What Is the Theme of the Short Story “Miss Brill?”

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The theme of Katherine Mansfield’s short story, “Miss Brill,” is the contrast of illusion and reality, and is based on the need of the story’s eponymous namesake for constructing romanticized illusions as part of her personal denial of reality. Miss Brill, an Englishwoman and spinster in a foreign country who tutors children, compensates for her loneliness by projecting herself into the lives of the strangers she observes around her. She has a need for love and a connection to others, but her needs remain repressed and frustrated.

Miss Brill views the macrocosm of her life as a “theater” in which dramas unfold as she watches and listens to the activities and conversations of the people around her while she sits at her “special seat” during her Sunday visits to a local park. Her inner pretensions are fueled by her romanticizing and elaborating upon the smallest details of the personal interactions she observes taking place in the park. In this way, Miss Brill has been able to live a vicarious existence that reflects her love for the world, even though she is only a part of that world through the constructions of her personally idealized and self-serving illusions. At the close of the story, she hears herself referred to as “a stupid old thing” and finds her illusory perception of the world shattered by the cruel words. She retreats back to her room which, through the author’s previous use of foreshadowing, the reader is led to believe resembles “a darkened cupboard.”

Mansfield’s short story first appeared in the English literary magazine, “Athenaeum,” on November 26, 1921, and later appeared in “The Garden Party and Other Stories.” The story is written in the third-person limited point of view, in the modernist style and without a set structure.