World War I had much to do with creating new directions in art and literature. Virginia Woolf wrote that everything seemed to be going so well “then suddenly, like a chasm in a smooth road, the war came.” Initially idealistic soldiers proudly marched off to war and everyone applauded their bravery. But when they came back, the soldiers were most often physically and/or psychologically wounded. Europe was left depleted and many romantic ideals were destroyed provoking disillusioned artists and writers to break with tradition. In literature, the Modernist Movement began. Writers such as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf developed stream of consciousness pushing the reader to float around inside someone else’s head instead of their own. And maybe influenced by Freud and his dream interpretations, Modernists were into disguising their truths with symbolism.
Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923) was born in New Zealand, a country that was slowly trying to create an identity of its own. Too slowly for Katherine who moved to England at the age of 19. Here she started hanging out with the Bloomsbury Group and had no problem adapting to their bohemian lifestyle and their experimentation with literature and sexuality.
At the age of 29, Katherine was diagnosed with pulmonary tuberculosis. Not wanting to stay in a sanatorium, she went to the village of Bandol, France hoping that the French sun would be good for her health. But it wasn’t and her health deteriorated. Although sick and depressed, she continued to write. And one of the stories she wrote at this time was “Bliss”.
“Bliss” is about 30 year old Bertha Young who has an interior frenzy she interprets as bliss. Bertha is especially “blissful” about a dinner party she’s having that evening. Preparations finished, she goes to her balcony to look at her garden. Focused on a pear tree that is standing against the jade-green sky, Bertha is pleased with the beauty she sees. Then the cats show up—a grey cat dragging its belly across the lawn with a black cat crawling behind it. The cats give her the creeps. She shivers then turns away from the balcony window.
That evening the dinner party goes well and she’s so excited by the presence of a new acquaintance, Pearl Fulton. Although nothing in particular has happened between them, Bertha is convinced that they share something very rare and intimate. This feeling is intensified when the two are alone in the garden looking at the pear tree. Bertha feels so much bliss that her breasts feel like they’re burning.
Finally, the guests begin to leave. Bertha’s husband, Harry, helps Pearl put on her coat. He moves to embrace Pearl while telling her that he adores her. They don’t know that Bertha has seen them. Finally, Pearl leaves and Bertha is reminded of the cats in the garden.
So what’s the deal with the cats? According to literary analyses, many scholars believe that the cats symbolize the deception of Harry and Pearl. The problem with symbolism is that it works only if everyone shares the same symbols. We adore our cat, Volver, and in no way could we ever think of him as a symbol of deception or anything else negative.
Another problem with symbolism is that if you spend too much time trying to figure out the symbols, you can lose sight of the plot. Or you can even try looking for symbols that don’t exist. Take To Kill a Mockingbird, for example. The mockingbird is an obvious symbol. However, asked why there was so much symbolism in her book, Lee denied that this symbolism existed. So why are characters named after Confederate generals, she was asked. Because, she responded, “Those characters in the book were white trash. In the South, all the white trash are named after Confederate generals.” (This answer may indicate why Lee’s Pulitzer Prize winning book keeps getting banned in many school districts dominated by a white supremacist mentality.)
As for Katherine, desperate to stay alive, she tried unorthodox cures as conventional ones were obviously not helping. This eventually took her to George Gurdjieff’s institute at Fontainebleau where she sought solace in Gurdjieff’s esoteric teachings. Katherine was here only a few months when, after running up a flight of stairs, she suffered a pulmonary haemorrhage and died an hour later.
Related: Pillow Books and Lingering Lists + A Place for Grief, a Place for Love Katherine Mansfield + Why ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ Keeps Getting Banned +