Male protagonists and their marital situation in Katherine Mansfield's short stories 'The Stranger', 'At The Bay' and 'A Birthday'

Seminar Paper, 2003

20 Pages, Grade: 1,7 (A-)


Table of contents

I. Introduction

II. 1 John and Janey Hammond in „The Stranger“
II. 2 Stanley and Linda Burnell in “At the Bay”
II. 3 Andreas and Anna Binzer in “A Birthday”

III. Conclusion

IV. Bibliography

I. Introduction

Throughout her career as an author Katherine Mansfield composed a great amount of stories that deal with friendship, marriage and family life.[1] The focus of her interest in all these stories is male-female relationships, which she recounts from different perspectives enclosed in a variety of contexts. Mansfield’s first works on this issue were stories of unmarried couples. In stories like “In a Café” (1907), “The Swing of the Pendulum” (1911) and “Psychology” (1919) young singles who are fascinated by art and life’s prospects meet. In each of these stories the female protagonists share an awareness of the different attitudes of men and women towards partnerships. Besides, they are in a conflict between a commitment to love and their vivid interest in art. In other stories, such as “The Singing Lesson” (1920/22), “Poison” (1920/24) and “Mr. and Mrs. Dove” (1921/1922) Katherine Mansfield focuses on a more romantic notion of love, presenting both male and female characters experiencing the change between emotional nearness and distance, between the hopes and anxieties of their dreams. Her short stories that are set in Bavaria, such as “A Birthday” (1911), “Frau Brechenmacher Attends a Wedding” (1910) and “The Child-Who-Was-Tired” (1910), deal with marital love and lack this romantic mood. In a rather satirical style she displays an obviously feminist position as she criticizes male dominance and the exploitation of women in marital relationships. After Mansfield married John Middleton Murry in 1918, she writes stories which present her view of marriage – as it appears in “Bliss” (1918), “The Stranger” (1920), Marriage à la Mode” (1921), “The Man Without a Temperament” (1920) and “At the Bay” (1921). These narratives are mainly concerned with the illustration of intimacy and alienation as well as with independence and constraint in marital relations.

The following discourse is concerned with the male protagonists in Katherine Mansfield’s short stories “The Stranger”, “At the Bay” and “A Birthday”. It emphasizes intimacy and alienation in marital partnerships as chief characteristics in these short stories. All three stories, either set in Europe or New Zealand, present married couples at a certain stage of human life in unlike contexts. As this discourse is going to reveal each of the three marriages is torn between intimacy and alienation. It emphasizes on the male protagonists and their marital relationship, but necessarily also includes a characterisation of their wives. The three chosen short stories are perfect examples for such an analysis as their married couples have basic elements in common, such as age, social status, family situation and the acceptance of traditional gender-specific role models. Thus their personalities and emotional conflicts to which this discourse directs its principal attention are not essentially distinguished by these aspects.

II. 1 John and Janey Hammond in “The Stranger”

Mansfield’s short story “The Stranger” is based on an experience of her parents.[2] The story depicts the reunion of a couple after a ten-month separation. This reunion can be related to the meeting of Mansfield’s parents Mr. and Mrs. Beauchamp at Hobart Tasmania, in 1909, when Mrs. Beauchamp returned after visiting her daughter Katherine in England. In fact there was a passenger on board of this ship who fell ill during the journey and eventually died in her arms. The narrative opens with a character portrayal of the protagonist, John Hammond, a self-centred, middle-aged businessman.

In front of the crowd a strong looking, middle-aged man, dressed very well, very snugly in a grey overcoat, grey silk scarf, thick gloves and dark felt hat, marched up and down twirling his folded umbrella. He seemed to be the leader of the little crowd on the wharf and at the same time to keep them together. He was something between the sheep-dog and the shepherd.[3]

This quotation includes many attributes and associations that are conventionally linked to maleness. The sheep-dog and shepherd metaphor symbolizes the man’s guiding and leading as well as his protective and safe-guarding role. The quotation above also shows that John’s movements imply associations linked to masculinity and self-confidence. Mr. Hammond is a wealthy, successful, self-important and pompous man and an extrovert, out-going and communicative character as one can for instance see in his behaviour in the hotel bar the day before his wife’s arrival: “the music he’d praised so highly, applauded so loudly last night!” (p. 359).

Despite all these masculine traits of his character, he also appears terribly insecure and nervous and waits impatiently for his wife’s ship to dock. He is desperately eager to regain and possess his beloved wife Janey, and childishly jealous of her friends on the ship, especially of the doctor, the captain and even of his children’s letters to their mother:

‘He was going off to find that fellow and to wring the truth out of him at all costs. He thought he’d noticed just something. She was just a touch too calm – too – steady.’ (p. 347)

‘We can’t go quite so fast,’ said she. ‘I’ve got people to say good-bye to – and then there’s the Captain.’ As his face fell she gave his arm a small understanding squeeze. (p. 355)

‘How are the children, John?’ she asked. (Hang the children!) ‘Perfectly well. Never better in their lives.’ ‘Haven’t they sent me letters?’ ‘Yes, yes – of course! I’ve left them at the hotel for you to digest later on.’ (p. 355)

In conclusion one can say John is jealous of everything that distracts Janey’s attention and love from himself.[4]

In his interaction with little Jean Scott, the daughter of an acquaintance, John Hammond once again shows masculine characteristics, such as physical strength and protection: „And easily, gently, he swung the little girl on to a higher barrel. The movement of holding her, steadying her, relieved him wonderfully, lightened his heart” (p. 352). Not only the girl’s name alludes to Janey, but at this moment the girl serves as a substitute for John’s wife. Throughout the whole story John refers to his wife using childlike terms. The prevailing adjectives used in connection with his wife are “small” (pp. 354, 355 and 362), “little” (pp. 355, 356 twice, 357, 360 and 363) and “gentle” (pp. 358 and 362). Also Janey Hammond’s gestures are characterized by lightness and gentleness. The way John sees his wife obviously offers him a feeling of superiority and comfort in a relationship in which he subconsciously fears and appears to be the weaker character. Her lightness and softness can also be applied to her behaviour towards her husband. She kisses him lightly and she perches on his knees. The verb “perch” (p. 360) already alludes to a bird sitting on a perch. This metaphor is continued when John evokes twice the image of a bird when he has the feeling that Janey is “flying away” (p. 358 and p. 361) as he embraces her. This stylistic device clearly illustrates John’s longing for fulfilment and passion in marital love and his wife’s behaviour which is marked by largely shunning it.

The fact that throughout the narrative Janey Hammond is associated with coldness underlines her elusive and disciplined character. Her behaviour towards her husband is controlled and rational and shaped by marital duty and a lack of inner warmth. She never gives full attention to her husband. While she is waving at him she talks to some women (compare p. 354) and while she is embracing him she asks for the children (compare p. 355). During the whole process of reunion she is occupied with saying goodbye to other people, like the doctor and the captain. Also when sitting on his lap in the hotel room she does not devote her attention to her husband, but remembers the stranger’s death on board of the ship (compare p. 361). Also the adjectives used for Janey’s description contribute to her lack of inner warmth. The first glimpse her husband catches of her is a “white glove shaking a handkerchief” (p. 354). The symbolism of the colour white is not only coldness, but also virginity and chastity. Both confirm Janey’s restricted emotions in their marital bond. This is also emphasized by the frequent employment of words associated with coldness. The first time John hears his wife’s voice he describes it as “cool” (p. 355). Also at the end of the story he is upset by the chillness of her words. But this time it is the content of her words that he compares to snowflakes (compare p. 363).


[1] The following paragraph is based on: Dada-Büchel, Marianne. Katherine Mansfield’s Dual Vision: Concepts of Duality and Unity in Her Fictional Work. Andreas Fischer (Hrsg.). Thübingen: francke verlag, 1995. p. 127-128.

[2] The following paragraph is based on: Alpers, Anthony. The Life of Katherine Mansfield. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983. pp. 94-95 and p. 321.

[3] quoted from: Mansfield, Katherine. “The Stranger”. In: The Collected Stories of Katherine Mansfield. London: Penguin Books, 2001. p. 350.

[4] compare Meyers, Jeffrey. Katherine Mansfield. A Biography. New York: New Directions, 1980. p. 214.

Excerpt out of 20 pages


Male protagonists and their marital situation in Katherine Mansfield's short stories 'The Stranger', 'At The Bay' and 'A Birthday'
University of Trier  (Department for English Literature)
Katherine Mansfield
1,7 (A-)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
516 KB
The following discourse is concerned with the male protagonists in Katherine Mansfield's short stories 'The Stranger', 'At the Bay' and 'A Birthday'. It emphasizes intimacy and alienation in marital partnerships as chief characteristics in these short stories.
Male, Katherine, Mansfield, Stranger, Birthday, Katherine, Mansfield
Quote paper
Viktor Höhn (Author), 2003, Male protagonists and their marital situation in Katherine Mansfield's short stories 'The Stranger', 'At The Bay' and 'A Birthday', Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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