Tuesday, 22 January 2013


In literature ‘image’ has a general sense of how a writer manages to make a picture, or sound, or taste or touch, come clearly into the reader’s mind.[1]   Katherine Mansfield does this often.  In Miss Brill she makes us ‘see’ the conductor waving his arms about like a rooster.  In An Indiscreet Journey she makes us see the momentary carriage that ‘flung’ past the window, or the soldier suffering from gas wounds in the café.   We can all think of images from our reading, the theatrical image of Hamlet holding the skull,  the ghosts of the sailors rising up in The Ancient Mariner,  that rock seeming to glare down on Wordsworth when he’s stolen the boat,  T S Eliot’s image of ‘the pleasant whining of a mandolin’ from inside a London pub.

These are all more or less ‘local effects’.  But in the early twentieth century writers – mainly but not exclusively poets -  began to use the image in a more central way.  The Imagist poets wanted a poem to in some way hinge on the image.   Their movement, ‘Imagism’ [2]was in part influenced by Japanese poets who did this.  The idea was that the image is presented not just as a representation and evocation of what it stands for but as a way of making the writer think and feel beyond the immediate thing represented.     Katherine Mansfield, of course, know some figures in the imagist movement, for example T S Eliot and (to an extent) D H Lawrence (think of the image of the child sitting under the piano listening to his mother playing, an image of memory).   

And although the movement was mainly one of poets at that time, we can see aspects of imagism in the stories of Chekhov where he leaves the story as it were ‘in the air’ for us to complete in our minds.   Or in Maupassant the image of the necklace is not just an element in the plot of the story The Necklace, but also a summing up of the whole theme of the ‘artificial’.

You can see how the image is used structurally and ‘semantically’ in Katherine Mansfield if you think about the fur in Miss Brill.    It is a visual image in itself, of course, as (depending on your point of view) a little rascal or a fried whiting, but at the end when it seems to cry from inside its box,  Mansfield does not go on to explain what she means by that.  We are left with the reverberations in our own minds.  And indeed questions.  Has she simply given up?  In other words is the fur her own self-respect?   Or has she simply packed away the nasty experience she’s had and used it as a kind of scapegoat, still unable to face her own loneliness?  

In Je ne Parle pas Français,  the nickname ‘Mouse’ is used not just to give a picture of the retiring languageless girl, but also to contrast with the ‘cat’ of a Madam.  The sleazy bar at the end has two images of other women, the (alleged) virgin which the narrator is offering the old man, and the fat  Madam whom he almost wants to sleep with, but whom he suspects, under the surface is covered in ugly moles.    But his inability of get involved with anyone perhaps also makes him a kind of grotesque ‘virgin’.     And beyond that, how far is the sum of the images we get of the narrator a composite image, not just of a vain harmed young man, but of the writer’s position as such?   James Joyce’s young writer, Stephen Daedelus thinks of the writer as detached from the nitty gritty of experience, pairing his fingernails.   But then, what does that imply?  But then Joyce is not condoning the kind of superficiality of Mansfield’s hero when he writes, from the point of view of young Stephen,

'The artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.''

[1] At least that’s how I understand it.  You’ll find lots of different definitions, of course. 
[2] If you’re interested in the theory there’s a sort of ‘manifesto’ in Ezra Pound’s “A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste”.

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