The Garden Party
By Katherine Mansfield  (1888-1923)
A Study Guide
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Imagery: Light, Darkness
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Plot Summary
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2007
.......The cloudless summer day is perfect for the garden party at the home of the well-to-do Sheridan family. Before breakfast ends, four workmen arrive to set up the marquee (a tent or canopy to shield partygoers from the elements). Because Meg has just washed her hair and Jose is still in her petticoat, Mrs. Sheridan assigns the task of supervising the men to Laura. Taking a piece of buttered bread with her, Laura goes outside to begin her task.
.......When she suggests that the men–all smiling and quite friendly–set up the marquee on the lily lawn, a fat man considers the idea but a tall man man says it would not get enough attention there. "You want to put it somewhere where it'll give you a bang slap in the eye." Laura wonders whether it is respectful of a laborer to speak to a girl of her upbringing in the crude language (bang slap) of the common people.
.......Laura then recommends a corner of the tennis court. Although a band will be playing on the court, she says, there will still be room for the marquee. Another man suggests placing the marquee against the karaka trees. Laura dislikes the idea of hiding the broad leaves and yellow fruit of the karakas, but the workmen are already heading toward them with the staves and rolls of canvas. She is impressed that one workman stops to smell lavender. Too bad the boys who come calling for her aren’t as sensitive as he is, she thinks. She muses that she would get along well with these simple workmen and wouldn’t let class distinctions get in the way.
.......A voice from the house calls Laura to the phone, so she goes back across the lawn, up the steps, across the veranda, and into the hallway, where her father and brother Laurie are about to leave for work. Laurie asks her to press a coat for him before the party. On the phone is her friend Kitty Maitland. They chat and agree to have lunch together. After hanging up, Laura delights in the busy sounds of the house, the little breezes blowing through the doors, and the sunshine alighting here and there.
.......Sadie, a servant, answers the ring of the doorbell and announces that the florist has arrived with lilies of numerous varities to be placed placed on both sides of the porch. Mrs. Sheridan had ordered them, saying that “for once in my life I shall have enough canna lilies.”
.......In the drawing room, Meg, Jose, and a servant, Hans, move furniture to make room for the guests. Jose is directing the project. They test the piano, and Jose practices singing in case she’s called upon sing during the party. A deliveryman from Godber’s arrives with cream puffs, and the cook invites Laura and Jose to sample them. At first they refuse, wishing to conserve the pastries for the party, then give in to their goodness. 
.......The Godber’s man then informs everyone that a young cart driver was killed that morning when his horse reared on Hawke Street. His last name was Scott, and he had lived in a cottage just down the road from the Sheridans in a settlement of commoners. He left a wife and five children.
.......Laura calls Jose aside and tells her the garden party must be called off. 
.......“My dear Laura, don't be so absurd,” Jose says. “Of course we can't do anything of the kind.”
.......Laura presses her case, noting that it would be wrong to allow the band to play cheerful music while a grieving family is within earshot. Jose stands her ground, saying, “You won’t bring a drunken workman back to life by being sentimental.”
.......“Who said he was drunk?” Laura says. 
.......Laura then pleads her case to her mother, but Mrs. Sheridan reacts like Jose. “It’s not very sympathetic to spoil everybody’s enjoyment as you’re doing now,” she says. Then she puts a fashionable hat on Laura’s head, saying, “I have never seen you look such a picture.”
.......Upset, Laura goes to her room. But when she glimpses “this charming girl in the mirror, in her black hat trimmed with gold daisies, and a long black velvet ribbon,” she wonders whether her mother is right. Yes, she decides, her mother is right.
.......After lunch with Kitty, the band members arrive, all wearing green coats, and Kitty remarks, “Aren’t they too like frogs for words?” 
 When Laurie arrives and heads toward his room to dress, Laura thinks again about the accident and calls to him when he is halfway upstairs to tell him about it. He turns and looks at his sister. 
.......“My word, Laura! You do look stunning," he says. "What an absolutely topping hat!" 
....... “Is it?” She smiles and decides not to tell him.
.......A short while later, the guests begin arriving, the band starts playing, people shake hands and kiss cheeks. Everyone who greets Laura tells her how striking she looks and how becoming her hat is.
.......The hired waiters serve tea and passion-fruit ices, the band plays on, and “the perfect afternoon slowly ripened, slowly faded, slowly its petals closed.” The party had gone perfectly. 
.......Mrs. Sheridan tells Laura to round up the family members for some coffee, adding, “Yes, it’s been very successful. But oh, these parties, these parties! Why will you children insist on giving parties!"
.......Everyone gathers in the marquee. While eating a sandwich, Mr. Sheridan talks about the “beastly accident,” saying that the victim “leaves a wife and half a dozen kiddies.” There is silence. Seeing all the leftover food–sandwiches, cream puffs, cakes–Mrs. Sheridan suggests sending it down to the family and tells Laura to fetch a big basket. Laura hesitates, wondering whether it is a good idea to send scraps, but she gets the basket from the cupboard. After they fill it, Mrs. Sheridan tells Laura to take it to the family along with some lilies.
.......“People of that class are so impressed by arum lilies,” she says.
.......But Jose says the stems of the flowers will ruin Laura’s lace frock.
.......“Only the basket then,” says Mrs. Sheridan.
.......Laura walks down the road. “Yes, it was the most successful party,” she thinks. As she enters the run-down neighborhood, children play in doorways, men lean on fences, and women in shawls hurry hither and thither. How white Laura’s frock looks. And the hat with its velvet streamer. People must be looking at her. She wishes she hadn’t come. At one house, “a dark knot of people” were standing outside. Laura, nervous, asks a woman whether it is Mrs. Scott’s house. “It is, my lass,” the woman says.
.......As she walks to the door, Laura now wishes she were anywhere but here, with all those eyes staring at her.  A woman in black–the sister of the bereaved wife–invites her into the house. Laura just wants to leave the basket, but the woman leads her into a small kitchen. There, a woman with swollen eyes and a red, puffy face sits by a fire. Her name is Em. When she looks around, the presence of Laura seems to confuse her, and her sister says, “You’ll excuse her, miss, I’m sure.” The sister then leads Laura into the bedroom where the body lies, saying, “"You'd like a look at 'im, wouldn't you?" 
.......There lay a young man, fast asleep - sleeping so soundly, so deeply, that he was far, far away from them both. Oh, so remote, so peaceful. He was dreaming. Never wake him up again. His head was sunk in the pillow, his eyes were closed; they were blind under the closed eyelids. He was given up to his dream. What did garden-parties and baskets and lace frocks matter to him? He was far from all those things. He was wonderful, beautiful. While they were laughing and while the band was playing, this marvel had come to the lane. Happy ... happy ... All is well, said that sleeping face. This is just as it should be. I am content.
.......And then Laura speaks to him: “Forgive my hat.”
 She leaves immediately, without waiting for Em’s sister. On the way, home Laurie comes toward her and says their mother was beginning to worry. But Laura, though crying, says everything went well and begins asking a question that she can’t finish: “Isn’t life– isn’t life–“
.......Her brother understands, saying, “Isn’t it, darling?

The time is early summer in a year in the first decade of the 20th Century. The story unfolds at the estate of a well-to-do upper-class family on Tinakori Road in Wellington, New Zaeland (which was the real-life locale where author Katherine Mansfield lived beginning in 1898), at the nearby home of a poor lower-class family, and on the road between the two dwellings. Mansfield, grew up in Wellington, attended school there, furthered her education in England in 1903, returned to Wellington in 1906, and returned to England while still under age twenty to pursue a writing career. Her father, a prosperous banker, supported her move with a generous financial allotment.


Laura Sheridan: Pretty teenager who undergoes a conflict on the day of a garden party. 
Laurie Sheridan: Laura's brother. Laurie could be a nickname for Laurence. 
Meg, Jose: Sisters of Laura and Laurie.
Mrs. Sheridan: Class-conscious mother of the Sheridan children. 
Mr. Sheridan: Husband of Mrs. Sheridan and father of the Sheridan children.
Mr. Scott: Cart driver killed in an accident. His family lives in a settlement of commoners down the road from the Sheridan home.
Em: Grieving widow of the cart driver.
Woman in Black: Sister of Em.
Kitty Maintland: Friend of Laura.
Florist: Person who delivers lilies to the Sheridan home before the garden party.
Man From Godber's: Man from a bakery who delivers pastries to the Sheridan home. While making the delivery, he reports the death of Mr. Scott and describes how he was killed. 
Cook: The cook in the Sheridan home.
Sadie, Hans: Servants.
Four Workmen: Men who set up the marquee for the garden party.
Gardener: Worker who arose at dawn to cut the grass on the Sheridan estate.

Type of Work and Year of Publication

“The Garden Party” is a short story that was first published in the Westminister Gazette in February 1922. In May of the same year, it was published by Alfred J. Knopf, Inc., as part of a collection entitled The Garden Party and Other Stories


Mansfield wrote "The Garden Party" in limited third-person point of view. It is limited in that the author presents the thoughts of Laura only. The personality and outlook of the other characters reveal themselves only through what they say and do. 



.......On the grounds of the Sheridan home, beautiful flowers grow. One of them is Laura, a pretty teenager rooted in the traditions of her privileged family. Whether she flourishes depends on whether she can accept and understand the world beyond the Sheridan family’s garden paradise. Two developments, one minor and one major, suggest that Laura can do so and thereby grow into a mature adult. These are as follows:

The First

.......When four workmen enter the grounds to set up the marquee for the garden party, Laura approves of their smiling faces. But after she suggests placing the marquee on the lily lawn, a workman rejects the idea, saying that she should the marquee “where it’ll give you a bang slap in the eye.” Laura then wonders whether it is respectful of a laborer to speak to a girl of her upbringing in the crude language of the common people. However, Laura ends up approving of the men even though they are the ones who choose the location for the marquee–against the karaka trees. Thus, though failing to supervise the men with authority, Laura learns to overlook class distinctions in dealing with the outside world.

The Second

.......News of the fatal accident prompts Laura to suggest cancellation of the garden party out of respect for the grieving family. However, upon seeing how smart she looks in the hat her mother gives her, she agrees with her mother and Jose that it would be absurd to call off the party. After the festivities end and the family members gather in the marquee for coffee, Mr. Sheridan broaches the subject of the fatal accident, saying how horrible it must be for the wife and children to cope. The family goes silent. Laura thinks, “Really it was very tactless of father . . . ,” but does not finish her thought. Her mother then decides to send a basket of uneaten sandwiches and pastries down to the Scotts. Whether she sincerely wants to help–or simply wishes to get rid of the leftovers or assuage a feeling of guilt about the Scotts–is arguable. At any rate, Laura agrees to take the basket. After walking down the hill from her home, she crosses a wide road and enters the the environs of the common folk. Here, Laura faces a severe test: 

She wished now she had put on a coat. How her frock shone! And the big hat with the velvet streamer–if only it was another hat! Were the people looking at her? They must be. It was a mistake to have come; she knew all along it was a mistake. Should she go back even now?
But she continues on, meets the family, and sees the dead man. The experience is not at all horrible, as she thought it would be. 
He was dreaming. Never wake him up again. His head was sunk in the pillow, his eyes were closed; they were blind under the closed eyelids. He was given up to his dream. What did garden-parties and baskets and lace frocks matter to him? He was far from all those things. He was wonderful, beautiful.
Laura learns that a common cart driver can be noble in death and that she and the “dark people,” though living worlds apart, share a common humanity unbounded class distinction. When twilight comes, the shadows fall on both worlds, and the night makes all men equal. 

.......Mr. and Mrs. Sheridan tend to isolate their children from the harsh reality of the mundane, workaday world. Entry to the estate is open only to the upper-class acquaintances of the family–the guests at the garden party, for example, or the friends of Laura, such as Kitty Maitland and the “silly boys . . . who came to Sunday night supper.” Mansfield compares the Sheridan children to the exotic karakas–“trees you imagined growing on a desert island, proud, solitary, lifting their leaves and fruits to the sun in a kind of silent splendour. Must they be hidden . . . ?” When Laura and Laurie were small children, they were confined to a "desert island" (the Sheridan estate), and their parents refused to allow them to visit the “disgusting and sordid” settlement of common folk down the road. When they were older and eager to break out of their isolation, “Laura and Laurie on their prowls sometimes walked through” the settlement. “They came out with a shudder. But still one must go everywhere; one must see everything.”


.......Laura struggles toward young adulthood, trying hard to think and act maturely but sometimes behaving capriciously. However, when she crosses the “broad road” at the bottom of the hill with a basket of food for the Scotts, she also crosses into the first stage of adulthood. When she sees the body of Mr. Scott–who has made the ultimate transition–she begins to understand the meaning of life and death in a world in which all human beings share a common humanity and class distinctions are nonexistent.


The climax occurs when Laura enters the Scott home and sees the grieving wife and the corpse.

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Imagery: Light and Darkness

.......In "A Garden Party" the world of the Sheridans is bright, shining, and heavenly. The world of the Scotts, on the other hand, is dark, gloomy, and cimmerian. Besides contrasting the two worlds, the imagery also reflects the conflicting moods of Laura as she perceives life around her. 
.......Mansfield opens the story with descriptions of the weather–perfect, with a cloudless sky and a golden haze. She follows with a description of the garden, something of a demi-paradise where the grass “seemed to shine” and the rose bushes, heavy with budding flowers, “bowed down as though they had been visited by archangels.” The workmen set up the marquee against the karaka trees–“so lovely, with their broad, gleaming leaves, and their clusters of yellow fruit. They were like trees you imagined growing on a desert island, proud, solitary, lifting their leaves and fruits to the sun in a kind of silent splendour.” Then a florist arrives with a “blaze of lilies.” 
.......Mansfield darkens her imagery when first referring to the cottages of the common folk living down the hill from the Sheridans: "They were little mean dwellings painted a chocolate brown." She then mixes light and dark imagery when she writes that "The very smoke coming out of their chimneys was poverty-stricken. Little rags and shreds of smoke, so unlike the great silvery plumes that uncurled from the Sheridans' chimneys." 
.......When Laura is in conflict over whether it is right to hold the garden party when a family down the road is grieving, she goes to her room wearing a fashionable hat her mother gave her, a hat whose hues reflect the conflict. Upon entering her room, the narrator says, "the first thing she saw was this charming girl in the mirror, in her black hat trimmed with gold daisies, and a long black velvet ribbon." 
.......When the guests arrive for the party, they are "like bright birds that had alighted in the Sheridans' garden for this one afternoon, on their way to–where? Ah, what happiness it is to be with people who all are happy, to press hands, press cheeks, smile into eyes."
After the party, the imagery darkens, although there are a few glimmers of light. Following are examples:

It was just growing dusky as Laura shut their garden gates. A big dog ran by like a shadow. The road gleamed white, and down below in the hollow the little cottages were in deep shade. 

The lane began, smoky and dark. Women in shawls and men's tweed caps hurried by. Men hung over the palings; the children played in the doorways. A low hum came from the mean little cottages. In some of them there was a flicker of light, and a shadow, crab-like, moved across the window

Then the door opened. A little woman in black showed in the gloom.

The little woman in the gloomy passage seemed not to have heard her. 

She found herself in a wretched little low kitchen, lighted by a smoky lamp. 

Personification and Onomatopoeia

Mansfield frequently uses personification (a type of metaphor) and onomatopoeia to animate her prose. Following are examples:

The green bushes bowed down as though they had been visited by archangels.
Bowing in deference personifies the bushes.

They were like trees you imagined growing on a desert island, proud, solitary, lifting their leaves and fruits to the sun in a kind of silent splendour. 
Proud personfies the karaka trees.

The green baize door that led to the kitchen regions swung open and shut with a muffled thud. And now there came a long, chuckling absurd sound. It was the heavy piano being moved on its stiff castors.
Onomatopoeia: muffled thud and chuckling

Little faint winds were playing chase, in at the tops of the windows, out at the doors. And there were two tiny spots of sun, one on the inkpot, one on a silver photograph frame, playing too.
Playing personifies winds and spots of sun.

"Tuk-tuk-tuk," clucked cook like an agitated hen.
Onomatopoeia: tuk and clucked.

The very smoke coming out of their chimneys was poverty-stricken.
Poverty-stricken personifies smoke.


The following may be interpreted as symbols in “The Garden Party:”

Karaka Trees, Desert Island, Marquee: The narrator says that the karakas “were like trees you imagined growing on a desert island, proud, solitary, lifting their leaves and fruits to the sun in a kind of silent splendour. Must they be hidden by a marquee?” The Sheridan children, of course, are somewhat isolated on their parents’ estate, protected from the outside world. Therefore, the trees would be the children, the desert island the Sheridan estate, and the marquee the overprotection of the parents. 
The Lilies: They may represent the purity, innocence, and vulnerability of Laura, who “crouched down as if to warm herself at that blaze of lilies; she felt they were in her fingers, on her lips, growing in her breast.”
Laura’s Hat: When Laura asks her mother to call off the garden party out of respect for the grieving Scotts, Mrs. Sheridan places a fashionable hat she had bought for herself on Laura’s head. “The hat is yours,” she says. “It’s much too young for me. I have never seen you look such a picture.” Then she tells Laura that the party will go on as scheduled, saying, “People like that don't expect sacrifices from us. And it's not very sympathetic to spoil everybody's enjoyment as you're doing now." Laura then goes to her room, disconcerted. However, as soon as she looks in her mirror and sees how chic she looks in the new hat, she thinks that perhaps her mother was right about the party and decides not to bother herself about the Scotts until after the party is over. The hat, thus, appears to symbolize Mrs. Sheridan's worldview–including her class-consciousness–which she has now passed on to Laura.
The Hill: The Sheridan estate is on a hill, suggesting that they are of good birth and high social standing.
The Road Down the Hill: This appears to represent Laura’s journey toward maturity–and the outer world from which she has been protected by her parents.
The Wide Road: At the bottom of the hill is a wide road across which is the settlement of common people. It appears to represent the class barriers between them and the Sheridans.
The Garden: Throughout the story, the garden appears to represent the growth of the Sheridan children as well as a kind of Eden in which their parents confine them.

Study Questions and Essay Topics

1.  If Laura had finished her question at the end of the story, what would it say? 
2.  What passages in the story suggest that Laura is on her way to becoming more mature? 
3.  Should the Sheridans have called off the garden party, as Laura suggested?
4.  In an informative essay, write a psychological profile of Laura.
5.  To what extent does the story reflect the author's experiences as a teenager?