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“Miss Brill” by Katherine Mansfield tells a story of a lonely, English lady in France. Miss Brill is a quiet person who believes herself to be important. The whole afternoon at the gardens, Miss Brill does not converse with anyone, nor does anyone show any inclination to talk with her. She merely watches others and listens to their conversations. This provides her with a sense of companionship; she feels as if she is a part of other people’s lives. Miss Brill is also slightly self-conceited. She believes that she is so important that people would notice if she ever missed a Sunday at the park. It does not occur to her that other people may not want her to be there.
Miss Brill is very observant of what happens around her. However, she is not in tune with her own self. She has a disillusioned view of herself. She does not admit her feelings of dejection at the end. She seems not even to notice her sorrow. Miss Brill is concerned merely with the external events, and not with internal emotions. Furthermore, Miss Brill is proud. She has been very open about her thoughts. However, after the comments from the young lovers, her thoughts are silenced. She is too proud to admit her sorrow and dejection; she haughtily refuses to acknowledge that she is not important.
Miss Brill is English. She conducts a class of “English pupils” (100). She teaches English to students in France.
The story is set in France, in the Jardins Publiques. The setting is important because it further illustrates how Miss Brill is out of place in her society. She is a foreigner in a strange land.
Miss Brill is advanced in years. She has been coming weekly to the gardens for “‘a long time’” (100). Furthermore, the two young lovers describe her as an “‘an old thing”’ (100).
Miss Brill is without any relatives or close friends. She has no acquaintances to converse with. Therefore, she treats her fur as if it were a pet. Her fur is a “dear little thing” (98) with eyes and a tail. She sometimes feels like “stroking” it (98).
Miss Brill’s loneliness causes her to listen in on conversations. This is her only means of achieving a sense of companionship. She feels that for a moment she is “sitting in other people’s lives just for a minute” (98). Aside from that, she is part of no one’s life.
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Miss Brill enjoys her Sundays at the park because she is able to observe and listen to other people. As she watches the people who pass by, she makes observations and conjectures. She particularly “looked forward to the conversation” (98); she likes to become a part of other people’s lives through eavesdropping. Miss Brill finds her afternoons at the park much like watching a performance.
On this particular Sunday, Miss Brill realizes she is not only watching a theatrical performance but she is also a part of it. The gardens serve as the set upon which people enter ane exit. She finds her afternoons “exciting” (100) because she understands now that she is an actress upon the stage. This realization of her part and role gives Miss Brill a feeling of importance.
The woman in the ermine toque is a type of Miss Brill. Events connected with this woman foreshadow what happens to Miss Brill in the end. The woman is an elderly woman, like Miss Brill. She had purchased her toque “when her hair was yellow” (99). Now her hair is the “same color as the shabby ermine” (99). Miss Brill, likewise, has an old fur which she still wears.
The woman in the ermine toque is eager to meet the gentleman in grey, but he coolly rejects her. The woman’s feelings are hurt, but she tries to act unaffected. Similarly, Miss Brill longs for social acceptance. She believes that she plays an important part in these Sunday afternoons at the park. She believes that “somebody would have noticed if she hadn’t been there” (100). However, when the boy and the girl dismiss her as a “stupid old thing” (100), Miss Brill is stunned and hurt. She thought that she deserved attention. She, like the woman in the ermine toque, has been rebuffed when she believed that she was wanted.
At the beginning of the story, Miss Brill is happy and carefree. She takes delight in her afternoon at the park. The played “louder and gayer”; it was all “very pretty” and she “smiled” (98). The liveliness of the band’s music reflects her uplifted mood.
At the end of the story, Miss Brill is dejected. The insensible comments of the two young lovers hurt her pride. She is so hurt, that she passes by the baker’s without buying her slice of honeycake, as was her custom. When she reaches her home, she sat on the red eiderdown for a “long time” (101). She is no longer filled with pleasant imaginations which enhanced her time at the park. She is now silent and stifled.
Miss Brill is a developing character. She comes to realize that her part in society is not as great as she thought. She was proud when she realizes that she is an actress playing on a stage. But when she overhears the young boy and girl, she understands that she is unwanted. Her emotions and outlook are changed from simple pleasure, to pride, and finally to dejection. She thought that she was a leading actress, but then realizes that she is merely a dispensable extra.
Miss Brill’s fur serves to voice Miss Brill’s inner emotions. Though Miss Brill’s thoughts are constantly revealed in this narrative, her real feelings are revealed through her fur. Miss Brill is an actress who can mask her emotions, but her fur reveals what she really feels. When Miss Brill puts on her fur that day, she is excited. However, her fur causes her to feel “something light and sad” inside her (98). The fur characterizes her loneliness.
When Miss Brill returns home that day, she puts the fur back in the box. “But when she put the lid on she thought she heard something crying” (101). To Miss Brill, it seems as if the fur was crying. The fur expresses the sorrow and dejection which Miss Brill feels. However, Miss Brill is actually the one crying. She has been so alienated from her own self and her own feelings that she does not even realize her sorrow.