Katherine Mansfield accomplishes an incredible drama with detailed characterization in Miss Brill, a story only four pages long. As a gem cutter creates innumerable facets to increase the brilliance of a small diamond or other precious stone, Mansfield does something similar: the simplest of plots is enriched with symbolism, word selection and limited omniscient point of view, and emerges as a masterwork.
The story's title provides an example of the author's ingenuity and attention to detail. We immediately realize that the central character is a lonely spinster, probably an elderly Englishwoman, living in a resort area of France near the seashore, earning enough to support herself by tutoring English children and reading the newspapers to an old invalid whose ability to hear and comprehend are questionable.
We sense her mood and excitement in her opening-line description of the weather and the setting. "Although it was so brilliantly fine - the blue sky powdered with gold and great spots of light like white wine splashed over the Jardins Publiques - Miss Brill was glad that she had decided on her fur."
The story was written in the early 1920s. Youthful readers may have to be reminded that this was a time when there was no stigma attached to wearing the fur of animals and that fur stoles of the period often combined taxidermy with the art of the furrier. It was common to see stoles made into a loop with the animal's mouth equipped with a snap device that would fasten to the tail.
The fur piece is treasured by Miss Brill, who addresses it as "Dear little thing" and "Little rogue." We are told how "She had taken it out of its box that afternoon, shaken out the moth powder, given it a good brush, and rubbed life back into the dim little eyes."
Gradually the furpiece comes to be a symbol of its owner. Both are of advanced age and a little the worse for wear. ". . .the nose, which was of some black composition, wasn't at all firm. It must have had a knock, somehow. Never mind - a little dab of black sealing -wax when the time came - when it was absolutely necessary."
Miss Brill's given name is never mentioned since she has no friends who would use it. However, at the beginning of the story she is blissfully happy with her life and situation. She has compensated for her isolation by sitting in on the lives of other people and casting herself as a significant character in the panoramic, multi-charactered drama of life.
Very much a creature of habit, her Sunday routine was to attend the open-air band concert at the public gardens. She had her own special seat where she would listen to the music and sit in on the conversations of nearby people. She was disappointed if they remained silent. The previous Sunday had been unpleasant because the conversation between an Englishman and his wife involved her complaints about failing vision and the problems involved with wearing spectacles. "Miss Brill had wanted to shake her."
We see everything through the eyes of Miss Brill, and through dramatic irony we often see or comprehend situations differently and more accurately than she does. She thinks to herself that the other people on chairs and benches were she same, Sunday after Sunday: "odd, silent, nearly all old, and from the way they stared they looked as though they'd just come from little dark rooms or even - even cupboards." She is unaware that she is describing both herself and her fur.
"And now an ermine toque and a gentleman in gray met just in front of her." Interestingly, the woman in her fur hat was getting on in years and it showed in "her hair, her face, even her eyes," which were "the same color as the shabby ermine." Miss Brill is shocked when the gentleman "lighted a cigarette, slowly breathed a great deep puff into her face. . .flicked the match away and walked on." The innocent Miss Brill is unaware that she has been watching a prostitute plying her trade without success.
The high point of the story occurs as Miss Brill fantasizes that all the people in sight, herself included, were actors on stage. If she had missed playing her part one Sunday, someone would have noticed!
Her world and her dramatic career crash. ". . .a boy and a girl came and sat down where the old couple had been." Miss Brill thinks of them as the hero and heroine of her drama. Eavesdropping on their conversation, she hears them refer to herself as "that stupid old thing" and to her furpiece as "exactly like a fried whiting," referring to a fish.
In the heartrending conclusion, Miss Brill returns to her "little dark room - her room like a cupboard" without making her usual stop at the baker's for a slice of honeycake that might -just might - have an almond in it. She removes her necklet and puts it in a box, thinking as she does so that she hears something crying. The symbolic correspondence of this sweet little old lady who wants only good things to happen and has not an iota of ill will or meanness in her is completed as we realize who is weeping and the depth of the hurt that has been caused.
One wonders if the crushing realization of how others, and especially the young, view her can be overcome. Will there be future Sunday band concerts and slices of honeycake? Will her fur stole ever again leave its cupboard?