Bringing Miss Brill Out of the Box

( Analysis of the short story, “Miss Brill”: )


Identities are not only shaped by the world, they inspire the way in which that world is seen. Painted with the language of surreal imagery and metaphor by short story author Katherine Mansfield, “Miss Brill” explores a figurative world that is becoming furtively colder- one that pushes some souls into isolation while exploiting others, all for the purposes of the show. Every Sunday Miss Brill goes to the Jardins Publiques to watch the band play and the people gather, placing herself into the stories and lives of others. Although Miss Brill attempts to pleasantly enjoy her Sundays at the park by surrounding herself with people, she is in fact being consumed by a chill, living in an eerie loneliness that can be realized through the subtle references made throughout the story. Crafted with Mansfield’s superb attention to detail, the symbols in Miss Brill reveal the character’s repressed identity, leading Miss Brill and readers on a subconscious journey into the bittersweet idea of duality; that we’re each simultaneously the audience and the unwitting star of the world we create for ourselves.

The world Miss Brill experiences is narrated by the voice of a third person limited omniscient, creating both a distance between the reader and the central character, as well as an intimate rendezvous with her thoughts alone. Her inner dialogue is verbalized, not in quotations but as part of the plot, allowing us to eavesdrop much in the same way she eavesdrops on others and listens “as though she didn’t listen” (Mansfield 258). Miss Brill watches the world, and we watch her watch, looking on with an empathy she likewise extends to the characters in her mind’s eye.

Our understanding of the story is not left in the hands of a first person account however, and as we closely follow Miss Brill’s experience, a deeper connection to her psychological situation develops. Even the concept of time is reflective of a journey through the subconscious. As Terry White points out, Miss Brill’s day is realized in “psychological time” instead of “clock time”, exploring her mental experience as a series of specific moments (White). We’re not watching an average story with an average 3rd person plot; we’re following the psychological experience of a woman in exile, and as we watch her condition unfold from the outside we begin to better understand the identity our character denies.

Miss Brill’s emotions are developed through manifestations in her environment from the beginning of her day through to the end, opening with a look at her outward persona. Bouncing along to the pairings of alliterative language in the first line, we see how “it was sobrilliantly fine- the blue sky powdered with gold and great spots of light like white winesplashed over the Jardins Publiques-“ (Mansfield 257). The attitude of upbeat, crafted enjoyment resonates and provides a foundational lens for the story. Miss Brill appreciates the almost surreal like nature of her surroundings, but the affirmation of simple enjoyment is not the only element at work in her life. The first word of the story, “Although”, precedes the brilliance of the sky.  In spite of the beautiful details, the first sentence continues, “Miss Brill was glad that she had decided on her fur”, exposing the character’s directive thoughts which leads the narrative’s conscious navigation and shifts out attention to the fur, which is of great connection to Miss Brill’s identity.

The intimate care as Miss Brill “rub[s] the life back into the dim little eyes” of her fur neck-piece exposes a connection between the ‘characters’ (Mansfield 257).   Like most things in Miss Brill’s life, the white fox shaped fur had been put away at some point- symbolically alluding to the realization that she likewise puts herself away. It was taken out of its box earlier that afternoon and some preparation was needed, due to its matted hair and moth ball powder, showing obvious signs of neglect. The author verbalizes the fur’s thoughts, “What has been happening to me?”, as Miss Brill tries to rejuvenate the inanimate character (Mansfield 257). Since the fur is only a figurative ‘character’, the thought is not in fact it’s own and must therefore be an entry into the feelings of Miss Brill- separated from herself as belonging instead to the “sad little eyes” of the fur that she secretly identifies with. It is shabby and worn from age, perhaps like Miss Brill, and the sturdy structure of its dark nose has been compromised by what must have been a “knock, somehow” (Mansfield 257). Rather than seal it with wax now, Miss Brill has decided to leave it in its current state, worrying about returning it to its more sturdy state later “when it was absolutely necessary” (Mansfield 257). It is this decision that very subtly symbolizes today’s vulnerability to the world.

Miss Brill does not directly address the nature of her own situation and instead commentates on those around her, which like the fur reveals her repressed identity through representative forms. She indirectly identifies herself as uninteresting when she describes the “old people [that] sat on the bench, still as statues” and later mentions that the people who sit on the benches are all “funny” “odd, silent, nearly all old, and from the way they stared they looked as though they’d come from dark little rooms or even- even cupboards!” (Mansfield 258). What Miss Brill does not realize is that she too sits on the benches. She is one of the odd people, possibly old, with fragility evident in her tingling, trembling, chilled-feeling nature (the only words used to describe her own feelings). She is further symbolized as one of the statues because she is not only breakable (like the nose of her fur friend) but also cold and without outward interaction. The fact that the old quiet people “shared her special seat” reveals Miss Brill in a deeper special sense and we realize she shares a common oddness with the other bench dwellers (Mansfield 258). Later, we also see how her presumption of their dark cupboards was a manifestation of the very place to which she goes.  It is as though it is not even a home in the sense of personal life, but rather somewhere to put one’s self up, a sense of place to come and go from, perhaps to protect one’s self, like the fur’s little box, like glasses in a cupboard. Perhaps the cupboards represent a place of order- and organization of where one should be kept, like glasses waiting to be brought out for the gathering, props and actors simply brought out for a fabricated play. After noting the statue like stature of the old folks, she concludes, “Never mind there was always the crowd to watch.” (Mansfield 258). Miss Brill further injects her tendency towards vicarious escapism, by “sitting in other people’s lives” and watching life act itself out upon a stage as simply an audience member. (Mansfield 258).

Though Miss Brill is not yet actively participating in the performance, she does become emotionally vested in the stories of others as she unknowingly picks up on fragments of “self”, especially noted by many critics to be evident in her portrayal of the “ermine toque”. The ermine toque is what she internally names a woman who wears a fur hat- one which Miss Brill thinks is “shabby” (Mansfield 259). She watches the exchange of this woman and a man- two characters that she believes were meant to meet that afternoon, anticipating their delight to unite. But the rudeness directed towards the woman wearing the “ermine toque”, as the man blows smoke in her face and leaves in the middle of her sentence, strikes a feeling of empathy in Miss Brill. Her internal storyline imagines the band playing the theme music for this woman’s life, as though it “seemed to know what she was feeling and played more softly, played tenderly, and the drum beat, ‘The Brute! The Brute!’ over and over.” (Mansfield 258).  The entire scene transforms into a set as she imagines the music personifying the emotions of the lady, showing that her full attention is on the theater like course of this moment. Miss Brill is so vested into this character’s emotions because she sees the familiar sense of loneliness she tries to ignore in herself. “What would she do?” she even wonders to herself (Mansfield 258). Through this method of internal distraction, Miss Brill does not think about her own loneliness, she has her fur- the little rogue, for the warmth and others for the enactment of identity.

But the fact that Miss Brill identifies with the ermine toque reveals the dual purposes of this character, as an example of Mansfield’s attention to detail. The “shabby” fur hat is actually a representation that advances the realization that Miss Brill’s own fur is shabby. Additionally, Miss Brill has reduced the woman’s identity into an embodiment of that fur. Miriam Mandel notes that “whatever Miss Brill sees, she reduces to the parameters of her own constricted world” (Mandel 475). Miss Brill reduces many characters by comparing them to animals- the conductor is a rooster, mothers are hens, and so on. By reducing this woman to the “ermine toque”, (which is also an animal, though now dead), Miss Brill demonstrates the aptitude for representative identity. This propensity for reduction and representation is the epitome of Miss Brill, whose own identity is reduced to symbols, for fear of realizing something she avoids.

Recognizing one’s innermost realities can be a foreboding process that is sometimes avoided in favor of repression- a coping mechanism that pushes unwanted thoughts into the subconscious. But dwelling in the subconscious, these thoughts are re-arranged and worked through by a part of the mind that is beyond conscious directive. Miss Brill has pushed her identity into this shapeless force of the mind, and as she goes about her Sundays, her subconscious is at work. Although she finds fault in some of her Sunday subjects, it does not suggest that their condition is unfamiliar. The old couple who sat next to Miss Brill last Sunday are critiqued as uninteresting, even slightly unnerving. Internally commentating on the stubborn old woman who insists that glasses would slip and be more hassle than failing eyesight, Miss Brill shows contempt as she concludes how she wanted to “shake” the woman (Mansfield 258). This contempt is a displacement of her buried personal convictions. As one of the coping mechanisms outlined by Sigmund Freud’s daughter, Anna Freud, “displacement” redirects energy from the original source “to a substitute target when there is some reason why the first target is not permitted or not available” (Changing Minds).  Due to the repressed nature of Miss Brill’s own identity, she directs her contempt towards the subconscious symbol of a woman’s blindness to the world and unwillingness to see reality due to the burden that trying would bring. This provides a subconscious way to cope with her repressed identity as she continues to manifest her own liabilities for reality into her critiques of others.

Miss Brill has done a fine job of delegating the task of identity to her environment, but we see this façade slowly begin to quiver. There is a chill that creeps up on her throughout the day. In the beginning, “The air was motionless, but when you opened your mouth there was just a faint chill, like a chill from a glass of iced water before you sip, and now and again a leaf came drifting- from nowhere, from the sky”( Mansfield 257). The chill comes and goes, much like a fleeting feeling. It is further suggested that things can come and go form “nowhere”, a place without distinction, much like the emotions of cold loneliness that have no natural ‘place’ and show up unsolicited. This chill is combated by the comfort of her fur, but as she works to rejuvenate it after its long sabbatical in the box, she feels a “tingling in her hands and arms” and a eerie feeling that “move[s] in her bosom”- the heart of intimacy (Mansfield 257). It is as though something is working on her from inside, trying to reveal itself to her as she observes the nature of her surroundings. Meanwhile she tries to deny it by converting the idea of sadness into something “gentle”, as though she must redirect her thoughts to keep herself from stumbling upon some revealing sensation, a repressed identity.

We watch Miss Brill navigate a psychological atmosphere of symbols and emerge upon a romanticized idea of reality and personal duality. Though she has positioned herself as an observer of a play, Miss Brill comes to perceive that everyone is on stage. This is sparked by a little dog whose significance to the scene is a product of Miss Brill’s reductive and personifying tendencies. The dog trots into the picture and is seen as character, like the other ‘animal’ characters, but since he is a real dog, it is as though he must have been drugged like a little theater dog into playing a part. The idea of theater now enters her mind and she suddenly realizes that the world is a stage and therefore “They weren’t only the audience; they were acting” (Mansfield 259). As the scene transforms to her mind’s set, she places herself figuratively into the garden where she would read to an old “invalid gentleman” 4 times a week and imagined how he’d admire having an actress reading the paper to him. The life would come back into his chronically dim eyes, and she would proudly tell him she’d “been an actress for a long time” (Mansfield 259). This new consciousness gives Miss Brill a sense of place in belonging to the performance and personal importance as an actor. Now all dialogue, including her internal commentary and the external ‘lines’ of her fellow performers, is like personified composition for a manuscript and invitation for critique.

Not only do Mansfield’s carefully composed sentences represent a certain reality, they serve as a metaphor to a deeper proposal. What Miss Brill sees in others are representations of herself, and in critiquing those representations, she is thus critiquing herself. After all, she is the audience and the star. Mansfield’s careful attention to detail allows nearly every reference a dual meaning or purpose. The realization that Miss Brill is both the audience and the actress reveals not only the simple concept of having two purposes in life- to see and be seen, but also represents the duality of what we see. Miss Brill sees in others the symbols that speak to her, thus in a sense, she is simultaneously her own audience- the star of her own observations. Through others, her subconscious works out its inner feelings and as George Soule notes in his analysis, “Miss Brill has turned her understanding of how drama underlies public events into a consolation for her state” (Soule). The world becomes a series of symbols with unique meaning crafted specifically for her.

We often create the worlds in which we live in order to cope, ignore or find that which we crave, and beyond her devotion to the Sunday crowd, Miss Brill has developed small symbols that fabricate the feeling of a relationship in order to deny her lack of human involvement. We can tell that she is lonely, finding comfort in her furry little “rogue” that wraps around her neck (Mansfield 257). She feels so passionately about it that she thinks she could have taken it off and stroked it like a pet. The use of rogue to describe the temporal comfort suggests slyness, a slight of hand and deception, for it offers her the mischievous lie of companionship. As though she is not alone, she finds further joy in a well-contrived scenario she’s exploited to create the dynamic nature of a relationship.  The honey cake, occasionally adorned with an almond surprise, is a staple of her Sunday routine and is likened to a gift, which is usually a spontaneous yet secretly anticipated surprise from another person. When there is an almond in her cake “it makes a great difference” because of what it represents to her (Mansfield 259). She creates the situation for receiving something freely, a characteristic usually reserved for a person-to-person relationship, in order to deceive herself into ignoring her loneliness and the feeling of sadness. But her foregoing of the cake this afternoon will represent her move towards ascetism, a deeper self-isolation.

Miss Brill denies herself of her inner emotions and distances herself from the company, as a way of “dealing” with her natural empathy and internal entropy, by transforming her perception into that of a theater interaction rather than a true relationship among human beings. Everyone is acting. It’s not true pain they feel; it is only the idea of pain. This state of mind reflects Mansfield’s own societal realities living in the context of the First World War. In his evaluation of context, Gayatri Devi notes the melancholy nature of this time and its suggested manifestation in Miss Brill, observing that Mansfield’s characters seem to “be living on the brink of personal disaster [in which] the sense of community has vanished [and] they are largely alone and left to watch transient relationships make and break in front of their eyes” (Devi).  The interactions of the players can sometimes be too emotionally overwhelming, especially for the sensitive onlookers, and distancing one’s self is a means of coping with reality.

As demonstrated earlier, Miss Brill copes by denying her sadness, though it tries to take the spotlight more than once in her mind. The genius of Mansfield however does not stop at one meaning per symbol and the second mention of “sad” not only unpacks and drives home the reality of Brill’s repressed sadness, but it directs attention to Miss Brill’s realization that something is lacking. We sense that the band is playing for her, “And what they played was warm, sunny, yet there was just a faint chill–a something, what was it–not sadness–no, not sadness–a something that made you want to sing” (Mansfield 259). This lingering chill represents an eerie attunement to something that is without life, and what the melody of this moment is lacking is her voice and identity.

In finding that urge for voice and community, she stumbles onto a further yearning for unity with the other actors and audience members. Once again moving into the landscape of the mind, Miss Brill imagines that everyone in the audience suddenly stands up to sing with the band. She has entered a bigger picture as her “eyes filled with tears and she looked smiling at all the other members of the company. Yes, we understand, we understand, she thought- though what they understood she didn’t know” (Mansfield 259).  Miss Brill understands that their collective voices are united in some perceptive way, but she doesn’t fully realize the reason for their coalescence.

The members of the theater are one with Miss Brill because they are the fulfillment of her personal feelings, and they’re very existence, as residents of her mind, is to symbolize her repressed identity. Miss Brill believes she understands when she sits in the lives of others, but what they understand about themselves and Miss Brill has been irrelevant each Sunday afternoon. Thus, she does not know what they understand, for they are merely catalysts to her subconscious journey. The need for accompaniment is an important tool for highlighting elements of one’s self, revealing a 3rd person perspective on identifying features, and the forum for participation in a larger form of life. For Miss Brill, the larger body is now the idea of the stage, and through her tears she seems to yearn for an epic moment of realization supported by the plot around her. But she hasn’t reached the understanding of herself in that plot, at least not yet, and the implication of her epiphany is that of an imperfect dream.

Miss Brill has set herself up for disaster by creating a bittersweet illusion of reality, one that will ultimately crush her in inadequacy.  While exposing herself to the idea of stardom, she becomes vulnerable because she impedes her need to address her unstable identity. Instead she further demoralizes it by making its value conditional upon others’ admiration, and believing that their opinions of her as an actress are the basis for pride- established during her fantasy conversation with the “invalid” listener. For the first time, we hear a direct reference to Miss Brill as a young couple sits down near her and she listens with a trembling smile, still in shock from her new acceptance of “place” within the theater.

“ ‘No, not now,’ said the girl. ‘Not here, I can’t.’

‘But why? Because of that stupid old thing at the end there?’ asked the boy. ‘Why doesn’t she keep her silly old mug at home?’

‘It’s her fu-fur which is so funny,’ giggled the girl. ‘It’s exactly like a fried whiting.’”  (Mansfield 259).

This sweeping moment of critique marks the collapse of Miss Brill’s surreal world, and ironically it is a situation she has created for herself. When for a moment she finally ponders her identity, she imagines the grand distinction of a celebrated actress, and is therefore crushed upon finding that others do not see her in the same light. She is not one of the deserving, proud stars.

Furthermore, the fur that she has taken such pride in is a joke to others. Mansfield’s use of the word “whiting” is quite interesting. The girl appears to be referring to a fried fish, but the word whiting also means to “conceal truth”, like a gloss- like whiting out something ( This fur she carries conceals her loneliness, as though she has tried to whiten out something, a cold feeling that exists in her, but that she denies. Miss Brill tried so desperately to blind herself from the truth and simplify the dynamics of life into the safe symbols of a play. It is because the whole point of the world she’s created is to act and to be critiqued, that her facade is crushed.

The very face by which Miss Brill is ultimately shunned for is a symbolic insight into the nature of her character. After realizing life’s likeness to a performance in her mind, the young man who critiques Miss Brill and verbalizes the question of why she doesn’t “keep her silly old mug at home” introduces yet another metaphor for analysis (Mansfield 259). A mug is defined as both “an exaggerated facial expression”, one that “overact[s]”, and as a “gullible person” (  Miss Brill exaggerates her feeling of delight, denying sadness at every subconscious suggestion, and thus it is not difficult to assume her facial expression may show evidence of this exaggerated emotion.   She does “overact” in the way she internally regards everything as so delightful, so surreal. It is too surreal to believe it can last. Miss Brill avoids facing her condition by internalizing her surroundings and allowing them to replace her own personal experiences and sentiments. She’s not actually doing any performing, but in her head, this Sunday is all playing out with a dream-like fascination. Climaxing at the realization that she is an actress and then having her face referred to as a mug, a term that means overacting & gullibility, is a further testament to the renowned attention to detail that Katherine Mansfield truly exudes in incorporating every symbol and every word back into a fine exposition.

Beyond the surface story of an insult, perhaps the young man’s critique is interpreted on a much further level in Miss Brill. The use of the word mug is a symbol of the inevitable self-disdain for the way she has lived, for seeing life as a series of acts like that of a scripted play, and for pretending not to be sad. The remark made her realize that she was overacting and over-emphasizing the script she lived by, thus in the end she skipped the scripted suspense and spontaneous surprise of the honey cake and its potential almond, as though it had lost the enigmatic intrigue that is the prized product of careful scriptwriting.

With this collapse of the surreally composed world, Miss Brill abandons her stage and puts herself safely away in “the little dark room- her room like a cupboard” (Mansfield 259). As humans, we don’t want to be pushed away, so we sometimes put ourselves away like fragile glasses that need the safety and place of our cupboards. Miss Brill is no longer a part of the setting, like the glasses that rest in their spots in the cupboard when not filled by spirits. She denies sadness by drinking of her surroundings, but she still feels the faint chill with each sip because she is not filled in a divine love or in the natural warmth of a give-take relationship. She is fulfilled in a temporal way- the way a glass holds spirits when taken out for special occasions but lacks its own filling of life and is in essence empty of identity. Like her fur that must have the life rubbed back into its dim eyes by others, the invalid gentleman whose eyes are dim until in her mind he learns that she may be something greater than previously imagined, and like a glass that’s only purpose is to be filled and emptied, she is a faint reality. This glass called her life, though seemingly satisfying, is also lacking, and Miss Brill receives a chill from that which she drinks because she is not truly living.

A life of sadness is finally admitted in the end, though indirectly. Miss Brill quickly puts her beloved fur away without looking, “But when she put[s] the lid on [the box] she th[inks] she hear[s] something crying” ( Mansfield 259). It is expressed as if it is not her own emotion, like all her emotions which embed themselves in her surroundings, and as readers we are left to understand that this crying is in fact Miss Brill’s sadness which she has tried to avoid throughout the story.

In “Miss Brill”, Mansfield reduces the plot into a version of reality through Miss Brill’s eyes. It is somewhat simplistic in nature, but it is the symbolism that beckons a deeper reality of repressed self. Eventually recognizing one’s self is unavoidable. By the end of this Sunday, Miss Brill finally realizes that she is not only an audience member, she is also an actress. She has been all along; her identity is embedded into the surroundings she critiques. But along the subconscious journey, Miss Brill’s rhapsodized realization of identity is only a further repression of its value. She boxes herself into a frame of thinking- one that makes her world a set and her identity exist only in the setting of manuscripts and critics. Thus, a bad review is a bad performance, is a bad life. This is the distorted truth Miss Brill has created for herself: a bittersweet stage. The limited evaluation of identity is the reason for her withdrawal from not just a performance- but from life, as she shuts the door, closes the lid, and is left with only one sound effect: crying. Readers observe Miss Brill’s actions and thoughts from the outside, allowing for a close evaluation that reveals the true nature of her situation-  that of a lonely romantic who misses the brilliance of her own identity by leaving it in the hands of a disconnected world.



Works Cited

Changing Minds. n.d. Web. September 2012.

Devi, Gayatri. “Literary Contexts in Short Stories: Katherine Mansfield’s ‘Miss Brill’.” 2006.Literary Reference Center Plus. Document. n.d. Web. September 2012.

Mandel, Miriam B. “REDUCTIVE IMACERYIN “MISS BRILL”.” Studies In Short Fiction. 1989. 473-477. Document.

Mansfield, Katherine. “Miss Brill.” Nicholas Delbanco, Alan Cheuse. Literature: Craft & Voice. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2012. 257-259. Print.

Soule, George. “Miss Brill.” Magill’s Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition. Salem Press, 2009. 1. Document.

White, Terry. “Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition.” January 2004. Literary Reference Center Plus. Document.

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