To Befriend a Corpse: Symbolism of the Fur in Miss Brill
Clinging to her neck and nearly embracing her, the lifelike fur upon Miss Brill gazes with the lifeless eyes of death. In the short story Miss Brill by Katherine Mansfield, Miss Brill specifically chooses the fur to complement her attire on her special outing to the town concert. Miss Brill has few occasions to venture out of her little house, so to her this Sunday jaunt is quite the momentous event. As she watches the crowds, she happily wears her fur, yet it is apparent that the pelt serves to do more than merely adorn her. In essence, the fur worn by Miss Brill serves as a symbol of her hidden deadness, which she subconsciously tries to mask with counterfeit community, fake companionship, and fantasy.
Though Miss Brill imagines that the life-like fur upon her shoulder epitomizes the excitement of the escapade, the fur itself actually serves as a symbol of various qualities of her character. To begin, the fur most strongly represents her inner deadness. Just as the fur is merely a preserved animal cadaver, so Miss Brill looks fine on the outside yet is dead and hollow within because of her isolation. Throughout the text, Miss Brill repeatedly identifies with the fur by wanting to stroke its fur, talking to it, and ascribing to it an amiable personality. Such camaraderie would perhaps be more understandable if the object of her affections was a living animal. However, considering that it is a fur, the corpse of a dead animal, she is identifying herself with a dead creature.
The girl in the story says of the fur, that it looks like a fried whiting. In other words, she believes it looks like a cooked bird, like fried chicken. This description emphasizes the deadness, if not the sickly cadaverousness of Miss Brill's treasured object. In some ways, Miss Brill is herself a dead creature. She is isolated, friendless, without connection or community in which to participate as a valid contributor, yet she is filled with avid enthusiasm, emotion, passion, and wholesome goodness. She longs to find a place to belong, yet she is alone. She lives as an outsider, a mere observer, evidenced by her conversations, which are merely her actions of eves-dropping on the dialogues of others.
The fur also serves as a symbol of the effects of her confinement and solitude. According to the 1889 edition of English Composition and Rhetoric, by Alexander Bain, a symbol is something used to represent the thing signified. Red tape is the routine of office. Peace is signified by sheathing of the sword. It reads, These signs and circumstances are usually more striking than the main subject; in many instances however, all that is sought or gained is variety of expression. When the story Miss Brill opens, the fur is the symbol of internment. Miss Brill puts on the fur, having just previously removed it from its incarceration in the storage container. Miss Brill takes great pains to brush the fur and polish its eyes to ensure its best appearance. As she watches the crowd, she imagines the eyes of the fur marveling at the change of scenery and transformation of its own appearance. Miss Brill does not recognize herself in any aspect of the fur, yet as she fancies the fur's amazement, so she experiences a similar elation as she emerges from her cloistered existence and immerses herself in the crowds. At the conclusion of the story, Miss Brill returns the fur to its box in her emotional pain of wounded delight. Simultaneously, she descends into a depressive disappointment herself, becoming like her fur in its seasonal concealment.
Beyond merely functioning as a symbol, the fur also acts as an illuminative tool to reveal aspects of Miss Brill's disposition, as she attempts to conceal her deadness and seclusion with false community. One of the most fundamental qualities of Miss Brill's character, her yearning for belonging and companionship, is directly revealed by the fur. For example, Miss Brill comes to the concert with almost the dedication of the orchestral members, identifying herself with them in little ways and longing to feel that she is a part of the event. As she watches the performance, her mind turns to her fur several times. On one occasion she calls it the dear little thing with the familiarity and affection which one would bequeath a cherished pet or child. Though it is an inanimate object, indeed a corpse, she finds in it the solace of a companion in her desperation for community.
The fur also serves to illuminate her subtle dysfunctions. Her solitude and isolation have brought her to such a state of social atrophy that in her quest for a companion she has attributed life-like qualities to her fur. She thinks to herself how she could have taken it off and laid it in her lap and stroked it. She imagines the dim eyes of the fur to say What has been happening to me? fancying that they marvel at the sights of the world outside the fur's constraining storage box. It may be postulated that Miss Brill even goes so far as self-delusion in her personification of the dead animal on her shoulder. She calls it a little rogue, as though it had personality and even a mischievous character. Though Miss Brill does in no way actually believe that the fur is a living creature, yet she has an unnatural affability with it.
As some children develop reliance upon a blanket or other comforting object for their sense of security, it may be debated that Miss Brill's affection for her fur arises from such a dependency upon it. This could be argued by citing the first line of the story which discloses the balmy conditions of the weather. Evidently, she did not wear the fur for additional warmth, so perhaps her reasoning has moorings in a need for a security object. However, the text of the story does indicate the contrary, for if her affections were of dysfunctional dependency, Miss Brill would have always taken the fur with her on her outings. As it is stated in the book, she decided on her fur. This indicates that she is not always accustomed to taking the fur with her, but that for this occasion she has deemed it most appropriate. However, her subsequent characterization of the fur still indicates some emotional and social dysfunction.
Throughout the story, the beloved fur acts as a mirror to Miss Brill, reflecting her, though she is quite unaware. Eventually, when the fur is slighted by derogatory criticism, Miss Brill realizes the connection between her and the fur. She does not understand fully, yet gradually she realizes that the fur cannot be a companion, that it merely reveals and ascribes deadness to her. She is repulsed by this revelation and walks home gravely disappointed and forlorn. When she returns to her home she goes to the dark room and quickly removes the fur, placing it in the box. This is a pivotal point of the story, for it is the moment in which Miss Brillhaving just discovered her dysfunctionsmust choose whether she shall continue in her shallow though moderately comfortable life of self-deception, retreat to the security of her room like a cupboard in a state of melancholy despair, or to cast aside the veil of segregation. Thus the fur is both the object of her dysfunctions, the symbol of her deadness and confinement, and the mirror of revelation.