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The Development of Katherine Mansfield’s First-Person Narratives

From: Journal of Narrative Theory
Volume 42, Number 2, Summer 2012
pp. 149-165 | 10.1353/jnt.2012.0003

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In narrative terms, the transition from Victorian tale to modern short story in Anglophone literature has often been characterized as a movement from ‘telling’ to ‘showing.’ Anthony Alpers refers to this development as “getting rid of the narrator” (The Life 238), while Clare Hanson describes it as moving “from ‘teller’ to indirect free narration, and from ‘tale’ to ‘text,’” as part of a larger shift from “‘discourse’ to ‘image’ in the art and literature of the period” (1). In the nineteenth-century tale, indeed, a first-person narrator—often a polished version of the author (Shaw 114–15)—guides the reader through the story, guaranteeing its authenticity and providing a certain moral framework. The hallmark of most nineteenth-century tales, this narrative mode is reminiscent of the tale’s origins in communal, oral storytelling traditions. A desire to question narrative authority and remove the teller gradually from the tale characterizes the so-called modern short story, the origins of which—at least in Britain—are usually traced to the 1880s. Early experiments with this other narrative mode, in which focalization alternates with narration,1 can be found in the proto-impressionist psychological sketches of George Egerton, Hubert Crackanthorpe, Ella D’Arcy, and Ernest Dowson (Korte 103–107; Malcolm and Malcolm 12–13). Yet only with the figural narration of James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and—especially—Katherine Mansfield does the modern short story really come into its own. In such a story, the narrator virtually disappears behind the characters’ voice and inner consciousness, mostly rendered through free indirect discourse. In the absence of a narrator to guide, instruct, or communicate with the reader, the emphasis invariably shifts from plot and (moral) message to suggestion, symbolism, and mood. This modernist development in the shaping of the short story, in which Mansfield played a crucial role (Dunn 202, Van Gunsteren 108–115), became especially influential, to the extent that focalization, interior monologue, symbolism, epiphany, and slice-of-life are still among the defining features of the short story today.

Nevertheless, this general development should not make us forget that proto-modernist and modernist writers also adopted other narrative modes to turn the moralizing and plot-bound Victorian tale into a literary form suited to the modern age and its aesthetics. Indeed, several writers experimented with first-person narration, the reigning mode of the nineteenth-century tale: Rudyard Kipling introduced uncertainty and ellipsis in his otherwise traditional and plot-bound first-person narratives; Joseph Conrad undermined narrative authority by multiplying his narrators and narrative frames; and Virginia Woolf staged excessively hesitant and self-reflexive narrators in stories such as “An Unfinished Novel,” “The Mark on the Wall,” or “The Lady in the Looking-Glass.” Mansfield’s short fiction contains a surprising number of first-person narratives as well—surprising, because her short stories are, like those of Joyce, often cited as textbook examples of free indirect discourse and focalization. Moreover, in the span of her short career, Mansfield’s first-person narratives undergo a considerable alteration: from satirical and autobiographical first-person narration to a subtle and highly flexible narrative form that perfectly realizes her poetics of impassioned objectivity and cultivation of an intensely felt impersonal style (Head 110; Coelsch-Foisner 98–99). Mansfield’s short fiction thus shows that the short story’s movement from telling to showing need not involve the extinction of the narrative ‘I.’

The “Vignettes” and other prose poems that Mansfield wrote and, to some extent published, in 1907 are the first texts in which an ‘I’ appears. Yet because of their poetical quality (they are collected in Vincent O’Sullivan’s edition of Mansfield’s poetry) and relative absence of narrative development, their ‘I’ resembles more the ‘I’ of lyrical poetry than that of an actual first-person narrator. As in lyrical poetry, moreover, the speaker seems quite close to the actual author. Several small details suggest this connection: “Vignette III” alludes to Mansfield’s cello, and “Vere” in “Westminster Cathedral” and “Carlotta” in “Summer in Winter” refer to actual persons (86). In general, the “Vignettes” revolve around small anecdotes set recognizably either in London (the Mews and Westminster Cathedral) or in Wellington (the Botanical Gardens and the...

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