The Garden Party and Other Stories is a collection of short stories previously published in periodicals. The first edition came out in 1922, by which time Mansfield's health was on the decline. Mansfield's short stories are considered to exemplify and perfect many of the distinctive features of modernist fiction writing.
At the Bay consists of impressionistic snippets of family life by Crescent Bay. It begins with the early morning, the misty bay, sheep plodding along, and a shepherd and his dog. In one of the bungalows, Stanley Joseph Burnell runs out for a swim and is disappointed when Jonathan is there before him. Stanley is a regimented, "practical" man and Jonathan is much more free-spirited. Stanley goes back home and is in such a rush to get to work that he doesn't have time to say goodbye to the women. He expects them to all help him get out the door, and resents them for not doing enough. When he leaves, the women are relieved. The children, Kezia, Lottie, and Isabel run out to play with their cousins Rag and Pip. Pip has found an "nemeral" in the sand and shows it to the girls. Beryl, sister to Linda, Stanley's wife, joins a Mrs. Kember at the beach, whom her mother and many other people in the town disapprove of. Mrs. Kember is married to a man ten years younger to her, and likes to skirt improprieties. Beryl is shy as she changes in front of Mrs. Kember, who remarks on her beauty. Back at the Bungalow, Linda is alone. She thinks back to living with her father in Tasmania, on how Stanley is actually very soft-hearted and simple beneath his outer shell, and on how she doesn't love her children. A kind of conversation is exchanged between Linda and her little son in which it isn't clear what is outwardly expressed or simply thought, or imagined to be thought. In the afternoon, Kezia takes a nap with her grandma and they talk about Uncle William, who died of sunstroke working as a miner. They talk also of death, and Kezia tries to get her grandma to promise never to die. Alice, the servant, goes to visit Mrs. Stubbs at her shop, looking over some pictures of Mrs. Stubbs's late husband. Back at the house, the children play a card game in the warehouse, pretending that they are each an animal. Uncle Jonathan comes to pick up the boys, Pip and Rag, and speaks briefly to Linda, confessing that he hates his job and feels like an insect that keeps flying into a room and dashing itself between the walls. Linda appreciates his free-spiritedness, but knows that he will never be as reliable as Stanley. When Stanley returns home, he is apologetic about having not said goodbye to Linda; he has also bought some gloves for himself. She tells him it is okay, and tries on one of his gloves. At night, Beryl thinks about her desire for a lover, to not be lonely growing old. Harry Kember, Mrs. Kember's husband, turns up in the garden and asks her to go on a walk with him. She is torn and goes out at first, but then realizing that he is drunk, she runs away. The story closes with an image of the bay at night.
The Garden Party tells of a garden party given by a well-off family, the Sheridans. The story opens describing the ideal weather, the setting up of a marquee, and food preparations; the narration generally focalizes the thoughts of Laura Sheridan, one of the grown children of Mr. and Mrs. Sheridan. Laura fetishizes the working class men who set up the marquee, thinking to herself that class distinctions were "absurd" and ascribing to them a simple, naturalistic, and sincere existence which she would so much prefer to the "silly boys she danced with." In the midst of the preparations, they hear that a man who lived in one of the working-class cottages nearby had been thrown off of his horse and killed when the horse shied at a traction-engine. He had left behind a wife and half a dozen children. Laura thinks that they should perhaps stop the party; her sister Jose and her mother call her "extravagant" (ironically), sentimental, and lacking in common sense. Sympathy is a matter of proximity--of class, and of physical distance: after Mrs. Sheridan hears that the death isn't in the garden, she breathes a sigh of relief. The garden party goes on with great success. Afterwards, Mrs. Sheridan decides that it might be nice to send over a basket to the widow, and she lets Laura go over to the cottages. Faced with the reality of actually interacting with working class in the intimacy of their everyday living, Laura is deeply uncomfortable. The woman is ugly, puffed up, swollen, and red. Laura drops off her burden, and prepares to leave immediately, but manages to get a glance at the corpse, which, unexpectedly, she finds rather beautiful in its repose. She cries. On her way back, she is intercepted by her brother Laurie and the two of them can't find the words to express life: "'Isn't life,' she stammered," to which Laurie replies, "'Isn't it, darling?'
Daughters of the Late Colonel details the daily life of Josephine and Constantia, the two daughters of a tyrannical colonel who has just died. The two women have never married, and though they are unable to express the anguish of their limited living, it is apparent from their snippets of conversation. They are deeply afraid to settle their father's things, or to bury him in the ground. One of them even imagines their father inhabiting his clothing drawers. Small decisions like whether to keep the nurse or maid around, if they should wear black dressing gowns in addition to the black they wear out, or whom they should bestow their father's watch to become nerve-wracking ones for the two women. At the end of the story, Constantia recalls how she felt like she was living a more real life whenever she would creep out of her nightgown to see the moon and then thinks she has something "frightfully important" to say to Josephine. She forgets what this is mid-sentence, and Josephine says she has forgotten too what she has had to say.
Mr. and Mrs. Dove is a short scene in which Reggie, a man living with his overbearing mother, goes out to see the girl he loves, Anne, the last night before he is to leave for Rhodesia. Anne always laughs in his presence, even if nothing is particularly funny. Reggie is about to be rather sentimental about leaving her, but Anne snubs him by telling him to watch some doves outside. She describes how Mrs. Dove runs away laughing at Mr. Dove, but Mr. Dove keeps following her. This is an allegory for how she views their interactions. She explains this to him explicitly, and moreover says that she is unable to feel for him as he feels for her. Reggie turns to go and says he'll be able to take it if she lets him go, but, feeling badly because she is selfish and can't bear to be the reason for his loneliness in Rhodesia, she calls him back and he comes.
The Young Girl is a brief sketch of a seventeen-year old girl at a casino with her gambling mother. The mother wants to take her into the casino and leaves her little brother, Hennie, with the first-person narrator (a care-taker?). The young girl is very rude and dismissive towards her mother and has no interest in trying to get into the casino. Since she isn't twenty-one, she ends up having to spend time with the narrator and Hennie. They go sit somewhere, eating pastries, drinking tea, and chocolate. They go back to meet her mother, who, not surprisingly, is not ready for them. The narrator asks if the girl will stay in the car but she said she'd rather wait on the steps. She gives the most sincere, broken speech yet: "I love waiting! Really--really I do! I'm always waiting--in all kinds of places..." The narrator describes her "soft young body in the blue dress" at that moment as like a "flower emerging from its dark bud."
Life of Ma Parker is about the "hard life" of Ma Parker, who waits on an oblivious "literary gentleman." She has just buried her young grandson. The gentleman has had to "do" by himself for a week, and the kitchen which Ma Parker come back to is an atrocious mess. The gentleman, however, has thought that he has gotten along fine and that people made too much of "housekeeping." Ma Parker reflects on how she has never had a break, burying her husband, seven of her children, and now her grandson. She wishes to go somewhere, finally, to cry, but there is nowhere she can go--in most places she will be watched or questioned, the literary gentleman's house was not her space. The story ends with her standing in the rain.
Marriage A La Mode is about an estranged marriage between William and Isabel. William goes weekly to work in London; from the papers he reads on his train trip home, it seems he is a lawyer. On one particular weekend on his way back from London, William decides to buy fruit for his children because the last few times he has gotten them candy from the train station and they had gotten bored with the same gift. On the train back, William can't focus on anything except his idealized vision of what Isabel will be like at the station. When he gets there, Isabel meets him with a taxi full of her artist friends. Their conversation is full of banter, allusions, and vanities. Back at the house, Isabel and her friends ignore William and he even overhears some dismissive remarks they make about him. Soon, the weekend is over and he is to go back to London again. William decides to write Isabel a long, sentimental letter while in London. Isabel receives this letter and reads parts of it aloud to her artist friends, who, of course, ridicule William for his sentimentality. Isabel runs up to her room, and thinks to respond to him, but when she tries, she finds it is too hard and goes back out to join her friends.
The Voyage is the story of a young woman, Fenella, accompanied by her grandmother on a Picton boat taking her away from her father. It is evident that some kind of tragedy has happened involving her mother, but what it is isn't fully revealed by the snippets of dialogue. Her father sends them off for the voyage (he is clearly emotionally strained) and on the other side, they are picked up by a carriage and taken to the house of her grandmother and grandfather.
Miss Brill wears a fur animal around her neck to a weekly Sunday band performance. She goes to this performance every Sunday, reveling in people watching. As she takes great pleasure in thinking about people's lives as performance, she realizes that she too is an "actress" in this great drama of life. She is elated nearly to tears by her realization. A young boy and a girl sit next to her, and they make remarks about Miss Brill's faded looks and her ugly fur. Back at home, Miss Brill lays her fur to rest in a box and imagines that the creature sadly crying in there.
Her First Ball tells of Leila (the country cousin of the Sheridan children of "The Garden Party") at her first ball in the city. The story opens with Leila in a cab with her cousins, feeling jealous of Laura having a brother, and of their sophistication more generally. At the ball, Leila is whirled up into dancing, hardly knowing who any of her partners were. At one point she dances with an old, fat man, who disturbingly communicates to her a vision of herself growing old and watching the young women dance before long, while thinking vapid thoughts about the attention her young daughter is getting. Leila feels disturbed for a moment, but soon forgets him in the whirl of continued dancing.
The Singing Lesson intersperses the telling of Miss Meadow's singing lesson to her girl students and her distraught thoughts on a letter she had recently gotten from her lover breaking off their engagement. As she forces her pupils to sing a melancholy song, she rehearses snippets of the letter in her head, including a particularly cringeworthy line in which he had said he couldn't imagine marrying her without a sense of regret. She had noted that he had rubbed out the word "disgust" before replacing it with regret. Miss Meadow is totally unaware of the strain that she puts on her pupils as a result of her own feelings. The lesson is interrupted by a telegram from her lover saying that she should ignore his last letter. Miss Meadow's mood is immediately uplifted, and she returns to her pupils demanding that they sing mirthful lines with joyful feeling.
The Stranger opens with Mr. Hammond waiting with a crowd on the wharf for the arrival of his wife aboard an approaching ship. Mrs. Hammond had been abroad in Europe visiting their eldest girl who had just married. Mr. Hammond is extremely anxious and cannot wait to be alone with his wife, but when she finally gets off the boat, it is evident that she has made friends with everyone on it and must say goodbye to everyone individually. Mr. Hammond's impatience reveals a disturbing possessiveness; he can barely stand it when she goes alone to say good-bye to a doctor. Back at the hotel he has booked so that they might have some privacy, Mrs. Hammond's first thoughts were to read letters from her children. Mr. Hammond tries to get her to be with him, together, and not think on the letters for now. Soon, she reveals that a young man on the boat has died in her arms. Mr. Hammond cannot take that she has had such an intimate moment with someone else; his thoughts burst out in broken frustration on how "She'd--who'd never--never once in all these years--never on one single solitary occasion--" but he cannot finish the thought. The story ends with these lines: "They would never be alone together again."
Bank Holiday is a very brief sketch of the various entertainments that people engage in during the bank holiday. It seems mostly like mindless consumption, and the sketch ends with a vision of a crowd going up a hill towards the sun, not knowing why or for what.
An Ideal Family refers to Old Mr. Neave's family, whom people on the outside all imagine to be perfectly "ideal." He has a beautiful and capable son, Harold, who is a suave and handsome businessman, and then there was "Charlotte and the girls." Everyone thought the girls didn't marry because they were all just so happy together. And yet, something isn't quite right--Old Neave feels like his family has moved on without him, that he is too old to share their joys.
The Lady's Maid is an unusual account in the words of a lady's maid, Ellen, who is being asked questions by a new madame that she serves. The madame's questions are not given--only Ellen's responses.
Overall, Mansfield's modernist style is characterized by abrupt narrative breaks, snippets of vivid impressions, fragmented dialogue, and fluid boundaries between narration and the inner thoughts of her characters. These aspects of her writing allow readers an encounter with people and places which bears resemblance to how one lives life everyday. To explain this further, one of the recurring formal features of Mansfield's short stories is how she launches the reader into the story in such a way that it takes a while for the reader to feel oriented. It is usually unclear how the people that have been introduced are connected to one another, and even the impressionistic descriptions of the setting resist any sense of specific, geographical placement. This is how Mansfield suggests we experience everyday life; the stories become apparent to us only through our gradual apprehension of our confusing surroundings and our slow construction of relationships and causality. Relatedly, conversation in Mansfield's stories is often stilted or fragmentary, stylistically calling attention to the stilted and fragmentary experience of life as it is being lived. Her stories feel temporally concerned with the present, narrative often flitting in and out of characters's thoughts as they are having them in the moment--even if the thoughts are retrospective, they rarely reveal completely coherent life histories (as flitting memories rarely do as we experience them).
A distinguishing feature of Mansfield's "modernism" (as opposed to "postmodernism") is how her characters, despite being unable to express their deep suffering or their "real feelings" under the surfaces of the everyday lives, seem to evince that they do feel deeply a kind of "greater" and existence. Laura and Laurie's exchange at the end of "The Garden Party" is the perfect example of how characters who have generally shown themselves incapable of feeling anything beyond a false, sentimental sympathy at best actually feel that there is something to life which they cannot express with the language available to them. There are numerous other examples where inexpressibility actually marks the boundary between characters acting out their expected, scripted social roles and their existence beyond these roles. This latter kind of existence is in what Josephine and Constantia "forget" to say to each other about their suffering, in the young girl's broken speech about waiting, Isabel's inability to write to William, Mr. Hammond's broken thoughts on the inadequacy of intimacy in his marriage, Ma Parker's inability to find a place where she can cry, and Ellen (the lady's maid) saying that she will prevent herself from thinking about the marriage which she had given up in order to serve the lady. These moments of inexpressibility, rather than frustrate access to life's depths, actually call attention to them (unlike in postmodernism, which tends more to use language to call attention to inaccessibility or absence of life's depths).