Finding Fact in Fiction in Mansfield’s “Bliss”

On the surface, the short story “Bliss” by Katherine Mansfield focuses on the seemingly trivial life of a typical middle-class woman preparing for a dinner party. At first glance, the piece reads like a fictional short story because it is told through a third-person perspective and deals with a sort of love-triangle-esque relationship between the characters. However, through the purposeful implementation of punctuation, such as em dashes and exclamation points, Mansfield creates a significant dichotomy between female and male speech patterns that grounds the piece in reality and gives it a non-fictional element. Most of these literary tools that Mansfield employs are conveyed through the dialogue between the characters, which are realistic and believable because they mirror stereotypical language one would expect from a middle-class housewife and her neglectful, unfaithful husband. Stereotypical examples of feminine speech as frantic and trivial displayed by the central character, Bertha, are juxtaposed with strong, collected, more masculine speech, therefore illustrating women as as submissive and erratic, whereas men are depicted as authoritative and more stable, mentally and emotionally. The oppressive relationship between men and women, where women are encouraged by society to act as men’s objects, is only outlined by Bertha’s contrived happiness and treacherous relationship with Pearl, the woman whom she, at first, has a hidden obsession with until she learns that she is having an affair with her husband. The situations presented in the story mirror the reality of the male-dominated society that still exists today, an environment in which women struggle between their internal thoughts and external selves, often putting themselves in competition with other women for male attention.
Although on the surface the story seems to follow the fictional story of Bertha, the naive, dainty wife, and her changing feelings towards her husband, there is much more occurring beneath the surface that brings truth and factuality to the fiction genre. In drawing a distinct line between male and female speech patterns, Mansfield is commenting on the strict limitations placed on women by the men who control them in society. On one hand, Harry is a symbol of masterful authority, described by Bertha as “extravagantly cool and collected” (Mansfield 150). On the other, Bertha’s character is categorized by short, passionate outbursts. The frequent use of em dashes throughout the story as well as exclamatory punctuation and repetition serve as archetypes of female speech. For instance, referring to her baby daughter, Bertha exclaims, “You’re nice — you’re very nice! … I’m fond of you. I like you” (147), repeating the same words and sentence structure adds a childish, almost unsophisticated tone. Bertha’s choppy breathless exclamations outline her submissive role whereas Harry’s small talk, sarcastic jokes, and self-assuredness contribute to his powerful masculinity. Whenever Bertha speaks, her dialogue is accompanied by verbs such as “stammered”, “murmured”, or “breathed” (148, 153), which are usually attributed to a state of befuddlement. Meanwhile, when Harry speaks, particularly to his wife, verbs like “rapped out” are used, as if he were some military man barking out orders (147). Gender-specific speech patterns in the story serve the purpose of making women look foolish or unreasonable, not to be taken seriously, while heightening the dominance of men.
Because Mansfield builds off of real human speech patterns and translates them to written word, there is an element of realness in her work that blurs the line between fiction and nonfiction. Because Bertha cannot understand her own complex feelings and reactions to discovering her husband’s infidelity, her emotions are reproduced in breathless, repetitious sentences. The broken syntax, which is layered with em dashes and exclamation marks, make the language seem real and spontaneous, as if someone were thinking out loud and onto the page. Mansfield transports us inside of Bertha’s mind, revealing her insights moment by moment as they happen. All of these elements make this fictional short story feel like free, indirect discourse.

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