Katherine Mansfield suggests several clues to Miss Brill’s mental status as well as her social portrait by applying different narrative styles to the short story, Miss Brill. The narrator describes his/her surroundings and Miss Brill’s way of thinking also, so that the narrator can be identified with Miss Brill. This identification vests readers with validity to reason that the changes in narrator’s tone, selective sensory perceptions, and other clues would play a crucial role to analyze Miss Brill’s psychology. Here are some possible interpretations based upon textual evidences.
First, Miss Brill has a great ability to describe the objects she observes from her “special” seat(pp.231). She seems to be proud of her voyeuristic observations in the sentence, “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.”(pp.231). She regards her quality of ‘not being noticed’ is her specialty. Overhearing other people’s conversation means not being actively involved in the events such as not getting out of one’s comfort zone. The young couple’s conversation is based on their observation of ‘Miss Brill’. Her unilateral voyeurism is disturbed by the young couple and therefore, loses her specialty of being unique “expert”(pp.231) in observing. The whole process of Miss Brill’s peeping and her reaction to ‘being peeped’ implies that she is voyeuristic in some degree.
Second, Miss Brill’s dissatisfaction separates and isolates her from the outer space. She does not have anyone to hear “ma petite cherie”(pp.233) from. Her life is not intensely exciting that even “an almond [inside a slice of honeycake]”(pp.233) can be considered as “a tiny present”(pp.233). There is nothing much to attract Miss Brill to her daily life. This is why she sees other characters as substances with certain colours or animals as opposed to humans. If she does not take others as humans, how could she understand them? The narrator – or disguised Miss Brill – reveals the sense of distance as a result which she cannot make up:
Something low, that scarcely rose or fell, something so beautiful – moving…. And Miss Brill’s eyes filled with tears and she looked smiling at all the other members of the company. Yes, we understand, she thought – though what they understand she didn’t know.
She cannot be one of “we”(pp.233). The distance she keeps and the consequences of it make Miss Brill more difficult to settle in the society. She puts herself into the “cupboard”(pp.233) just as she puts her fur into “the box”(pp.233).
Third, Miss Brill’s escapism to her “cupboard” induces her autistic behavior. Her deliberate indifference originated from her unwillingness to accept the reality, stimulates her imagination. Her imagination is almost the only thing she controls without risking anything. She imagines herself as an actress in the following sentences: “It was like a play. … And Miss Brill smoothed the newspaper as though it were the manuscript of her part and said gently: “Yes, I have been an actress for a long time.””(pp.232) This is not a positive either passionate way to solve her maladjustment problem. It rather causes a doubt whether she should follow her mind or not because her decision is founded upon an actress’s acting which has no validity in reality. She constantly tries to clarify her mental status or her own description by making a denial of the statement. The statement of hers is similar to Mr. Stevens’ in Remains of the Day. For example, she adds “no, not sad, exactly – something gentle seemed to move in her bosom”(pp.231) to her previous notion “something light and sad”(pp.231).
Miss Brill’s pattern of self-disapproval can lead to autism if it is deepen. There is no conversation between Miss Brill and other characters but only her monologue over the story. The struggle between her multiple personalities are hidden beneath her pretence usually, but the reveal of oppression bursts when there is a stimulus strong enough to damage her deception. The moment is described at the end of the story when Miss Brill has to face with reality: “She sat there for a long time. The box that the fur came out of was on the bed. She unclasped the necklet quickly; quickly, without looking, laid it inside. But when she put the lid on she thought she heard something crying.”(pp.233) The narrative style is noticeably different from the tone of the former part. The tone used in the sentences “Oh, how sweet it was to see them snap at her again from the red eiderdown!”(pp.231) and “she lifted her head and smiled”(pp.231) seems to be another narrator’s voice. The reason that she has “been an actress for a long time”(pp.232) brings her the manic-depressive behavior.
Roberts, Edgar V. Writing about Literature. Brief 11th edition. Pearson Education. New Jersey, 2005.
To read the full text of Miss Brill by Katherin Mansfield, click the link below.