Katherine Mansfield’s “At the Bay”

I appreciate A Curious Singularity for introducing me to new authors and stories; I’d never read Katherine Mansfield until now and I’m glad I’ve read “At the Bay.” It’s quite a long short story with a relatively large cast of characters; it’s structured in a series of vignettes that tell the stories of members of the Burnell family. It takes place over the course of one day, opening with a fairly extended scene filled with descriptions of the natural world. We see a shepherd leading a flock of sheep past the bungalows of a summer colony in an unnamed place, although it’s presumably New Zealand where Mansfield was born.

From there we get brief stories about the characters who range in age from the very young, unnamed “boy” and his three older sisters to the mother Linda Burnell, her husband Stanley, and Linda’s sister Beryl. I found these stories unsettling. Stanley seems supremely self-absorbed, expecting the entire family to cater to his every need, and when he returns at the end of the day contrite and apologetic for not having said goodbye to Linda that morning, he only gets irritated when he realizes she has no idea what he is apologizing for. In the section devoted to Linda, she confesses that she doesn’t love her children, and at the story’s end, we read about Beryl’s sinister encounter with the husband of her friend.

The most enjoyable parts of the story were the descriptions of the children. Mansfield captures the feeling of being young very well, but even here the story is jarring as Linda’s daughter Lottie becomes distressed when she can’t figure out how to follow the game the children are playing and screams when she sees a strange face in a window. Another daughter Kezia, in a scene where she is napping with her grandmother, realizes for the first time what death means. She tries desperately to get her grandmother to deny that she will die one day, but she gets no answer and instead her attention is diverted. Instead of answers all we get is distraction.

These unsettling stories are framed by quiet, peaceful nature scenes, a pattern that reminds me of Virginia Woolf’s “Kew Gardens,” where descriptions of nature also predominate. In Woolf’s story, the natural world showed the brevity and relative insignificance of the human lives; her story of the snail trying to get past the leaf seemed just as important as anything happening in the people’s lives. In Mansfield’s story there seems to be more of a contrast between the peaceful natural setting and the discontented humans who populate it. Mansfield highlights the precariousness and uncertainty of human experience by contrasting it with the stability of nature. Here’s the closing section:

A cloud, small, serene, floated across the moon. In that moment of darkness the sea sounded deep, troubled. Then the cloud sailed away, and the sound of the sea was a vague murmur, as though it waked out of a dark dream. All was still.

In contrast to this stillness and serenity, the people seem stuck in a “dark dream.”

I think this story is most effective in the way it creates a mood — it evokes a feeling of dreaminess that begins to shade over into a nightmare at times. It doesn’t have a strong story line, but instead it gives a brief glimpse into a number of characters’ lives and through those glimpses builds its atmosphere.

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Filed under Books, Short stories

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