Harrison Bergeron By Kurt Vonnegut English Literature Essay
Kurt Vonnegut, a prominent American writer of the 20th century, mainly worked in the genres of science fiction and satire. However, he also came to be well-known outside of the field thanks to the anti-authoritarianism of his writings and the humanitarian views expressed in them. Vonnegut himself got to live through the horrors of war when he was held captive by the German soldiers in a slaughterhouse during the World War II - an experience that later inspired at least seven of his books. The questions brought up in his short stories and novels deal with war, peace and politics. For example, his short story Harrison Bergeron discusses the issue of equality and the extent to which people are ready to go to achieve it.
The name of this story is also the name of its protagonist – an extremely intelligent, strong and handsome man who rebels against the "egalitarian" system rigidly enforced by overbearing state authority. Thus, the main character also stands as a symbol of defiance and rebellion, hence the name of the story.
The theme discussed in the story is equality, an ideal that has been advocated for by its proponents throughout several recent centuries. Yet the approach taken by Vonnegut is fundamentally different: he questions whether all kinds of equality are desirable and whether the means to its achievement might eventually come to dominate the otherwise noble ends.
The story is set in the future (year 2081) in the country that exists today - the USA. However, it is not America as we know it – in their search for equality, people have achieved a totalitarian government, disguised as evolved democracy. The reader is introduced to the story through a family couple (George and Hazel Bergeron) who are watching television in their living room and having a conversation. The reader finds out about the new system of hindrances that allow to make everyone "equal" – or equally average (in particular, the husband has a noise-making device in his ear which prevents him from thinking freely thus diminishing his exceptional intelligence). The protagonist is introduced as a fourteen year old son of the couple who was taken by the police some time ago. That is why the conflict arises: Harrison Bergeron escapes from the jail, takes off the hindrances and proclaims himself the Emperor. Thus, it is a conflict of man vs. society. The climax of the story is the dance of Harrison with a beautiful and graceful ballerina who joins in his revolt – the dance that lasts only a fleeting moment but represents the freedom this society has forfeited. It is then immediately followed by the resolution – Harrison is shot by General Diana Moon Glampers, the antagonist who represents this authoritarian society as a whole.
As mentioned before, the main character is Harrison, son of Hazel and George Bergeron. Harrison’s father is portrayed as a man of exceptional intelligence – or he would have been of one, if not for the handicapping devices he is bound to wear. Harrison has probably taken a lot after him – he is tall, smart and handsome. He is also outstandingly strong; in fact, there are just not enough weights to counterbalance his might. Therefore, he represented a particular challenge to the government because they could not manage to handicap him enough to make him average. Perhaps, that is why the escape became possible. Harrison is also a very masculine figure. Indeed, he manages to overcome the repressive system but it was not out of altruistic motives. Quite on the contrary, he immediately proclaims himself the Emperor which means that he is power-thirsty ("I am the Emperor! Everybody must do what I say at once!"). He is definitely aware of his superiority, and his arrogance is displayed in his speech ("Even as I stand here, crippled, hobbled, sickened - I am a greater ruler than any man who ever lived!"). I sensed something savage-like in him because his actions and gestures are very short and abrupt. However, he displays surprising delicacy when he touches the ballerina to take the hindrances off her, and a moment later he is shown to be able to move gracefully while dancing.
While there are no flashbacks in the story, the reader can definitely notice that sounds made by George’s ear device are harbingers of future events in the story. For example, when George starts thinking about his "abnormal son", there is a twenty-one-gun salute in his head that makes him stop thinking - later Harrison will be shot by the gun of a Handicapper General. And as the story progresses, the sounds become even more loud and alarming – at first it was just noises of a buzzer and of "somebody hitting a milk bottle with a ball peen hammer", but Harrison’s appearance on television was accompanied by the sound of an automobile collision.
The author’s tone initially seems not to be present in the story because Vonnegut writes with a very wry, dry sense of humor ("do not try to reason with him," says the news reporter upon Harrison’s escape). Vonnegut’s writing style has been influenced by his career as a journalist when he adopted a matter-of-fact and straightforward way of reporting events and telling stories. However, the reader does realize that Vonnegut admires "inequality" of looks, abilities and characters, judging from the words he uses to describe the situation. For example, Harrison is portrayed even god-like because, according to the author, Thor would have been awed by him. The ballerina is called "blindly beautiful". Vonnegut is being sarcastic about the new regime; he mocks its customs and rules: "she [the ballerina] had to apologize at once for her voice, which was a very unfair voice for a woman to use". Thus, outstanding characters are described with panegyric epithets ("warm, luminous"), while the image of adherents of the government’s policy is ugly and gloomy ("grackle squawk").
When Harrison is not present, the mood of the story is rather quiet and even sluggish, yet also depressing and gloomy at the same time. It changes completely when the main character appears on the screen: the story becomes very dynamic, and the mood changes to become more lively and tense because the reader senses the grave outcome of the story.
Symbolism is very important in the story. First of all, it is the protagonist himself – Harrison Bergeron, an unsuccessful rebel. Everything about him is asymmetric and astonishingly different thus he becomes a symbol of defiance and outbreak. Secondly, it is the bags and devices that citizens have to wear. It is not just a figure of speech that there are obstacles to their freedom, it is literal hindrance that they wear. Perhaps, it is also not a coincidence that people spend their quiet days in front of the television rather than reading books. This way television is portrayed as a tool that can be utilized to oppress people without them even realizing it.
Overall, I liked the story because sometimes I do notice similar trends in the modern society. However, I found it overly simplistic – I think that if people wanted to implement such "equality", they would find more sophisticated hindrances (for example, performing surgeries on fellow citizens to disable them rather than hanging bags full of birdshot). But it is merely a detail to the story so it should not be taken too seriously. I agree with Vonnegut that such form of equality should not be present in the society. And in general, while full and complete equality is neither possible nor desirable, it also depends on how we define it – a question that I will further explore in the subsequent essay.
What if People Were Equal?
When I finished reading Harrison Bergeron by Kurt Vonnegut, it left me wondering whether this is where society is going with its beloved idea of equality. Are we doomed to become alike and average if people were finally to become equal?
I started to think back to the origins of the concept of equality, and of course, mathematical equations came up in my mind right away. Sadly, I was thinking, in mathematics equals means the same, so unless we step away from this concept or adjust it for our purposes, that is where it will eventually lead us. Or will it? Because then I remembered that while "three plus three equals six", there are still properties and characteristics that make a clear distinction between the two. Obviously, both sides of such an equation do not look the same. Their very essence is also different – on the left side there is a sum of numbers, while on the right it is merely one digit.
So I realized that there are two streams of thought on equality when we discuss it. One of them implies equal opportunities, but the other encourages homogeneity. While both are probably unattainable, the choice of pursuing them or not will affect the progress of humankind.
If people were given access to equal opportunities, hopefully, the world would become a better place. Ironically, globalization allowed goods, capital and business know no borders, yet people who are not able to move as freely – even for the purpose of traveling, not mentioning immigration. Inequality, poverty and lack of education slow down the progress in science and research. There could be a cure for cancer trapped inside the mind of a child who might not even know what cancer is. Yet given the opportunity, he would excel in medical research and come up with ground-breaking invention. Besides, it provokes tensions between classes and/or nations, when underprivileged groups seek for alternative (oftentimes violent) means to compensate for the inequality. Perhaps, such a noble goal of providing people with equal opportunities will never be fully achieved. For example, giving equal climate conditions but should be strived for. However, it is worth striving for.
But Vonnegut showed us another, an ugly side of equality, dealing not as much with justice as with people’s envy and jealousy. Because people are born different and hence unequal, some are able to achieve certain heights thanks to their physical abilities, for example, in case with the sportsmen. Yet rather than to fulfill themselves in a field appropriate to their skills and abilities, some people choose to bring the others down. The task of achieving a complete equality is thus narrowed down to creating homogeneity and killing diversity. For those, who do not value these, the utilitarian approach should sound rational – humanity as a whole is prevented from evolving and making progress, as people’s outstanding abilities are not used to their full potential.
While I do perceive equality as an important concept in the present world, it is important to be clear on our definitions and goals. Striving to provide equal access to opportunities (and more importantly, basic human rights such as health, education, sanitary conditions, food and water) is a noble goal which will benefit humankind as a whole. Trying to "equate" everyone in every aspect will merely create a bunch of alike individuals, erasing cultural differences and diversity.
The Possibility of Evil by Shirley Jackson
Shirley Jackson was an American writer who explored the genres of mystery and horror. Her works have received increasing attention over the recent decades, and literature analysts believe that she has influenced many contemporary writers, including Stephen King. One of her short stories, The Possibility of Evil, contains many of the elements and themes present other in Jackson's works: a Gothic house, an unexpected turn in events or judgment, a sense of isolation and even depravity. Jackson’s novels and stories depict somewhat neurotic characters; some say it is because of the writer’s own unstable mental state, but most researchers agree that her works accurately portray the Cold War era society, filled with fears, suspicions, and conspiracy theories.
The title of the short story The Possibility of Evil reflects the actions of the protagonist Miss Strangeworth who is perceived as a peaceful and harmless creature; however, as the story reveals later, she is just the opposite. The title is somewhat ironic: while Ms. Strangeworth believes that evil is possible and, moreover, highly likely to occur, in fact, she herself embodies it. However, people around her are unaware of that because this characteristic is not visible behind her mask of a nice and beautiful old lady. The title is therefore linked to the main idea of the story.
The general theme raised in the story is evil and its presence in life; the main idea expressed is that evil can come from unexpected sources and that definition of it depends on personal (mis)perceptions. The story’s central premise, that ordinary humans are capable of great evil and harm, is a recurring theme in Jackson’s writing.
The story is set in a small town whose name remains unknown. Perhaps, Shirley Jackson did this intentionally as she wanted to present the universality and omnipresence of evil. On the surface, the plot is quite simple – the reader follows the main character Miss Strangeworth around the town as she goes through her daily routine. Other characters are seen through the lens of her perception, and they are introduced as she meets them during her promenade. Throughout these interactions and Ms. Strangeworth’s thoughts her character is slowly revealed, until the reader discovers her true nature. Thus the story builds up to its climax when the old lady writes and delivers her letters and accidentally drops one – this is a point of no return, Miss Strangeworth’s reputation will be inevitably destroyed. The conflict presented in the story is external; it is man vs. other people, or what the protagonist perceives as the evil in these people. Initially, Ms. Strangeworth’s fellow citizens are unaware of this ongoing struggle, but as soon as they find out the truth, they choose to revenge her for all her misdeeds, thus bringing the story to its resolution.
As mentioned before, the main character is Miss Strangeworth who at first appears respectable and trustworthy. She is an old widowed lady, who has lived in this town all her life and considers it her own. Her name is not a coincidence (antonomasia) – she is strange. Besides, her father built the first house here which gives her even more solid ground to claim ownership rights. She knows everything about her town, and she proudly admits that she has never lived anywhere else during her seventy-odd years. Through conversations with the people in her town, it is evident that Miss Strangeworth often believes that she owns the town, and has great interest in the townspeople. She also takes great pride in the orderliness of her house, as well as her family roses. She is the matriarch of the town, and she acts the part. She is hypocritical, as she stops to chat with other townspeople, she appears to be polite and caring and while she pretends to care and give advice, instead uses the secrets and assumptions to disrupt people’s lives. However, Miss Strangeworth is not such a quiet figure in her town; she often writes anonymous poison pen letters to her neighbors, which are rarely based on fact and more on what gossip she has heard during her walks down the streets. Yet she herself believes that she is fulfilling an important mission, carrying out her duty – purifying the city from the evil that disturbs people. She feels it is her civic duty to stop evil from spreading in her town, so every day she mails anonymous letters to her neighbors to keep them on the alert. It is ironic because she is the cause of the worries even though it is noble of her to act according to her beliefs. Miss Strangeworth never realizes her darkly ironic position, and when she is eventually discovered to be the source of the letters, she cannot understand why someone would do something as "evil" as destroying her prize roses.
Even though the plot appears quite simple at first glance, a careful reader will notice foreshadowing the author employs to hint us about the outcome of the story. First of all, it is the description of the feelings that Miss Strangeworth has towards her roses – very intimate, as if they were her children, with her greatest fear being of them taken away to strange people and places. In the beginning of the story, when the town seems quiet and peaceful, the mention of the fears is of no coincidence. Besides that, we understand that something terrible will happen to the old lady when she wakes up with a feeling of intense happiness – since we are aware of the events of the last night, we can predict that the outcome of the story will have to be of equal intensity in order to bring her down. As for the past, we are aware it not through direct flashbacks but through the reminiscences of the old lady – for example, that’s how we find out that her father was one of the founders of the city.
The ironic tone of the author is clearly heard in the story. It is not evil irony, but more of a light-hearted one, even though she mocks Miss Strangeworth for not understanding why her precious roses were destroyed.
The story’s atmosphere is somewhat misleading: the streets are given names such as Pleasant Street, and as Miss Strangeworth strolls around it, we can almost feel the warmness and sunshine of the day. However, this illusion is quickly demolished as we start feeling the anxiety that the townspeople are going through, when they look as if they just cried or merely messy. Despite the nice and neat looking of the city, the atmosphere of the city is filled with anxiety, tension and suspense.
The Possibility of Evil is filled with different symbols surrounding Miss Strangeworth. The objects belonging to her can be seen as of almost royal origin, especially the roses Miss Strangeworth tends to every day. As Miss Strangeworth perceives herself as basically the owner of the town, no wonder that it is roses she grows, and not daisies. Besides, quite archetypically, roses stand to represent something hidden and dangerous – they look fragile but they have thorns. Miss Strangeworth resembles them in this way. Another symbol is dull stub of a pencil that she uses to write her letters with instead of her golden fountain pen. The pencil that Miss Strangeworth uses represents that the letter she writes is not important enough for her to use her golden fountain pen. Miss Strangeworth thinks that she is like her golden fountain pen and everyone else is insignificant.
I enjoyed the story but I would not call it my favorite. While the topic it explores is relevant in all time periods and locations, as in fact all eternal themes in literature are, the way of presenting it was quite banal and the story did not manage to excite anticipation and excitement in me as a reader. While the turning point of the story when Miss Strangeworth’s cruel letters are revealed managed to surprise me, after that the outcome of the story was quite predictable. Yet despite that, the story is nicely written so I enjoyed it nevertheless.
Summary of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty by James Thurber
James Thurber’s short story The Secret Life of Walter Mitty tells the readers about an aging absent-minded and mild-mannered man who is on his way to Waterbury to do his weekly shopping and to take his overbearing wife to a beauty parlor. His day promises to be full of boring tasks and errands, and his life is dull and monotonous – but not in his dreams. During his ordinary day he lives through five heroic daydream episodes, each one of them inspired by some mundane detail of Mitty's surroundings.
His first dream is of being a U.S. Navy pilot who navigates a hydroplane through a terrible storm. It is interrupted by Mrs. Mitty's complaint that her husband is driving too fast, so apparently, his driving provoked the daydream. Putting on his gloves and passing by a hospital prompts Mitty to imagine himself as an exceptionally talented doctor performing a surgery on some high profile official. In the next fantasy, Mitty is a cold-blooded assassin, a crack shot being interrogated in a courtroom, while in reality he is trying to remember what his wife told him to buy. This daydream happens when Mitty hears a newsboy shouting about the Waterbury Trial. As Mitty waits for his wife, he picks up an old copy of Liberty with an article "Can Germany Conquer the World Through the Air?". Not surprisingly, he immediately envisages himself as a Royal Air Force pilot, accomplishing a challenging secret mission to bomb an ammunition dump - a task normally performed by two pilots, but Mitty is willing to sacrifice his life for his country. And finally, as Mitty leans against a wall with a cigarette in his hand, he imagines himself standing in front of a firing-squad, and even though he is about to be shot, he is "inscrutable to the last."
The story depicts a man whose everyday tasks constantly alternate with romantic escapist fantasies. In his daydreams, Mitty is bold, brave, selfless and not scared of anything, while in reality he should behave more cautiously. Moreover, the admiration that surrounds him in the fantasies contrasts with less enjoyable interactions with real people. Definitely, his wife orders him around – not to drive fast, to buy puppy biscuits, to put on gloves, even though most likely, she is genuinely worried about him and his health. Mitty is yelled at by a policeman and even a parking lot attendant; a passerby mocks him for talking out loud to himself. In fact, if met in the street, Mitty would not strike as an extraordinary character: he is inept at many things; he cannot perform simple tasks and forgets things easily. However, his imagination makes Mitty truly exceptional.
The Singing Nightingale
It was a beautiful spring morning promising to become a warm and sunny day. The windows were flung open to let in the rooms all the enchanting spring smells which lulled people to sleep. It was 4 in the morning, and the sun had not yet started rising, but the darkness of the night had already given up to the upcoming day. People were sleeping peacefully in their beds.
A little nightingale was sitting on a branch of a tree and enjoying the picture around him. It was so nice and beautiful but it was only missing one detail – some sounds to complement all the smells and colors. So the nightingale started singing passionately, raising his voice and lowering back again, calling for his fellow birds to join him in this celebration of a new day. Soon, the birds started singing along creating a beautiful melody.
Yet a gunshot interrupted it immediately – the nightingale dropped dead, and his singing companions flung up in the air, fleeing for their life. Red-eyed and tired-looking man was watching them out of his window. He looked around making sure no creature was producing any more noises, shut his windows and went back to sleep.
Moral: It’s the early bird that wakes up everyone by making annoying noises early in the morning.
The Demon Lover by Elizabeth Bowen
Elizabeth Bowen was a prominent British writer of the 20th century. Although born in Ireland, upon her marriage she moved to London, where she lived throughout the war years. In fact, wartime London is a recurring setting in her works – Bowen’s novel The Heat of the Day is even considered the most accurate depiction of the city’s atmosphere during World War II. The locations in which her stories are set are strongly linked to the psychology of the characters and to the plots. Bowen’s works are largely psychological essays and novels; perhaps, her most explored theme is the ways that the individual’s subconscious finds to reveal itself in the outside world. She was also particularly interested in the seeming innocence of orderly life and in forces that transform this experience; Bowen also examined betrayal and secrets that are oftentimes hidden behind the pillar of order and respectability.
The title of Bowen’s short story The Demon Lover refers to medieval legends about a young woman who pledges eternal love to a soldier departing for war. From the first meeting, he appears as a mysterious and dark figure but the girl cannot resist his charm. Yet when her groom does not return from the war she marries another man. However, he eventually does come back in a form of a ghost or a corpse to abduct her and to avenge the betrayal. But in Bowen’s story the demon lover should not be taken as a supernatural force. In fact, he represents the inner struggle of the main character to suppress her guilt for being infidel to her groom.
The Demon Lover conveys a simple moralistic message: no bad deed goes unpunished, a word of promise should not be broken, lovers should be faithful to each other – the message the stories of the demon lover were sending to encourage women to remain true to soldiers in war. This is ironic because Bowen herself was far from being faithful to her husband. However, even more importantly, the Demon Lover portrays the insidious effects of wartime on the human psyche, and people’s attempt to deal with the fear, stress, and grief suffered by inhabitants of London at that time. Accordingly, Mrs. Drover's episode may have been the result of the internalization of terror and guilt from the war. Thus, with the context in consideration, the reader understands that Bowen is writing about very real fears, not ghosts. It is also not a coincidence that Bowen places an emphasis on Drover’s past otherwise she would not include elaborate descriptions irrelevant to the immediate plot. The very fact that Bowen chooses to elaborate on Drover’s issues with her ex-fiancé, as well as her paranoid and unstable mentality, is evidence that the character’s thoughts and reactions to the circumstances are of a greater significance than providing readers with a ghost story.
As mentioned earlier, this short story is also set in World War II London, like many other works of Bowen. At the beginning of the story the reader is introduced to Mrs. Kathleen Drover, who returned from her countryside home to her abandoned house in the city to pick up some things her family left behind, fleeing the bombings of 1940-41. Therefore, we can also approximately establish the date when the story takes place, since the author mentions that it is a humid day in late August. Mrs. Drover enters the house situated on one of the most deserted streets, and she goes around it, the reader becomes acquainted with her life story and with her gnawing feeling of guilt as she repeatedly goes back to her youth and affair with a soldier. Thus, we understand that the conflict is internal as Kathleen struggles to reconcile her consciousness with her betrayal and infidelity. Most likely, she is also deeply affected by the wartime fears and she is unable to bear them and to handle the oppressive atmosphere. The story is brought to its climax when Mrs. Drover gets in the cab seeking for safety; although the ending remains open to interpretation, the reader can safely assume that she either goes mad as the cab drives away or that she really is abducted by a demon.
The Demon Lover centers on the perceptions and actions of Mrs. Kathleen Dover, a forty-four year old woman. She is married and has children; her family resides in the countryside and for them she a picture of stability and dependability. That is why she is trying to accomplish her task of picking up some things even when she is scared of the future – she tries to grasp something stable to hold on to, which is what her family is to her. However, her appearance indicates past hardships: while she is still pretty, she has lost weight and she has a scar from her previous relationship, something that should have been a sign of a tender goodbye. While initially Mrs. Drover seemed quite calm although not at all nostalgic to visit a place of her former residency, when she finds a letter addressed to her in her abandoned London home, she becomes anxious and sickly energetic. She is keenly aware of her surroundings: the atmosphere, weather, and particularly, a sense of strangeness. She keeps on trying to make the situation comprehendible and not scary: she rushes upstairs to check herself in the mirror, she lays out a plan for escaping the house. This behavior represents her mental instability, bordering on paranoia even.
The plot of the story is complex and full of flashbacks and foreshadowing. Obviously, the reader is constantly redirected to Mrs. Drover’s youth and her memories of the World War I when her affair with the demon lover took place. Through Kathleen’s reminiscences we also find out the outcome of this affair: the soldier was killed during the war, and even though Kathleen was never able to fall in love again, she did, however, marry another man and have children with him. Besides that, the reader senses the grave outcome of the story through the foreshadowing that the author makes a good use of. The story is filled with mysterious signs: the house being empty, abandoned and in deplorable state; an anonymous letter which somehow ended up in the locked house; the only cab on an otherwise busy street that takes off without Mrs. Drover telling the driver where to go to.
Judging from the words Bowen uses to describe Kathleen’s past, we can say that she is not taking Mrs. Dover’s side even though she does not show her hatred in particular. The images of the house that run parallel to Kathleen’s past suggest that Bowen perceives her former acts as dirty and stained.
The atmosphere of the story is very eerie, dark, foreboding, gloomy, depressing, and sulky; the readers can anticipate bad things happening from the very beginning of the story because of the description of the house. The house is situated on one of the most deserted streets, and even the lock is unwilling and the door is warped. The surroundings do not improve as the reader follows Mrs. Drover into the bomb-shaken house. It is easy to grasp that Kathleen does not feel at ease and at home in her previous house. It is not a nostalgia-inducing childhood home, but rather one of an empty shell whose remnants of Mrs. Drover's past haunt it like ghosts. Bowen employs unsettling images to flavor the text with uncertainty: there is a yellow stain on a white mantelpiece, a ring by a vase on the desktop, a "bruise" in the wallpaper, a piano claw-marks on the parquet. Each of these images Bowen uses to describe the house seem mundane enough at first glance, but a reader alert to the detail intrinsic within them, lying just beneath the surface, will begin to see their true intent; no matter how simplistic they may seem, they are each a subtle part of Bowen's subtle design to instill in the reader the sense of anxiety and apprehension that Mrs. Drover herself feels because they correspond to her past – stained, not leaving her, bruised, unhappy.
The Demon Lover’s symbolism is vital to grasp in order to correctly comprehend the story’s main idea. First of all, the ghostly figure of the demon lover himself stands as a symbol of consciousness which eventually punishes its owner for past misdeeds. It is not a mere coincidence that the story is set during the war, as it symbolizes troubled times and troubled minds which are caused by human inability to deal with the wartime terrors and fears. The characters are also unable to draw a clear distinction between reality and fantasy created by war. Dover’s house in London plays a prominent role in The Demon Lover, as a symbol of cultural and family values that are wrecked and threatened from without.
I truly enjoyed reading the story – first of all, because it actually managed to keep me in suspense until the very end, unlike some other thrillers. It took quite an unexpected turn because initially I thought that it was a love story about a couple who finally reunites after years spent apart because of the war and the death report that was sent mistakenly. For a moment though, I was disappointed when the author brought in the element of supernaturalism into the story until I realized that this element is merely symbolic. The story’s main premise resonated with my personal experience – unsolved issues and problems do tend to affect negatively people’s personality even if they are unaware of it.
Miss Brill by Katherine Mansfield
In her short story Miss Brill, Katherine Mansfield tells her readers about a seemingly simple-minded and lonely old lady who spends her weekends listening to the conversations of strangers in the park and imagines the world around her to be a stage on which she herself is an actress. Her most precious belonging (and even a friend in a way) is a shabby fur stole that she acquired when she was young. And yet we are encouraged neither to mock Miss Brill’s simple existence nor to disregard her as an old dotard; quite on the contrary, she evokes our sympathy and pity.
Miss Brill is portrayed as a woman who enjoys a simple world of her own elaborate creation. She is single, probably in her mid to late fifties. Her physical appearance is never explicitly described, but as for her character, the readers can imagine her as an intelligent and sensitive woman. She lives alone in a "little dark room"; perhaps, she lives away from her homeland because we can guess that the story takes place in France, since the park she is visiting is called Jardins Publiques and because she teaches English to French children. However, her last name hints us that she is of British origin. Her life is not idle but quite relaxed.
Mansfield does a brilliant job in employing the third person point of view: the reader is aware of both Miss Brill's perceptions and the mundane truth behind the occurrences around her which allows him to recognize that Ms. Brill’s picture is highly romanticized. Everything on this Sunday afternoon is delightful and pleasant: the day "so brilliantly fine," the children "swooping and laughing," the band sounding "louder and gayer" than on previous Sundays. Yet the readers are able to take a look at Miss Brill from the outside and see a lonely woman on a park bench. Thus Miss Brill is portrayed as someone who escapes to fantasy rather than self-pity and self-awareness – something she avoids, not something she is incapable of. Because in fact, Miss Brill is not as simple-minded as she first appears, but she chooses to perceive her life in a certain manner. In the first paragraph, she describes a feeling as "light and sad"; then she corrects this: "no, not sad exactly--something gentle seemed to move in her bosom." And later in the afternoon, this feeling of sadness comes up again, only to be chased away by Miss Brill: "And what they played warm, sunny, yet there was just a faint chill--a something, what was it--not sadness--no, not sadness--a something that made you want to sing." Miss Brill suppresses sadness by giving life to what she sees and hears: the brilliant colors noted throughout the story, her sensitive reactions to the music, her delight in small details. That is why she is an actress, a dramatist even: she battles sadness and self-pity, which evokes our sympathy and admiration. The grave contrast between the liveliness of Miss Brill’s fantasy in the park and the little dark room she returns to in the end is the main reason to feel pity for Miss Brill.
One way for the readers to discover Miss Brill’s character is through analyzing her interactions with other people and her perceptions of them. Since she does not know anyone, the source of information about their characters is their costumes, just like it is for the audience in the theater. For example, she observes "a fine old man in a velvet coat," an Englishman "wearing a dreadful Panama hat," etc. Some of these people are not very appealing: some are silent, vain, mean and plain. Some of them annoy Miss Brill or please her, but anyhow she believes that they are staging a performance for her, while it is most likely that they are oblivious to her existence. The fact that Miss Brill chooses to identify herself with some characters and not the others also provides an important insight into her personality. Perhaps subconsciously, Miss Brill identifies herself with the woman wearing "the ermine toque she'd bought when her hair was yellow." The ermine is "shabby" and the woman's hand is a "tiny yellowish paw", much like Miss Brill’s one although she would never admit that. The "gentleman in gray" abandons the woman and she is alone, just like Miss Brill herself. The woman's humiliation in this scene anticipates Miss Brill's devastation at the end of the story. Ironically, it is with her own kind, the old people on the benches, that Miss Brill refuses to identify: "They were odd, silent, nearly all old, and from the way they stared they looked as though they'd just come from dark little rooms or even--even cupboards!".
Finally, Mansfield constructed the plot in such an exquisite manner that it leaves us feeling sympathetic toward Miss Brill. As the story progresses, Miss Brill’s excitement grows especially when she realizes she is also a participant in the play and she embraces her role – although a minor one, but a role all the same – which is a sign of self-acceptance. Her enthusiasm is contagious, and because of that, all the more harsh becomes the letdown of the story. Two giggling teenagers drop an insult about her fur, the symbol of her self-identity, thus saying that she has no role after all. As Miss Brill puts away her fur in her dark, little room, we sympathize with her not because she was denied this simple truth of bearing some significance in the life, she has been laughed off the stage, and that is a fear we all have.