It was like a play.  It was exactly like a play” – cannot erase her own internalized sense of alienation:  “No doubt somebody would have noticed if she hadn’t been there; she was part of the performance after all.”

The rude comments by the boy and girl directed at Miss Brill (“Why does she come here at all – who wants her?”; “It’s her fu-ur which is so funny,” giggled the girl.  “It’s exactly like a fried whiting.”) are particularly cruel given this character’s already nonexistent self-esteem.  Upset by the comments, she forgoes her usual stop at the bakery for a slice of honey-cake, a little treat to which she awards herself, goes directly home to her “little dark room – her room like a cupboard,” and puts the fur back in its box, convinced that, as she closes the box, “she thought she heard something crying,” a further manifestation of her transference regarding the fur stole, its substitution for human companionship, and its symbolic role in illuminating the emptiness in her life.

In conclusion, then, the central ideas of “Miss Brill” are loneliness and self-delusion. 

Katherine Mansfield's short story "Miss Brill" is a depiction of life for an older woman named, not surprisingly, Miss Brill.  One key theme in this story is that of isolation.  She is a quaint creature who has a weekly routine which she follows religiously.  Each Sunday, she releases her rather shabby ermine fur from its box (playfully teasing it) and heads for the park.  She is as prim and proper and precise as her name, and the fact that she's a spinster is no surprise to us as we follow her this Sunday.  At the park, she is lost in the drama of those around her as she sits on the bench.  She is struck with the sudden thought that the events which unfold before her each week--the music, the couples, the varied activities and relationships which she sees--are a play, and she is the audience. 

This is a clear picture of isolation, of being on the outside looking in.  She is alone and isolated in a way which she is clearly unaware but is nonetheless tragic to see.  Miss Brill is content to be on the outside--until the arrival of a young couple who sit on her bench.  They are being playful and a bit romantic, until the girl says she can't do this with such a ridiculous old thing sitting right there.  After she overhears this hurtful comment, Miss Brill is faced with the knowledge that she is actually just one more tragic character in this "play" of life, not the carefree audience member she saw herself as being.  She doesn't say so, but she understands that she is one of the lonely actors. 

Being part of this show does not mean she is no longer isolated; instead, it means she now recognizes her tragic isolation in a way she never did before.  Her time of blissful ignorance is over.  She follows her usual routine on the way home, but it is a joyless journey.  She stops at the bakery, where the small delight of an almond on her pastry once gave her joy, but no longer.  She arrives at the house and puts her ermine torque back in the box, and she hears it crying.  What she hears, of course, is the sound of her own tears.  The visual of being returned to a box, of coming back home to her "cupboard," highlights her isolation from the joys and delights of the world.  Miss Brill's eyes have been opened to her own isolation and she weeps.

I've added an excellent e-notes link below for even more ideas. 

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