In the main aims of modernist literature was

‘The Collected Stories of Katherine Mansfield’ and James Joyce’s ‘Dubliners’ both
authors employ similar techniques to convey a recurring theme of entrapment.
Modernist literature emerged before and after the First World War, the
production of Joyce and Mansfield’s stories occurred when modernism reached its
height in Europe between 1900 and mid 1920s. Mansfield was regarded, at first,
as a minor figure in the evolution of modernist writers, whereas Joyce’s work,
predominantly ‘Ulysees’ had a wide influence as part of the modernist movement.
One of the main aims of modernist literature was to challenge and criticize
aspects of society. In both texts, the majority of the characters seem to be
limited or restrained by boundaries and confinements created by the environment
around them. Both authors skilfully use the short story form to condense their contemporary
outlooks on human existence and life’s obstacles – particularly through use of
epiphany and stream of consciousness to communicate flashes of revelation and
unconventional attitudes; the short story form allows Mansfield and Joyce to
convey their critiques and societal standpoints in a concise, effective and
enlightening way. Criticism of society, in particular the repression engendered
in roles of men and women, is evident in both authors’ works.

            In Mansfield’s ‘Frau Brechenmacher Attends
A Wedding’, the Frau is portrayed in a very submissive role in relation to her
husband; at the time the story was written subservience of married women would
have been considered a societal norm. The omniscient third person narration of
the story highlights the role that the Frau is confined to, and it is clear
that an unspoken hierarchy persists throughout the narrative, even in their
physical behaviour: “Herr Brechenmacher strode ahead, she stumbled after him.”
Mansfield makes it clear that the Frau is of a lesser importance to her husband
and has no real sense of identity beyond their marriage. In Bobby Seal’s
article: ‘Gender, Truth and Reality’ he comments on Mansfield’s collected
stories: 1″Katherine
Mansfield’s writings suggest a sense of personal truth; a subjective truth
based on female experience in society where women were still marginalised.”
This marginalisation of women is evident at the wedding Frau Brechenmacher
attends – the wedding setting allows Mansfield to convey the nature of early
1900s society and reinforces the harsh reality that the Brechenmachers’
relationship was not at all unusual and the majority of females were similarly
trapped in the conventional role of submission and compliance in their
relationships with men. Mansfield’s description of the bride at the wedding: “…
giving her the appearance of an iced cake all ready to be cut up and served in
neat little pieces to the bridegroom beside her,” further reinforces the
traditional objectification of women prevalent during this period, that women
merely existed to fulfil the role of serving and satisfying their husbands. By
comparing the bride to an ‘iced cake’ she is presented as an inanimate object –
this association perhaps enlightens the reader to Mansfield’s critique of men
and society’s treatment and entrapment of women. Mansfield shows that the Frau,
subconsciously, even negatively influences her daughter through passing on
roles of compliance and subservience, “Rosa, give your father the towel.” The
encouragement of Rosa to serve her father implies a perpetuation of the
inequality and emphasizes a sense of an ingrained peripheral female role. Mansfield
ends the story with a disturbing image as the Frau “… lay down on the bed and
put her arm across her face like a child who expected to be hurt, as Herr
Brechenmacher lurched in.” This leaves the reader with the distressing
realisation that the Frau’s reluctant submission reflects her complete
imprisonment within her marriage. She appears helpless under the dominance of
her husband. Mansfield alludes to no sign of hope that the Frau will ever
escape her controlled and confined existence until society revolutionizes.

            In Mansfield’s ‘Bliss’, conformity
and repression are similarly explored through the character of Bertha Young.
Mansfield makes it clear that Bertha feels heavily restrained by societal
expectation: “Oh, is there no way you can express it without being ‘drunk and
disorderly?’ How idiotic civilisation is! Why be given a body if you have to
shut it up in a case like a rare, rare fiddle?” In this outburst, the use of
rhetorical questions conveys Bertha’s sense of frustration. Bertha’s comparison
of her body to the fiddle is similar to the comparison of the bride with an
iced cake in ‘Frau Brechenmacher Attends A Wedding’. Here Mansfield emphasizes
both physical and mental entrapment of women in marital relationships,
highlighting the way they are forced to suppress their true feelings and
emotions. Mansfield presents Bertha’s happiness as somewhat forced and unnatural:
“I’m too happy – too happy” this emphasizes the way constraints of the 1900s
society have forced people into faking feelings to fit in to social standards
and expectations, In the article ‘A Woman Of Words’, Gill Thompson focuses on
the effectiveness of Mansfield’s use of literary technique to convey this
subtle pretence of feelings, he comments: 2″Bertha
Young’s bliss is built on falsehood and it is Mansfield’s careful placing of
one word that points us to this.” We see that Bertha’s relationship with
her husband is somewhat detached when she reveals he cannot ‘sexually satisfy
her’. Similar to Frau Brechenmacher, Bertha is trapped in a subservient role;
Mansfield highlights this through her eagerness to keep her husband happy: “When
he looked up at her and said: ‘Bertha this is a very admirable soufflé!’ she
almost could have wept with child-like pleasure.” Bertha’s reaction to her
husband’s praise could indicate that this display of affection is rare and she
is desperate to keep him satisfied. Mansfield also emphasizes Bertha’s
repression of her true feelings through her intense longing for Pearl Fulton.
The idea of a woman desiring another woman would have been a controversial
issue in that time period. This idea of repressed sexuality could signify
Bertha’s dissatisfaction and unhappiness within her marriage, her entrapment
within her conventional role in society debilitates her from expressing her
true desires. Another perception could be that Bertha’s infatuation with Pearl
Fulton could be a consequence of her longing for some sense of self-worth and
attention that her husband for the most part fails to provide – it could also
be said to parallel with Katherine Mansfield’s own ‘brief, intense’ friendship
with Virginia Woolf.

            In Joyce’s ‘Eveline’ he explores the
impact of limitation caused by a patriarchal society in Dublin and how this
entrapment limits the growth and advancement of individuals. Joyce expresses
the struggle to break free from the traditional role as a woman through
Eveline’s reluctance to flee her unfulfilled life: “It was hard work – a hard
life – but now that she was about to leave it she did not find it a wholly
undesirable life.” Even though she has been offered a chance of freedom and
escape, she lacks the confidence to break away from her laborious and habitual
environment, this lack of confidence is again highlighted by Joyce through
Eveline’s reliance on the opinions of others to validate the way she lives her
life: “She would be married – she, Eveline. People would treat her with respect
then. She would not be treated as her mother had been.” Eveline’s association
of marriage with respect indicates her inability, or fear, of taking charge of
her own life and she has become unconsciously trapped and burdened by the ideals
of society. Similarly, to Bertha Young in Mansfield’s ‘Bliss’ Eveline becomes
temporarily overcome by a frustration and rebellion against convention: “She
stood up in a sudden impulse of terror. Escape! She must escape! … She wanted to
live.” In Eleanor McBride’s article: ‘How James Joyce’s Dubliners heralded the
urban era’ she observes: 3″…
in these stop-motion moments of epiphany that Joyce shows benevolence to his
city and its inhabitants. The Dubliners are permitted, usually through a chain
of minute occurrences, to come, briefly, to a crux of personal revelation and
self-recognition.” It is clear through this passing epiphany Joyce reinforces
the idea of women being oppressed and unheard in society and enlightens the
reader to the feelings Eveline has been forced to suppress.

            In contrast, Joyce presents
entrapment through a male perspective in ‘A Little Cloud’ where Dublin is
presented as a restricting force against Little Chandler. At the time
‘Dubliners’ was set, Ireland had become poverty stricken as a result of its oppression
under British colonialism. Joyce highlights that, as a consequence of the
oppressive Dublin society, Little Chandler feels trapped and is unable to act
upon his desires – to become a successful writer – like his friend Gallaher
has. Little Chandler’s frustration grows throughout the story, becoming
increasingly desperate and conflicted between his responsibilities to his wife
and child and the aspirations he feels unable to pursue. Through Little
Chandler’s character, Joyce expresses his own hostility towards Dublin “… if
you wanted to succeed you had to go away. You could do nothing in Dublin.” It
could be perceived that Little Chandler is in some way shifting the blame for
his own immobility and lack of courage and that in reality he is responsible
for creating his own prison within his environment. His fluctuating desires to
escape, seem to be immediately combated with his own feelings of helplessness
and worthlessness: “It was useless to struggle against fortune.” Little Chandler
never actually attempts to escape or take charge of his own life; however,
Joyce continues to blame society for Little Chandler’s lack of will power; In
his article ‘Dubliners At One Hundred’ Paul Murray comments: 4″Joyce
is careful to show the forces that have made them who they are, the exigencies
that constrict them, the disillusionments that have sapped their will to act
differently.” Joyce encourages the idea that the 1900s Dublin society is
entirely to blame for the paralysis of the characters in his work, particularly
‘A Little Cloud’ and ‘Eveline’ and they have no ability to change these
boundaries until society changes as a whole.

            Mansfield explores the impact of
restraining circumstances in ‘The Tiredness of Rosabel’ demonstrating Rosabel’s
fantasies as a form of escapism and relief from her confined existence. It is
evident poverty limits Rosabel’s freedom and happiness; the class divide
created by wealth (or lack of it) would have been very prominent during the
Edwardian era in which the story was set. Mansfield’s use of exaggeration
emphasizes Rosabel’s desperation: “she would have sacrificed her soul for a
good dinner,” Rosabel’s mundane life is further highlighted by Mansfield’s use
of the simile to describe her struggle to climb the stairs: “It was like
bicycling up a steep hill, but there was no satisfaction of flying down the
other side…” The reference to lack of satisfaction is symbolic of how Rosabel
feels her life is unsatisfactory and unfulfilling and her reluctance to ‘climb
the stairs’ also signifies that she is more comfortable using her imaginary
world as her escape as opposed to confronting the barriers that her environment
has created. The narrative fluctuates between tenses to distinguish between
Rosabel’s fantasy and reality (Mansfield uses the variety of tenses to
demonstrate the distance between Rosabel’s real world and her imaginary world) reinforcing
that the harsh reality still exists by starting a new paragraph with: “The real
Rosabel.” Alerting the reader that Rosabel’s entrapment still persists.
Rosabel’s inability to act on her desires is similar to Little Chandler’s
attitude towards his aspirations in Joyce’s ‘A Little Cloud’ where he claims it
is: “useless to struggle against fortune.”

            Responsibility for children proves
to be one of the main assigned female roles in 1900s society. This is evident
in Mansfield’s ‘Frau Brechenmacher Attends A Wedding’, we see that the Frau’s
responsibility to her ‘five babies’ confines her to a certain entrapping role,
along with her assumed responsibility as a wife. Mansfield makes it clear that
these responsibilities rarely escape the Frau’s mind: “she forgot her five
babies and her man and felt almost like a girl again.” This highlights that
enforcing the ideal of women being confined to the sole purpose of looking
after children and husband results in a loss of their own identity and
individuality, this loss of identity is again emphasized through the Frau’s
anonymity in Mansfield’s persistent reference to her without the use of her
real name, instead naming her ‘Frau Brechenmacher’ emphasizing her husband’s
ownership and control over her – she has no identity beyond him. Mansfield’s
descriptions of the Frau throughout the story present her in a juvenile sense,
describing her as ‘little Frau’ and ‘like a child’ perhaps indicate that the
Frau, herself, has not had a chance to develop and grow as an individual due to
her oppression at the hands of societal obligations she is burdened with.
Mansfield perhaps uses this as a criticism of women having babies and marrying
too young. Joyce presents a different idea of maternal responsibility in ‘The
Boarding House’ where Mrs Mooney seems to have ultimate control over her
daughter’s life: “she had taken her daughter home again and set her to do
housework.” Joyce demonstrates that Mrs Mooney creates restrictions for her own
daughter by assigning her to undertake the traditional female purpose of doing
‘housework’, this control prevents her daughter’s individual growth beyond
societal convention. Joyce presents a contrasting idea to those Mansfield
emphasizes in ‘Frau Brechenmacher Attends A Wedding’, in which a young man is
unconsciously forced into an unwanted marriage that he has little freedom to
decline. In Bridget Butler’s
article ‘Feminism in The Boarding House’ she observes that 5 “The
notion that men can use women for sex and pleasure and simply discard them when
satisfied is rejected by Mr. Doran being forced into marriage.” This reversal of the dominating gender role is
displayed through Mr. Doran’s helplessness as he desperately seeks to escape entrapment – yet his
circumstances and reliance on Mrs Mooney and the Boarding House mean he has
little control over his own future: “His instinct urged him to ascend through
the roof and fly away to another country where he would never hear again of his
trouble, and yet a force pushed him downstairs”. In Joyce’s ‘A Little Cloud’
Little Chandler’s detachment towards his child highlights how the paternal role
was always assigned to a woman, his reaction to the distress of his child sends
him into a panic and Joyce displays his irrelevance in the role of raising a
child: “He couldn’t do anything…It was useless, useless! He was a prisoner for
life.” Joyce again emphasizes his inability to take on any role that society
has not assigned him, similarly in Joyce’s ‘Eveline’ Eveline is expected to
take on the maternal role to her brothers and sisters after her mother’s death:
“she had hard work to keep the house together and to see that the two young
children who had been left to her charge went to school regularly and got their
meals regularly.” In the absence of her mother the responsibility for looking
after her younger siblings immediately falls to her without any consideration
for the desires she wishes to pursue.

            Overall Joyce and Mansfield equally
present a contemporary, controversial and critical approach of societal
entrapment during the post war period. Bringing light to the modernist movement
and the desperate need for evolution of traditional conventions. Throughout
their collections of short fiction, both authors use their characters to
vocalize their own personal judgements and beliefs, their ability to evoke
empathy through their concise story form creates awareness and enlightenment
for their readers, as well as subtly conveying and bringing an understanding to
their contemporary and ‘revolutionary’ attitudes. Although Joyce’s work solely
focuses on the city of Dublin, he uses the city as a microcosm of society and his
emphasis of confinements and limitations of individual people within the social
order is likewise reflected, through Mansfield’s Collected Stories, stressing
that unless traditional culture advances and changes civilisation will persist
entrapping and isolating people and society will never progress.


Gender, Truth and Reality: The Short Stories of Katherine Mansfield
(Seal, n.d.)

2 A
Woman Of Words by Gill Thompson – Thresholds
(Thompson, A Woman Of Words, n.d.)

How James Joyce’s Dubliners heralded the urban era by Eleanor McBride
(McBride, n.d.)

4 Dubliners
At One Hundred by Paul Murray

5 Feminism
in ‘The Boarding House’ By Bridget
Butler – Dawson English Journal (Butler, n.d.)