Q. Write the summary of The Garden Party by Katherine Mansfield.
The Garden Party Summary
Katherine Mansfield’s short story “The Garden Party” explores the stark social stratifications and the transition from youthful innocence to the stark realities of life and death.
Centered on Laura Sheridan, the narrative unfolds an extravagant garden party’s preparations and contrasts it with a tragic event from a nearby lower-class neighborhood.
The narrative encapsulates Laura’s coming-of-age journey. The story also highlights the transient nature of life, from jubilant celebrations to solemn reflections on mortality.
The story centers around the Sheridan family, a well-to-do clan in New Zealand, and their preparation for an elaborate garden party.
Setting the Stage
“The Garden Party” begins in New Zealand on a bright and idyllic summer morning. The story unfolds with the Sheridan family preparing for an opulent garden party.
The stage is set in the lush confines of the Sheridans’ well-appointed garden, filled with blooming flowers and a beautifully adorned marquee – a clear reflection of their affluent lifestyle. Mansfield weaves an atmosphere of excitement, grandeur, and high-spirited anticipation.
Amid this, we meet Laura Sheridan, the family’s youngest daughter and the story’s protagonist. Her character is introduced while she is deeply involved in overseeing the preparations for the event.
She interacts with the workers, giving them instructions about the marquee, and is animatedly absorbed in the flurry of the arrangements. These initial sequences highlight her naivety, innocence, and privileged background.
Mansfield’s descriptive narration beautifully encapsulates Laura’s world. She notes,
The Sheridans’ garden was a perfect feast for the eyes. Roses and lilies, delphiniums, daisies, and marigolds, the scents that seemed floating upon the air like invisible incense.
The house is also bustling with activities – richly adorned cakes, trays filled with sandwiches, and beautiful new clothes. Through these detailed descriptions, Mansfield successfully sets the stage for the upcoming events, firmly establishing the Sheridans’ lifestyle and Laura’s place.
An Unexpected Tragedy
The story suddenly turns when Laura, excitedly involved in organizing the garden party, is informed about an unexpected tragedy. A worker from the lower-class neighbourhood nearby, often referred to as “the lane,” has died in a terrible accident.
The news hits Laura like a bolt from the blue. The tragedy deeply affects her, and she instantly feels the absurdity of continuing with the party amidst such circumstances.
It also feels incredibly inappropriate to her, a discordant note in the cheerful symphony of their affluent life. In this quote, Mansfield vividly portrays Laura’s emotional turmoil:
But we can’t possibly have a garden-party with a man dead just outside the front gate
Laura’s empathy and sensitivity towards the tragedy are apparent as she proposes to her family that the party should be canceled. Her immediate reaction shows her innate kindness and consideration for others, which starkly contrasts with the attitudes of the rest of her family.
This sudden tragedy introduces a significant conflict in the story, catalyzing Laura’s journey of self-discovery and growing awareness of the harsh realities outside her sheltered world.
The Family’s Dismissal of Laura’s Concerns
When Laura proposes canceling the party due to the worker’s death, her family dismisses her concerns with an air of detached nonchalance. Laura’s sensitivity toward the tragedy does not resonate with her family, who are firmly ensconced in their privileged lifestyle.
They view the incident as a regrettable but distant event that should not interfere with their social gathering. Laura’s mother, Mrs Sheridan, plays a pivotal role. She uses a clever distraction tactic to divert Laura’s attention from the unpleasantness of the death. She presents Laura with a stylish new hat, saying,
Here’s the new hat… I want you to try it on before the mirror.
Laura’s mother knows that her young daughter is fond of such adornments. This strategic move highlights Mrs Sheridan’s ability to manipulate Laura’s feelings and subtly reinforces the social divide within their society.
Laura’s Awkward Errand
After the lavish garden party, Mrs Sheridan suggests sending the leftover sandwiches, pastries, and some flowers to the bereaved family of the deceased worker. She delegates this task to Laura because she wants to appease Laura’s previous discomfort about the tragedy.
Walking towards the worker’s humble residence, Laura finds herself out of her element. The stark contrast between her home’s affluence and the poverty in the lane leaves her feeling profoundly uncomfortable and awkward.
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.
Upon reaching the bereaved family’s home, Laura’s discomfort increases. She is unsure how to present the leftover food and flowers to a grieving family. Mansfield aptly captures Laura’s struggle, innocence, and privilege, grappling with a situation she has never faced before.
It leads to an overwhelming feeling of awkwardness and self-consciousness. This errand marks the beginning of a transformation in Laura’s understanding of the world beyond her sheltered existence.
Laura’s Confrontation with Death
Despite her initial discomfort and hesitation, Laura enters the room where the deceased worker’s body lies. This moment marks her first direct encounter with death. Mansfield poignantly narrates,
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.
Seeing the worker’s serene expression is a profound revelation for Laura. This, coupled with the reality of his untimely demise, deepens the impact of her revelation.
It brings her face to face, not only with death’s inevitability but also with life’s transient nature. This moment is akin to an epiphany for Laura. She feels an inexplicable connection with the deceased man.
This encounter also introduces a new understanding of life and death for Laura, who has led a sheltered and carefree life.
Her exposure to this raw and grim reality initiates her transition from the blissful ignorance of youth to a sobering understanding of mortal existence. This confrontation with mortality deeply impacts Laura.
The story, The Garden Party, culminates with a transformed Laura, deeply affected by her confrontation with death. This profound experience shakes her previous perspectives and forces her to grapple with complex emotions and realizations about life, death, and social disparity.
After leaving the worker’s house, she stumbles upon her brother, Laurie, on her way back home. She attempts to articulate her feelings to him, but her emotions overwhelm her, and words fall short. Mansfield notes,
She stopped, she looked at her brother. ‘Isn’t life,’ she stammered, ‘isn’t life,’ But what life was she couldn’t explain.
In response, Laurie, displaying a level of understanding and maturity, says,
Isn’t it, darling?
His words seem to capture the complexity of Laura’s emotions. He empathizes with her even without fully comprehending what she has gone through. He also comforts his transformed sister.
Characters of The Garden Party
Laura Sheridan is the central character and moral compass of Katherine Mansfield’s “The Garden Party.” As a young woman from a wealthy family, she initially shares her family’s enthusiasm for the garden party. However, Laura’s innate sensitivity sets her apart.
News of a poor labourer’s death profoundly affects her, prompting a shift in her worldview. This event marks a turning point, transforming her from an innocent young woman blissfully unaware of life’s harsh realities into someone painfully aware of social inequality and the inevitability of mortality.
Mrs Sheridan, Laura’s mother, is an embodiment of upper-class insensitivity. She is the driving force behind the family’s extravagant garden party, prioritizing it over the well-being of her less fortunate neighbours.
Her calm reaction to the news of a worker’s death, choosing to focus on the garden party instead, highlights her indifference to the plight of the lower classes. Mrs Sheridan’s character critically comments on the upper class’s detachment from realities outside their privileged bubble.
Jose Sheridan, Laura’s sister, represents the privileged class’s superficial concerns. Her primary focus is on maintaining appearances and ensuring the success of the garden party.
Jose’s obliviousness to the contrast between her world and the lower classes emphasizes the family’s ignorance of social disparities. She embodies the sheltered existence the Sheridan family leads, oblivious to the hardships of the working class.
Meg Sheridan, another of Laura’s sisters, is very similar to Jose in her preoccupations. Her character does not delve deeply into the moral dilemmas of the story but instead adheres to the superficial concerns of their social class.
She, too, mirrors the ignorance of the upper class towards the struggles of the lower class, further spotlighting the vast social divide depicted in the story.
Laurie Sheridan, Laura’s brother, has a relatively minor role in the narrative. He appears only at the start and end of the story. However, his character subtly contributes to the broader class distinction theme, reinforcing the contrast between the privileged Sheridan family and their less fortunate neighbours.
The Dead Man
The Dead Man, a young, poor labourer, lives in a cottage near the Sheridans’ estate. Although he never appears in the story, his sudden death catalyzes Laura’s moral awakening. His death contrasts with the opulent garden party, emphasizing the gaping chasm between privilege and poverty.
The Dead Man’s Widow
The Dead Man’s Widow appears when Laura visits her humble home. Her sorrow and desolation paint a heartbreaking picture of life’s harsh realities.
In the presence of the grieving widow, Laura experiences a profound awakening, further accentuating the story’s themes of class distinction and mortality.
The workers setting up the garden party represent the working class, starkly contrasting the Sheridans’ affluence. They operate in the background, largely overlooked by the Sheridan family, yet their presence constantly reminds them of the socioeconomic divide that pervades the story.