Thijs van den Berg
October 16 2015
The Pear Tree and Sexuality in Katherine Mansfield’s “Bliss”
Katherine Mansfield’s short story “Bliss” is filled with symbolism. One symbol in particular stands out and is very prominent throughout the story. That symbol is the pear tree in the main character’s garden. Bertha Young views the tree as a symbol of her own life and she unintentionally dresses like the pear tree by wearing “a white dress, a string of jade beads, green shoes and stockings” (Mansfield 100). These two matters kick-start the association of Bertha with the tree, but there are many ways in which the pear tree represents and is connected to Bertha. Therefore, the argument can be formed that the pear tree in Katherine Mansfield’s “Bliss” serves as the main symbol of Bertha Young’s sexuality throughout the story.
The pear tree represents Bertha and her sexuality in different ways. First of all, the pear tree represents Bertha and her virginal character. The pear tree’s botanical qualities stand for Bertha’s virginity, because it is described as being in full bloom but it “had not a single bud” (Mansfield 100). This indicates that the tree is not fertilized and therefore pure and untouched. Bertha herself is not a virgin in the technical sense, but her feelings, thoughts and actions indicate her virginal character. This is shown, among other things, by her childlike behaviour at the beginning of the story. Her desire to “to run instead of walk (...), to bowl a hoop” (Mansfield 95) all underline her childlike characteristics. Another clue this short story provides is Bertha’s last name: ‘Young’. Bertha’s virginal character is also highlighted by her feeling of inadequacy with regards to her own child. The sentence “She stood watching them, her hands by her side, like a poor little girl in front of the rich girl with the doll ” (Mansfield 97, italics by me) shows that Bertha does not really know what to do with her child and this sentence also reveals Bertha views her child more as a doll than a living human being. The way she plays with Little B while the nanny is out of the room is even more proof of this. Her child is just a fun, adorable play-thing to entertain her for a moment, but she is not actually committed to her as a mother. She does love her daughter in that very moment, but it is more the love of a child infatuated with a toy than a deep-rooted motherly love. This indicates her childlike behaviour again, because a child cannot take care of a child. Yet another clue the story provides to shape Bertha’s virginal character is her disgust for the pregnant cat and her mate. This becomes clear when Bertha observes the two cats walking by the pear tree and she exclaims “What creepy things cats are!” (Mansfield 100). Lastly, Bertha’s virginal character becomes apparent by her inexperience with sexual arousal, referred to as bliss. Bertha refers to her bliss as a “brimming cup” (Mansfield 105) overflowing and unable to be contained. Bertha does not know what to do with this bliss. She expresses this to herself quite literally by thinking this: “all her feeling of bliss came back again, and again she didn't know how to express it–what to do with it” (Mansfield 98).
This feeling of bliss is “almost unbearable” (Mansfield 96) to her. If bliss is taken as sexual arousal in the context of the story, this does not sound like the thoughts of a grown woman of thirty, but more like an inexperienced “little girl” -which Bertha actually refers to herself as in the quote given a little earlier- that is trying to decipher her own sexual feelings. All these textual examples show that Bertha possesses a very virginal character and that the pear tree serves as a symbol to highlight this. However, this is only one way in which the pear tree serves as a symbol for Bertha’s sexuality.
The Pear tree also represents Bertha’s awakening sexuality, and more specifically: her bisexuality. The pear tree’s botanical qualities in this case represent her bisexuality. This is because the flowers of a pear tree possess both male and female organs (Pike 252). The pear tree is used to further develop the situation between Bertha and Pearl. At least, that is how Bertha perceives the situation between them when they are both looking out into the garden at the pear tree. In that moment, the tree seemed “almost to touch the rim of the round, silver moon” (Mansfield 106). The tree still represents Bertha and the Moon represents Pearl, because she is wearing silver and has “slender fingers that were so pale a light seemed to come from them” (Mansfield 105). Also, her name is Pearl, which is actually the first clue, since the moon is often referred to as looking shiny and pearlescent. Bertha feels like she and Pearl Fulton are utterly connected in that moment and perfectly understanding of each other. Bertha has a short, but for her very important moment of bliss with Pearl where they figuratively touch, awakening her bisexuality even more and making her feeling of bliss grow. However, after this moment follows Bertha’s realisation of Pearl and her Husband’s infringement and Bertha’s bliss is abruptly taken away from her. The fact that the moon represents Pearl during the moment of their connection is actually foreshadowing the fact that Bertha can never be with Pearl in the way that she desires. The moon does not only represent Pearl, but she also serves as a symbol of femininity in this short story. This is because the moon has been connected to the menstrual cycle since ancient history, due to its twenty-eight day cycles. It is also widely believed that when a girl gets her first period, she becomes a woman. Miss Fulton’s connection to the moon distances her from Bertha since Bertha is connected with the virginal pear tree and Pearl is connected to the womanly moon.