The Garden Party Summary

The Garden Party Summary

Q. Write the summary of The Garden Party by Katherine Mansfield.

The Garden Party Summary


Katherine Mansfield’s short story “The Garden Party” examines social classes and changes from youthful innocence to the realities of life and death.

Centered on Laura Sheridan, the story follows the preparations for a grand garden party and contrasts it with a tragic event in a nearby poorer neighborhood.

The story shows Laura growing up and understanding how life can change quickly, from happy celebrations to serious thoughts on mortality.

The story focuses on the Sheridan family, a wealthy group in New Zealand, and their preparation for an elaborate garden party.

Setting the Stage

“The Garden Party” starts in New Zealand on a sunny summer morning. The story unfolds with the Sheridan family preparing for a grand garden party.

The scene is set in the Sheridans’ beautiful garden, full of blooming flowers and a decorated marquee – a clear sign of their wealthy lifestyle. Mansfield creates an atmosphere of excitement and anticipation.

Amid this, we meet Laura Sheridan, the family’s youngest daughter and the story’s main character. She is deeply involved in overseeing the preparations for the event.

She interacts with the workers, giving them instructions about the marquee, and is fully engaged in the flurry of the arrangements. These initial scenes show her naivety, innocence, and privileged background.

Mansfield’s detailed descriptions beautifully capture 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 effectively sets the stage for the upcoming events, firmly establishing the Sheridans’ lifestyle and Laura’s place.

An Unexpected Tragedy

The story suddenly changes when Laura, excited about organizing the garden party, hears about an unexpected tragedy. A worker from the nearby lower-class neighborhood, often called “the lane,” has died in an accident.

The news shocks Laura. The tragedy deeply affects her, and she immediately feels it is wrong to continue with the party under such circumstances.

It also seems very inappropriate to her, a jarring note in the cheerful atmosphere of their wealthy life. In this quote, Mansfield shows Laura’s emotional struggle:

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 clear as she tells her family that the party should be canceled. Her immediate reaction shows her kindness and consideration for others, which contrasts with the attitudes of the rest of her family.

This sudden tragedy introduces a major conflict in the story, driving Laura’s journey of self-discovery and awareness of the harsh realities outside her sheltered world.

The Family’s Dismissal of Laura’s Concerns

When Laura suggests canceling the party due to the worker’s death, her family dismisses her concerns with a detached attitude. Laura’s sensitivity toward the tragedy does not affect her family, who are firmly rooted in their privileged lifestyle.

They see the incident as unfortunate but distant and believe it should not disrupt their social gathering. Laura’s mother, Mrs. Sheridan, plays a key role. She distracts Laura by giving her 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 loves such adornments. This move highlights Mrs. Sheridan’s ability to manipulate Laura’s feelings and subtly reinforces the social divide in their society.

Laura’s Awkward Errand

After the lavish garden party, Mrs. Sheridan suggests sending the leftover sandwiches, pastries, and flowers to the deceased worker’s family. She gives this task to Laura to ease her previous discomfort about the tragedy.

Walking towards the worker’s modest home, Laura feels out of place. The stark contrast between her home’s wealth and the poverty in the lane makes her uncomfortable and awkward.

Mansfield writes,

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 reaches the bereaved family’s home, her discomfort increases. She is unsure how to give the leftover food and flowers to a grieving family. Mansfield captures Laura’s struggle, innocence, and privilege, dealing with a situation she has never faced before.

It leads to an overwhelming feeling of awkwardness and self-consciousness. This errand starts a change in Laura’s understanding of the world beyond her sheltered life.

Laura’s Confrontation with Death

Despite her initial discomfort and hesitation, Laura enters the room where the deceased worker’s body lies. This is her first direct encounter with death. Mansfield describes,

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 calm expression is a profound moment for Laura. This, along with the reality of his untimely death, deepens her understanding.

It brings her face to face with death’s inevitability and life’s fleeting nature. This moment is like a revelation for Laura. She feels a strong connection with the deceased man.

This encounter introduces a new understanding of life and death for Laura, who has led a sheltered and carefree life.

Her exposure to this raw reality starts her transition from the blissful ignorance of youth to a sobering understanding of mortal existence. This confrontation with mortality deeply impacts Laura.

Laura’s Transformation

The story, The Garden Party, ends with a changed Laura, deeply affected by her encounter with death. This experience shakes her previous views and forces her to deal with complex emotions and realizations about life, death, and social inequality.

After leaving the worker’s house, she meets her brother, Laurie, on her way back home. She tries to express her feelings to him, but her emotions overwhelm her, and she can’t find the words. 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, showing 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 understanding what she has gone through. He also comforts his changed sister.

Characters of The Garden Party

Laura Sheridan

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, Mrs Sheridan, 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

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

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 upper class’s ignorance of the lower class’s struggles, further spotlighting the vast social divide depicted in the story.

Laurie Sheridan

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 causes Laura’s moral awakening. His death contrasts with the opulent garden party, emphasizing the gap 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 sad picture of life’s harsh realities.

In the presence of the grieving widow, Laura experiences a profound awakening, further highlighting the story’s themes of class distinction and mortality.

The Workers

The workers setting up the garden party represent the working class, contrasting with the Sheridans’ wealth. They operate in the background, largely overlooked by the Sheridan family, yet their presence constantly reminds them of the economic divide that pervades the story.

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