Thursday, July 06, 2017

"Marriage a la Mode" (1921)

Read story by Katherine Mansfield online.

Katherine Mansfield is a writer originally from New Zealand, a short story specialist later associated with D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf, and a distinctly modern voice. This story, in which no one has pie with ice cream, probes at the dynamics of a marriage growing stale with familiarity and age. William and Isabel are approaching middle age, with two children in grade school. He commutes to a job in London that is demanding, with long hours. She has recently found new friends who are shallow and foolish but fashionable. She finds herself growing apart from him. The story turns on epiphanies occasioned by William traveling to spend a day and a night with his family and Isabel's new friends. The couple has recently moved to a larger house in the countryside, which Isabel wanted. For William it has made his commute even harder, his time with his family even more limited. He is too busy with his work to give much thought to gifts for his children on his visits, and he feels guilty. When he arrives at the station, Isabel is there to get him with her friends. On the one hand he is happy she has come for him, but on the other, she is wrapped in the armor of her friends' posturing. They are a familiar type of 20th-century European upper-class wastrel, with no concerns for anyone and happy to use all who will let them. They make charming empty statements and mostly ignore William, which goes on for most of his visit. He's so disturbed by the way he's treated that he composes a letter to Isabel on the train back to the city—a searching, heartfelt letter about the state of their marriage. When it arrives, Isabel is with her friends and reads it aloud to them. "A love-letter!" they exclaim. "But how divine!" We never hear much of the letter verbatim, we just imagine what's in it based on their reactions. While her friends are hilarious, Isabel has a strange response. At first she makes fun of it with the others—she reads it to them, after all. But then she has an attack of remorse, takes the letter to her bedroom, and reflects on its gravity. She knows it's serious. She knows she must make a decision. She intends to make the recommitment to her husband. But then her friends call to her and she quickly readjusts again. She can write to William later. "And, laughing in the new way, she ran down the stairs." I love that "the new way."

Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Robert Penn Warren and Albert Erskine

1 comment:

  1. "the new way"= flapper feminism? Women outside marriage, independent, enjoying themselves, but w/ a hint of sinister danger in their actions? Anyway, keep 'em comin'. Good stuff.