THE SINGING LESSON BY KATHERINE MANSFIELD – PHASES OF MISS MEADOWS
Luana Mara Almeida Teixeira
Universidade de São Paulo
Resumo: Este ensaio considera personagens e enredo psicológicos como uma marca poética presente na obra de Katherine Mansfield. É uma característica que se desenvolve com o humor psicológico sobre o gênero conto. Seu trabalho dá ao leitor a mesma impressão de quando as pessoas vêem a imagem de um quadro impressionista, por exemplo. Parece como um momento capturado. O conto escolhido foi a aula – The Singing Lesson. O objetivo deste trabalho é descobrir como a personagem principal, Miss Meadows, pode ser entendida. Isso significa que por trás dela, há muitas coisas que outras mulheres já fizeram antes. Este ensaio indica que é possível fazer uma comparação entre Miss Meadows e a deusa grega Deméter, por meio de símbolos e da complexidade de suas ações. que merece um romance de verdade, por causa de sua complexidade.
Abstract: This essay considers psychological characters and plot as a mark of poetic present in the work of Katherine Mansfield. It’s a feature that develops within the psychological mood on the genre short story. Her work gives the reader the same impression as when people see an impressionist painting, for example. It looks as an imprisoned moment. The chosen short story was The Singing Lesson. The aim of this paper is to discover how the main character, Miss Meadows, may be understood. It means that behind her, there are many things that women have always done before. This essay indicates that it is possible to make a comparison between Miss Meadows and the Greek goddess Demeter, through symbols and the complexity of her actions.
Palavras-chave: Katherine Mansfield, “A lição de canto”, conto, Demeter.
Key words: Katherine Mansfield, “The singing lesson”, short story, Demeter.
Minicurrículo: Luana M. A. Teixeira é mestranda em Estudos da Tradução pela Faculdade de Filosofia, Letras e Ciências Humanas da Universidade de São Paulo. Possui graduação em Letras pela Universidade Estadual Paulista Júlio de Mesquita Filho. É secretária executiva na Universidade Federal do ABC desde 2009, com atuação na área de comunicação, ensino de inglês e português para estrangeiros e tradução. É terapeuta floral do Sistema Joel Aleixo e escreve sobre autoconhecimento e desenvolvimento humano.
THE SINGING LESSON BY KATHERINE MANSFIELD – PHASES OF MISS MEADOWS
Luana Mara Almeida Teixeira
Universidade de São Paulo
“Salomon said: There’s no new thing upon the earth. So that as Plato had an imagination, that all knowledge was but remembrance, so Salomon gave his sentence that all novelty is but oblivion.” Francis Bacon, Essays, LVIII
We intend to show how the mood is created in the shot story “The singing lesson” by Katherine Mansfield and the importante of the character Miss Meadows into it, through an analysis of the symbols that appear along the text.
The characters are middle class people, who, because of their visceral mediocrity, could cause nothing but indifference. So after evoking in few lines a whirlwind of sensations, the author hurries in dismantling that effect, as if she wanted to apologize because of the impact she had caused. With this, however, she adds more vigor to the narrative, as if the strength of the text had been born just from its delicacy.
The plot is very simple. A despairing singing teacher, Miss Meadows, has to stard her class, but she has just received a letter from her bridegroom, Basil. This letter makes her thing their relationship was ended. So, the teacher changes what she had prepared for the classes and obliges the students to sing the saddest song of their books, while she plays the piano.
Soon a telegram from Basil is sent to Miss Meadows, asking her to apologize him. The teacher comes back to the class smiling and asks for the students sing another song, happy and sweet, without explanations, as if nothing had happend.
Starting the narration
The mood has to sustain the soul’s excitement for a certain time, so, the short story starts this way: “With despair – cold, sharp despair…”. It creates a tension atmosphere. Then there are words wich remind death, like this simile: “buried deep in her heart like a wicked knife”.
The setting starts with: “cold corridors that led to the music hall”. The corridors are like a labyrinth when she felt in a prison, confused, bitterly lonely and auloved. It’s an autumn morning, nevertheless, it’s as cold as winter.
A sound from the stair case announces that something is going to happen. It’s when the conflict begins. A bell had just ringed, like a bad sing. It’s a psychological plot. There are descriptions of the environment only when it’s according to what is happening with the characters.
Miss Meadows versus The Science Mistress
A secondary character , the Science Mistress, is described through this imagery: “sweet, pale, like honey”. She has yellow hair. This color is disagreeing with what Miss Meadows feels, so this disturbs her.
There’s no physical descriptions of Miss Meadows. We just know she wears “cap and gown” and handles “ little baton”. When she talks to the Science Mistress, “hugging the knife”, there’s no real knife. It’s a wedged letter on her throat, a metaphor about how she feels in her heart.
There’s an opposition between them. The Science Mistress has a “sugary smile”, while Miss Meadows is “frozen”, grim. The first one has blue eyes. That’s the first complication that Miss Meadows will have with the blue color.
Starting the class
The students are making noise and get silent when Miss Meadows arrive. She brings apprehension with her. Mary Beazley, her favorite student, “was turning the music stool”. That turn symbolizes the turn fo the world, which stops. It’s as if Miss Meadows had power to rule nature and to change the things’ course. This is how her inner tempest will become an environmental tempest.
She beats the baton asking for silence. The baton is a sign of her power, like a magician’s stick or a magic wand. The girls wear a “sea of coloured flannel blouses” and they get silent, as if the colours had to be stagnated.
The singing teacher remembers the letter she had received from her bridegroom. He had written: “I’m not a marrying man”. She was feeling “bleeding to death, pierced to the heart”. The red colour represents as the love as the rage Miss Meadows feels when her pride is injured.
The bridegroom’s symbology
The bridegroom’s name is Basil, which may be associated with the mythological creature basilisk, that is an unbelievable kind of snake. “People have been surprised enough that she had get engaged. (…). She was thirty. Basil was twenty-five”. It had been a miracle that Basil appeared, like the basilisk, that is able to kill with its breath, stare or physical contact, like Basil could hurt just using words of a letter.
Basilisk is also an ancient cannon of a piece of artillery, that can cause damage. It represents hardness, insensibility. The same insensibility Bad used when he wrote the letter: “ and the word ‘disgust’ was scratched out lightly and ‘regret’ written over the top”.
Basil demonstrates he didn’t have greatness enough to understand love and to be selfless. Either he didn’t have mental structure to be engaged or he didn’t have enough maturity. He might have been confused, in addition, he was impulsive and selfish.
The last time Miss Meadow had seen Basil, he “had worn a rose with his buttonhole. How handsome he had looked in that bright blue suit, with that dark red rose”. That’s the contrast between blue and red, while she heard the melancholic voices of the contraltos, the deepest and lowest female voices.
The colour light red is an image of heath and wealth, beauty and youngness, Eros free and triumphant. Red is everlasting the place of the battle – or dialects – between heaven and hell. A sumptuous red, more mature, becomes the emblem of power. Expressed, red becomes dangerous as the instinct of power. When not controlled, it gets selfishness, hate, blind passion, hellish love. In this colour, the two deepest human impulses are linked: action and passion, liberation and oppression. The dark red is associated to death. It’s a sign of sadness, like dead soldiers in a war. The purple oceans of Greeks and the Red Sea are tied to the same symbolism: they represent the womb, where death and life transmutes to each other.
According to Kandinsky, the deepness of blue has a solemn seriousness, above earth, that evokes the death idea. The Egyptian considered it the colour of the truth. Blue is the colour of the bliss bird, inaccessible though so close. Entering in blue is to do like Alice, from Wonderland, passing through the other side of the mirror. This colour symbolizes the exact pure and cold, as Basil, like Basil, because maybe he was innocent for having not perceived what he could cause with his actions. It seems a little inconsequent and childish.
Miss Meadows remembers when Basil said: “You know, somehow or other, I’ve got fond of you”. And he “had taken hold of the end of her ostrich feather boa”. In Egypt, the ostrich feather was a symbol of justice, equity, truth. Miss Meadows demonstrates she had believed in her bridgroom, so how could he had changed his mind so much?
The yellow chrysanthemum
The student Mary Beasley gives the teacher a “yellow chrysanthemum”. It was a ritual that was part of the class, like opening the piano. This time, Miss Meadows doesn’t thank for the gift. She just ignores it, with its regular and radiating petals arrangement, wich is a symbol essentially solar, associated with ideals of longevity and even of immortality, but Miss Meadows love is dead now.
From Japan to China and Vietnam, many homophonies give the chrysanthemun a hole of mediator between heaven and earth, associating it also to notions of plenitude, totality. This flower becomes a symbol of perfection, and so, joy for the eyes. Therefore, it’s and unpleasant sight to Miss Meadows, like the solar aspect of the Science Mistress.
In Europe and Asia the chrysanthemum was as autumn flower, the season of a peace life after carrying out the meadows obligations. That’s the flower which, among all, hides and avoids the world. Miss Meadows bring meadows in her name. She’s the chrysantemum owner. Ther aspect of mediator remids the power of the teacher over the students.
Mood: The lament and the environment
When Miss Meadows doesn’t answer the girl’s greeting, Mary Beasley’s eyes get filled with tears. The teacher orders the girls to sing “a lament”. The sing with “mournful voices”. The teacher contaminates them with her state of spirit. The music is like a mantra, magic words of a goddess and their inner sides are changed to winter. The lyric of the music is like that moment of life the character was passing:
Fast! Ah. Too Fast Fade the Ro-o-ses Pleasure;
Soon autumn yields unto Wi-I-inter Drear.
Fleetly! Ah. Fleetly Mu-u-sic’s Gay Measure
Passes away from the Listening Ear.
Tension is growing. “Every note was a sigh, a sob, a groan of awful mournfulness”. The situation is almost unsustainable. While she’s creating such an external disorder, Miss Meadows, in her internal chaos, wonders about what could have happened to Basil as he had that attitude. On his last letter she had been very happy. That’s how we may realize how dependent she is from external events and from her relationship with her bridegroom.
The Lament” goes on. “The willow trees, outside the higs, narrow windows, waved in the wind”. The willow is a tree associated to the idea of death, of sadness. “ They had lost half their lives. The tiny ones that clung wriggled like fishes caught on a line”. The comparison gets the impression of a whole death. It looks as if all the leaves wanted to fall down. The narrow windows, suffocating, cause anguish, as the singing lament. The setting agrees perfectly with the creation of a gloomy, morbid mood by Miss Meadows.
“The Lament” is like a funeral march. Miss Meadows gets a dark aspect – of waning moon – darkening the environment as well. She says: “Make that Drear sound as if a cold wind were blowing through it. Dre-ar!”
Mary Beazley “wriggled her spine”. The atmosphere is already heavy enough when Miss Meadows says: “you must begin to die… to fade… until de Listening Ear is nothing more than a faint whisper…” It sounds like Miss Meadows wanted to express all the misery seh was feeling, because living on a happy world would be a martyrdom for her at that moment.
“The voices were silent; the piano waited”. There’s a pause. Everybody remains blockaded, stagnant, languid and Miss Meadows retakes, much more vehemently, her metamorphosing class. The rhythm grows up, the tension is raised. Some of the girls are “crimson” – the red colour again. One of them starts to cry. “Big spots fo rain blew against the windows, and one could hear the willows whispering”.
All that brain storm flows into a real rain of tears and drops mixed each other, blowing up. An effect like that also occurs in a short story of the North American writer Kate Chopin (1851-1904). It’s “The Storm”. The character Calixta has a sexual awakening during a tempest. The story deals openly with female sexuality. Calixta, a happily married woman, is nevertheless attracted to another man. Daring for it’s time, Chopin’s story ends happy for all the characters and no disastrous consequences attend Calista’s passionate encounter with the man, Alceé.
In both stories, “The singing lesson” and “The storm”, the environment is like a mirror that reflects the emotions of the characters. It’s the pain exceeding the body’s walls, transcending it. The ritual is performed, near of a climax, like an alchemic transformation. “Soon Autumn yields unto Winter Drear”
A deeper analysis of Miss Meadows
Miss Meadows, as the gods of Olympus in Greek mythology, has human attitudes and defects. She’s susceptible to suffer with the changes of fortune in life and she can make use of her power indiscriminately against the weaker and more vulnerable people to overflow her pain, hate or jow. For the gods, the weaker is the human being. In this short story, the girls are under Miss Meadows’ inclement mood.
Basil is her object of value, so his absence causes sadness. When he comes back, nature smiles again. It’s like the myth of the goddess Demeter, who rules the seasons of the year according to the absences and presences of her daughter Persephone.
Furthermore, among primitive people, the name is inseparable of both thing and subject designated. That’s the prime care and respect they dispense with it, attributing it a magic meaning, a holy value. Meadows means fields, greenland. That’s the kingdom of Demeter, who is the material goddess of earth, harvests, seasons and fertility. She is usually represented beside a snake – it might be related to the basilisk of the short story.
It has been said that Persephone was kidnapped by Hades, god of the hells. He fell in love with the young one and kidnapped haer, taking advantage of the exact moment when she was quietly picking flowers up in company of the Nymphs. When Zeus ordered Hades to give Persephone back to her mother, it was impossible, because the had eaten a pomegranate seed in the hells and it was sufficient to keep her indissolubly linked to that place.
For softening the grieving of Demeter, Zeus decided that Persephone would divide her time between the subterranean and the alive worlds. Then, during the time when mother and daughter are separated, the ground remains sterile, infertile. It’s autumn and winter. However, when they are joined together again, nature smiles and blooms. It’s spring and summer. So, the cycle goes on. Demeter’s humour is reigned by contentment and also Miss Meadows acts like this.
The end of the story
Miss Meadows “would have to leave the school, too”. She would have to hide herself, like the chrysanthemum that, among all the flowers, avoids the world.
“The voices began to die, to fade, to whisper… to vanish…”. The reader would think that now death is going to reign utterly, when “suddenly the door opened”. A girl enters “in blue (…) and twisting the silver bangle on her red little wrist”. She’s a woman called Monica and brings the contrast between blue and red once more. She says that Miss Wyatt, the principal of the school, wants to see Miss Meadows on her room.
There’s a moment of expectation and apprehension when Miss Meadows cross the cold, silent corridors. An apologetic telegram had been sent to her by Basil. “He had commited suicede, decides Miss Meadows”. The idea of his death is a relief to her – despite she misses him – because it might take away from her the heaviness of the responsability of being abandoned. She wouldn’t have the guilt and could blame just the lack of motives to be alive, the despair that makes someone kills himself.
Happily Basil was not dead. On his telegram he asks her no to mind his letter because he was mad. Miss Meadows “blushed”, the hot colours were coming back. Miss Wyatt says that is forbidden to receive telegrams “in school hours, unless in case of death (…) or a very serious accident or something to that effect”.
The situation is the opposite. Miss Meadows received some news that gives her life back, like when Persephone comes back to Demeter. “On wings of hope, of love, of joy, Miss Meadows sped back to the music hall”. She crosses the corridors again. Like a labyrinth that carries to death or life, the corridors are an intermediary plane, a stay yonder. They are the way that take to heaven or hell, both represented by the music hall, where the music of life is developed.
Miss Meadows comes back to that room, picks up the chrysanthemum and raps with her baton. She retakes the ritual of another season. Now it’s another page of the songbook, time to another song:
We come here Today with Flowers o’erladen
With Baskets of Fruit and Ribbons to boot
That’s the climax, an apex, a zenith. It’s spring now. Everything has to regain its agility, becoming eager. Miss Meadows says: “Use your imaginations”. She “beamed at the girls”, since the sun is shining inside her. The air, the voices, the sound and all the rest become light. The girls are manipulated, influenced bey the teacher, who tries to touch them with her joy. It’s the end of the nightmare. “Don’t look so doleful, girls. It ought to sound warm, joyful, eager”.
Miss Meadows seems to be filled with an instinctive, impulsive, spontaneous infatuation. She recovers motion, impetuosity, fervor, frenzy, moved by her satisfied desire. “And this time Miss Meadows voice sounded over all the other voices – full, deep, glowing with expression”. At this point she demonstrates her place at the hierarchy, the goddess that she really is. She recovers the full moon aspect, Demeter, mother, wife.
The moon shines only illuminated by the sun, so she is manipulated too. It’s not self sufficient, but it doesn’t mean it can’t be happy just because it’s submitted. It may put to use the good moment to have some fun. Then Miss Meadows leaves the labyrinth corridors, like a cemetery. Eros instinct substitutes Thanatos instinct.
The only way to avoid delusion could be, like Buddhism says, having no wishes, which cause dissatisfaction. Notwithstanding, Miss Meadows, without wishes, would lose verisimilitude with the human condition, considering the story is fiction.
The title “The singing lesson” has double sense. It may mean either a classe where people learn how to sing or a lesson that is singing itself, as if it was alive. Life follows the music. Maybe music played according to life. Music is like an iced fragment that transmits the impression of a certain moment, like an impressionist painting.
The social criticism of the text denounces the society of that age, not explicitly, with vestiges of Victorian moral. The hypocrisy is present at the school environment with a piece of irony and sarcasm. There’s a subtle feminist denunciation against the yoke/oppression on women and, consequently, on children.
A psychological analysis of Miss Meadows
According to the typology described by Jung, Miss Meadows seems to be the kind of person sentimental-introverted, which specially appears on women. People like this use to be quiet, difficult approachable, often behind a childish or banal masque. They have also a melancholic temperament. Generally they don’t have neither a great appearance nor make the other notice themselves in special. They are leaded by feelings oriented subjectively, and their motives are kept, usually, unkown.
A person like this abstains from all manifestations and contracts an impassioned deepness that covers the misery of the whole world as she is astonished by it. In its excess, this kind of personality may even overflow explosively because of a disconcerting fact, as regards neither the subject nor the object can find the exact proportion.
The introverted feeling is specially determined by subjective facts, since it’s subordinated to these preliminary conditions and only is attached to objective facts secondarily. So it’s common this kind of person shows herself less and when she does it, uses to be misunderstood.
Katharine Mansfield work was envied by Virginia Wool. D. H. Lawrence was a friend of hers. Her talent consisted in change the reality into fiction until taking out all the realism of the scenes and give to what have passed a dream character.
The denunciations narrated in her short stories refer specially to the exploration of women and children, expressing the inexpressible from her condition of being a woman. We can see it along the short story “The singing lesson”. We could realize how wondrous is Mansfield work, since the analysis we can make about it are unfinished. The author uses highly symbolic elements, contributing to our ontological narrative, bringing universal archetypes to everyday situations.
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