On Katherine Mansfield’s ‘Prelude’
It’s got the same ‘array’ structure, based loosely on natural time rather than narrative direction. The story’s in ‘cells’ and each of these focuses on one or two characters, often in interaction. They are almost but never quite revealed, but beyond the move to the country, there’s no narrative development. The story follows the sequence of the days, beginning on the evening of the move and then moving through the next few days with shifts of focus on different characters, usually in pairs or small groups. The lack of narrative makes it more like the kind a poet’s ‘sequence’.
All the characters are fretful in some way except for Stanley who is mainly full of himself as having made the purchase, though even he has an insecurity about ‘home’, if everything is going to be ‘all right’ when he gets there.
What is it a ‘prelude’ to? A new life as such, or at least a new setting, a new place with the same hangups.
Linda is always disabled and can’t make decisions. At first she seems like the traditional ‘ neurotic’ woman with partly imaginary ailments, sitting around being indecisive and doing nothing. She fears childbirth (hinted) hates parts of Stanley and loves others. She also has fantasies and escape, flying away and leaving them all. The dream of a soft fluffy bird gradually enlarging could by pregnancy, or equally orgasm. She dreams of things swelling up. The aloe suggests escape sometimes, sometimes danger and her own inner hardness. Its seldom flowering perhaps suggests a scarceness of human fulfilment When she visits it with her mother when Stanley and Beryl are playing crib, she thinks ‘I shall remember it long after I’ve forgotten all the other things.’ – the language of someone who will be going away. And indeed the aloe suggests a kind of ship on which she can float away from it all. She notices the buds. It’s possibly going to flower this year, her mother says. Linda feels it coming towards them. And the hardness of the aloe draws her into an empathy.
‘Looking at it from below she could see the long sharp thorns that edged the aloe leaves, and at the sight of them her heart grew hard. . . . She particularly like the long sharp thorns. . . . Nobody could come near the ship or to follow after.
“Not even my Newfoundland dog,” thought she, “ that I’m so fond of in the daytime.”
This is Stanley, who would be fine if he weren’t so dog-like and didn’t ‘rush at her’(in the night time). We remember Kezia asking the difference between a sheep and a ram, and Pat telling her that rams rush at you, and how Kezia too dislikes things that rush at her. Kezia, like her mother, has fears of an IT following her, a threat. Her IT corresponds to Linda’s THEY always in the house somewhere.
Linda feels “You are killing me.” And it’s not clear if this is literally true, if her pregnancies are really so harmful.
Then she thinks it ‘mania’ to keep alive at all. Sounds like depression? This wish to escape perhaps through the aloe ship of death is comparable Beryl’s feeling of being imprisoned and not alive at all, but also of wishing to escape with a rich man who’ll see her beauty.
Stanley is presented as mainly without sensitivity, and narrowly macho competitive. He sees the house as a good bargain, dirt cheap, a symbol of his own cleverness. He does his near naked exercises insufferably, talks about himself, not her, to Linda, mainly ignores the children, casually orders Mrs Fairfield about like a servant. Thinks of friends coming over for tennis, gain as social one-upmanship. He longs for a son, where there’s a space at the table. Stanley’s vulnerability is in his close relationship to Linda whom he needs as someone to please and to listen to, witness, him. He bores her with his office talk, and she finds him slightly ridiculous with his exercises and macho posturing.
Mrs Fairfield does everything in the house, is selfless, practical, non-reflective beyond here and now, perhaps because old. Her bond with Kezia is clear but not accented as in The Bay. She makes a pair with Kezia as being the only other generous soul in the story. She doesn’t resent being a housekeeper, getting orders from Stanley, and so on, and she seems to merge into the house and its furniture with a kind of belonging none of the others have. Kezia’s love for her is hinted at her but not developed as it is in The Bay.
Beryl is very bitter and narcissistic in the mirror all the time, but trapped in spinsterhood for lack of money, though seems to fancy Stanley. She’s hurt when he fails to praise her for all her hard work (he thinking she resents his not helping more) She thinks of her two selves, but even the real one seems narcissistic. She sings about the house to give an impression of happiness, but on her own she’s the opposite. She’s lost in herself. She’s snobbish about imaginary suitors and situations and to the maid, a good match or at least companion for Stanley.
Kezia comes out most clearly when she’s horrified at the ducks’ decapitation. Mansfield makes the children all mad with excitement first at the headless ‘steam engine’, which perhaps they all are, and then Kezia sees the horror and wants the head impossibly put back on. She also has thoughts about the aloe, and has fear of an IT following her perhaps like death, or just childlike fear. In both she echoes her mother. She’s trusted by her grandmother to carry the lamp, symbolic as in The Doll’s House, perhaps.
Isabel is dictatorial, and manipulative, trying to ingratiate herself with the adults and get the younger sisters into trouble. Controlling. She and Lottie are not that well developed, though Lottie’s deception about the strawberries and cream is telling.
The Trouts and Joseph Samuels are on the edge of things, but don’t come into it much, not as much as they do in The Bay. As also Pat who is thought ‘first rate’ by Stanley, and who kills the duck.
SOME QUESTIONS ABOUT ‘PRELUDE’
1 What happens? What is different at the end?
2 What is all this a ‘prelude’ to?
3 What themes run through the story:
· fear of the future?
· being imprisoned?
· power and powerlessness?
· domestic and dream lives?
· children, generations?
· destructiveness of power, wealth
4 Is there a main character?
5 What do these images suggest thematically?
· the aloe
· the headless duck
· IT and THEY
· swelling up