Mark Twain famously said that a joke is like a frog – you can dissect it, but first you have to kill it. That’s largely because a joke depends on the surprise at its end. A short story is a different creature altogether. It’s more like Frankenstein’s monster. We can know exactly what all of its parts are and how they work together, and yet still be surprised when it springs back to life. There’s some inwardly animating force that no examination of its parts and shape can ever fully explain. Katherine Mansfield’s Bliss is a perfect example of this. The story relies on a pear tree. Mansfield shifts the meaning of that pear tree throughout, and in the end allows it to deny meaning, to remain ineffable, and therefore powerful.
Let’s take a look at the story’s component parts. If we were to superimpose a classic story structure over it, we could place a break between the introduction and the deepening of conflict at about four pages in. The first section, the introduction, begins with Bertha, the protagonist, arriving home. It might be simplistic to say that all stories are about intention and obstacle, but it might also be helpful in a story that is as slippery as this one. Bertha is moved by a deep feeling of bliss – “as though you’d suddenly swallowed a bright piece of that late afternoon sun and it burned in your bosom, sending out a little shower of sparks into every particle, into every finger and toe.” This is turgid language, but its clearly Bertha’s own, and it tells us that she’s a person who struggles with expression, who feels something deeply but can’t find words for it. “Why be given a body if you have to keep it shut up in a case like a rare, rare fiddle?” she wonders, yet she herself knows that those aren’t the right words. Bertha enters her house and asks the servant girl about the fruit, which has arrived from the grocer and which she intends to arrange before she goes upstairs. It’s the first mention of fruit, and fruit, particularly pears, will be the recurring image of the story, its primary motif. Before she arranges the fruit she looks in the mirror and sees herself as someone with “an air of listening, waiting for something…divine to happen…that she knew must happen…infallibly.” Through this device Mansfield links fruit with anticipation, and not just any anticipation. Bertha is expecting the divine. Her bliss, then, is not a settled bliss. It doesn’t come from being domestically happy or sure of her role or even her personhood. It comes from expectation. This passage tells us what Bertha’s intention is – the completion of her bliss. She might not know what that completion would look like or feel like, but she longs for it nonetheless.
She arranges the fruit. Then she stands back to look at the effect, and “it really was most curious. For the dark table seemed to melt into the dusky light and the glass dish and the blue bowl to float in the air. This, of course in her present mood, was so incredibly beautiful…She began to laugh.” Bertha’s entire world is fraught with her anticipation, weighted with it, and, in a way, the physical objects of the house share her encroaching hysteria. She goes upstairs to look in on her baby. She wants to hold it while it eats, but the nurse won’t let her at first. This is the first indication of Bertha’s constraint, the obstacle in the story. Her role as wife and housekeeper keeps her from doing things that, she feels, will contribute to the completion of her bliss. “Why have a baby if it has to be kept – not in a case like a rare, rare fiddle – but in another woman’s arms?” This is Mansfield’s second sounding of the fiddle image, and the last one. She’s given it to us strongly enough that it will reverberate in our minds throughout the rest of the story. Bertha’s tension is fully elaborated – she wants to expand outward into bliss, while at the same time she is constrained by her role in society. It’s no wonder that she thinks “how more than idiotic civilization was.”
Three more things need to be accomplished before the ending of this first section, which introduces the story’s central conflict. We need to get some sense of Bertha’s husband, we need to be told about Pearl Fulton, and we need to be introduced to the pear tree. Again, fruit will be linked with anticipation. In this case Pearl Fulton is the vessel of anticipation. “They had met at the club and Bertha had fallen in love with her, as she always did fall in love with beautiful women who had something strange about them.” I’ll leave it to actual literary scholars to talk about the lesbian theme that gets introduced here. The important thing in terms of the story’s structure is that Bertha finds Miss Fulton slightly ineffable. She longs to experience true communion with Miss Fulton in the same way that she longs to have her bliss completed, and the reader is lead to expect that her two goals will have something to do with each other. At the same time, we are told that Harry, Bertha’s husband, disparages Pearl Fulton, and that all of his insults have to do with the appetite, the belly. When Bertha tells him that she finds Miss Fulton fascinating, he speculates that this is probably due to Pearl having “a good stomach.” But he’s not yet home. He calls to tell Bertha that he’ll be late, and she goes into the drawing-room to arrange the pillows on the chairs and couches. She looks through the window and sees the pear tree in the garden, “in fullest, richest bloom; it stood perfect, as though becalmed against the jade-green sky.” Then she sees a gray cat being followed by a black cat. Her reaction to these sights is strange. She starts walking up and down and then throws herself down on a couch. “‘I’m too happy – too happy!’ she murmured. And she seemed to see on her eyelids the lovely pear tree with its wide open blossoms as a symbol of her own life.”
Structurally, this is the end of the first section. Mansfield has introduced all of the themes and recurring images and all of the important characters. The second section, the deepening of conflict, begins with the arrival of unimportant characters. Bertha and Harry are having a dinner party, and Bertha dresses, quite unintentionally, in the colors of the pear tree. “Her petals rustled softly into the hall.” The guests are literary people and artists, and Bertha reiterates again and again that she likes them, but she also finds them funny. They wear odd clothes and talk about taxis and socks. Harry arrives and rushes upstairs to dress for dinner. Bertha knows that he’ll make a game of dressing, that he’ll rush through it and then set himself the challenge of arriving in the drawing-room looking cool and collected. We are told that she admires “his passion for fighting – for seeking in everything that came up against him another test of his power and of his courage.” The similarity between him and Bertha is developed. Both have a zest for life, but Bertha’s is constrained to a neutered sense of expectation, while Harry can express his fully. But his arrival in the room reminds Bertha that Miss Fulton hasn’t arrived yet – a fact that neatly ties together Harry and Pearl Fulton in the reader’s mind.
Then Miss Fulton does arrive, and Bertha goes to greet her. “What was there in the touch of that cool arm that could fan – fan – start blazing – blazing – the fire of bliss that Bertha did not know what to do with?” Again, we feel that Pearl Fulton is a vessel of anticipation. Bertha’s focus remains on her throughout dinner. “And still, in the back of her mind, there was the pear tree. It would be silver now, in the light of poor dear Eddie’s moon, silver as Miss Fulton, who sat there turning a tangerine in her slender fingers that were so pale a light seemed to come from them.” She begins to suspect that Pearl is secretly communing with her, and that she will give some sort of sign that this is in fact the case. Bertha expects Pearl Fulton to bring about the completion of her bliss. And as she waits, her anticipation grows to the point where it’s excruciating, almost dangerous. “I must laugh or die,” she thinks.
Dinner ends, and so does the second section of the story, the deepening of conflict. Bertha leads the women into the drawing-room, and Pearl Fulton does give the sign that Bertha has been waiting for. “‘Have you a garden?’ said the cool, sleepy voice.” Bertha shows her the garden, and the story comes to its crisis:
And the two women stood side by side looking at the slender, flowering tree. Although it was so still it seemed, like the flame of a candle, to stretch up, to point, to quiver in the bright air, to grow taller and taller as they gazed – almost to touch the rim of the round, silver moon.
How long did they stand there? Both, as it were, caught in that circle of unearthly light, understanding each other perfectly, creatures of another world, and wondering what they were to do in this one with all this blissful treasure that burned in their bosoms and dropped, in silver flowers, from their hair and hands?
Bertha achieves her moment of bliss, the communion that she’s been looking for. But it’s temporary, and it seems that the one thing that they can do with “all this blissful treasure” is to drink after-dinner coffee and make ridiculous chit chat. Bertha barely listens. She watches as Harry is rude to Miss Pearl, and she determines that she will tell Harry about their moment of communion when she and Harry are in bed together that night. And then something very odd happens. For the first time in her marriage, Bertha actually desires her husband. The completion of her bliss is also a sexual awakening. It’s as if, once the bliss is manifest in Pearl Fulton, it can become physically manifest in other ways as well. This is an inversion of the beginning image, when the fruit seemed to levitate off of the table. The physical world is no longer being drawn up towards bliss. Bliss is being drawn into the physical world.
But the story doesn’t end there. It seems as if Bertha’s desires are resolved, but the dinner guests are still present, and when they begin to leave Bertha catches sight of Harry passionately embracing Miss Fulton, and Miss Fulton returning his embrace. It’s a dreadful moment, yet, somehow, it doesn’t seem to break the communion between Bertha and Pearl Fulton. Pearl comes up to Bertha and takes her hand to say goodbye and murmurs, “Your lovely pear tree!” The communion was real, but the facts of the world that surround it are not. Bliss won’t come down and be present in the physical world, at least not in the way that Bertha expects. She runs over to the windows. “‘Oh, what is going to happen now?’ she cried. But the pear tree was as lovely as ever and as full of flower and as still.” That is the story’s true resolution. The reader is left to understand that the bliss which the pear tree signifies is not accessible to Bertha in any way that she can articulate. It’s not in the physical setting of her house, or in her social roles, or even in her deepest moments of communion with another person. It remains outside of her, removed from her, something she can long for and never reach.
You can read Bliss online by following this link: http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/mansfield/bliss/story.html