A Queer Reading of Katherine Mansfield’s ‘Bliss’

‘But in her bosom there was still that bright glowing place-that shower of little sparks coming from it. It was almost unbearable. She hardly dared to breathe for fear of fanning it higher, and yet she breathed deeply, deeply. She hardly dared to look into the cold mirror-but she did look, and it gave her back a woman, radiant, with smiling, trembling lips, with big, dark eyes and an air of listening, waiting for something … divine to happen … that she knew must happen … infallibly.’

Several critics have identified Bertha’s intense feeling of bliss as a symbol of her awakened desire for Harry, and/or Pearl. Although it is not explicitly evident, at first, exactly what is fuelling this ‘shower of sparks’ in her bosom the extensive use of the ‘fire’ and heat metaphors can be described as being synonymous with sexual passion and desire. It begins with the description of her bliss as ‘though you’d suddenly swallowed a piece of that bright afternoon sun and it burned in your bosom… little shower of sparks’, and continues ‘… passionately, passionately… the fire in her bosom.’

Interestingly, this passionate heat is contrasted against its polar coolness; ‘It was dusky in the dining room, and quite chilly… the cold air fell on her arms’, there is also a ‘cold mirror’ that reflects back a smiling, radiant woman in a frenzy of passion. This moment of the cold mirror image reflecting the radiant, smiling self may be particularly reflective of her duality, or more specifically the duality of her desire. The coldness comes back again whilst Bertha is describing her physical, and presumably sexual, relationship with Harry, ‘It had worried her dreadfully at first to find that she was so cold.’ When Pearl arrives however, the whole feeling returns more powerfully than before, it is the touch of her ‘cool arm that could fan-fan-start blazing-blazing-’ – and then culminate in – ‘the fire of bliss.’ These contrasting images of heat and cold seem to demonstrate the source of Bertha’s real ‘feeling of bliss’; Bertha considers herself ‘cold’ in her heterosexual experiences with Harry, she becomes frigid, but her homosexual desires for Pearl ignite in her the authentic heat of passion.

Katherine Mansfield

The story eventually leads to Bertha identifying that ‘For the first time in her life [she] desired her husband’, but by following Bertha’s thought processes we can recognise that it is in fact her desire for Pearl that leads to her misinterpreted, or forced, desire for Harry. Bertha first considers telling her husband ‘when we are in bed tonight what has been happening. What she [Pearl] and I have shared.’

It is through thinking about ‘what she and I have shared’ that leads to the ‘strange and almost terrifying’ thought that darts into Bertha’s mind. What is this strange and almost terrifying thing? I believe it is Bertha’s sexual desire for Pearl that surfaces strongly when she imagines being in bed with Harry. In other words it is Bertha’s libido – that ‘something blind’ – that has been awakened. It is ‘strange’ because she has never experienced it so strongly, and it is ‘almost terrifying’ because of her childish frigidity. Bertha finally recognises what this ‘fire of bliss’ has been leading up too, and although she misinterprets the object of her desire, we, surely, cannot. In fact, ‘we would be more than blind if we failed to realize that it is Pearl who stirs Bertha, that it is she who has been the focus of Bertha’s thoughts, not Harry.’[1]

Critics have identified the phallic symbolism of the pear tree, viewed by Bertha and Pearl, but Helen Nebeker further explores the sexual implications inherent in the pear tree through an understanding of its botanical significance.[2] The pear tree is, in fact, bisexual by nature. Its flowers contain both male and female organs, therefore it can self-fertilize. Bertha not only unintentionally dresses to look like the tree, ‘A white dress, a string of jade beads, green shoes and stockings’, she also associates the tree as a ‘symbol of her own life.’ Through her identification with the tree Nebeker suggests that Bertha is identifying with the bisexuality of the tree, and these images of dual sexuality are developed further, in what Nebeker identifies as ‘womb-phallus’[3] symbols. They begin with Bertha arranging the fruit for the party, (Nebeker highlights that the choice of fruit itself assumes sexual significance) and although the fruits themselves are all round, representative of the womb – tangerines, apples, grapes, pears – she arranges them in ‘two pyramids of … bright, round shapes’. Significantly, the shape of the pear itself symbolises duality, as it is both long, and therefore phallic, as well as ovate, and womb-like.[4] This ‘womb-phallic’ image is revoked later, when Bertha and Pearl are observing the ‘slender, flowering tree’ that seems to ‘stretch, to point… to grow taller and taller… almost touch the rim of the round, silver moon.’ We can observe, therefore, the unity of the two sexual images, male and female, and the bisexual implications become clear.

Additionally, if the pear-tree is representative of Bertha and her sexual duality, then the moon is the symbolic image of Pearl. As soon as she arrives, she is ‘all in silver, with a silver fillet binding her pale, blonde hair’, and again, ‘silver as Miss Fulton… her slender fingers that were so pale a light seemed to come from them.’ There is also the symbolic significance of the moon as a representation of femininity. Due to its twenty-eight day cycles, the image of the moon is closely related to that of the female menstrual cycle, and therefore, femininity. As Bertha’s homosexual urges heighten, she identifies with the phallic image of the pear-tree that is so desperately growing ‘taller and taller’ in order to touch the rim (notice again the rim as a curve, or circular shape) of the pale, silver moon. It is through Bertha that we witness the symbolic union of the phallic pear-tree and the feminine moon, representative of the sexual union Bertha desires to have with Pearl.

Ultimately, the homo or bi-sexual content in the story is alluded to only symbolically; one critic suggests, ‘Mansfield was not willing to seriously portray homosexual desires in her stories. When she did, it is in a tentative and suggestive manner only, and the homoerotic attachment is always unconsummated.’[5] Of course Mansfield would have written in a tentative and suggestive manner; Mansfield never wrote anything as provocative or daring as, say, The Well of Loneliness (1928) – which got no racier than ‘she kissed her full on the lips like a lover’ – yet still, it was scandalous and led to an obscenity trial. The point is she suggests it, and although it is subliminal, that must not limit its symbolic significance. We never do get told what the source of Bertha’s ‘bliss’ is. Although through the symbolism of the pear-tree, the moon and the communion between the two, as well as Bertha recognising the feeling of ‘bliss’ as desire (albeit for Harry), Mansfield playfully but timidly, explores the then secret world of the homoerotic.

Duncan McPhee, Illustration for the short story "Bliss" by Katherine Mansfield, 1944
Duncan McPhee, Illustration for the short story “Bliss” by Katherine Mansfield, 1944

To read the first commentary in this two-part series, follow the link here: ‘Gender Trouble in Katherine Mansfield’s ‘Bliss’.


[1] Helen Nebeker and J. F. Kobler, ‘Katherine Mansfield: A Study of the Short Fiction’, Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 18, No. 4, (Winter, 1972) p. 548

[2] ibid., p. 548

[3] ibid., p. 547

[4] ibid., p. 547

[5] Michael J Meyer, Literature and Homosexuality (NY: Editions Rodopi B. V, 2000) p. 232

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