“Miss Brill” by Katherine Mansfield is a characterization of Miss Brill through a limited omniscient account of an afternoon in her life. A lady in her declining years, Miss Brill begins this cool fall eve by choosing to wear a fur, one she has longed to wear, withdrawing it from a box where it has laid since last spring. She steps into the chilled air with her fur tightly wrapped around her and seats herself on her preferred park bench where her activities include listening to others’ conversations. From her bench, Miss Brill watches the people and events around her, the theater of life,(Mansfield 121) contemplating her place in this scene and wondering if any would miss her presence. Shortly, a young couple sits at the other end of her preferred bench. Speaking softly enough that Miss Brill has to concentrate to hear, the couple prepares to talk about revealing a secret unknown to the reader; however, the young lady will not speak. The young man deduces aloud that it is because the old hag, Miss Brill, is close at hand and confronts the young lady as to her reluctance. She tells him it is the old hag’s fur that unnerves her (122). Miss Brill, not missing a word to this point, suddenly finds her theater of life a tragedy rather than the dramatic love story she had thought. Crestfallen, Miss Brill retires to her apartment and her fur likewise to its box where the writer suggests they will remain. Both of these elements, the fur and the theater, play an important roll in characterizing Miss Brill.
Mansfield describes Miss Brill’s fascination with her fur and the intense feelings of pleasure and pride Miss Brill gets from parading the fur through the park to her seat. In the words of Jamie Fast, “she thinks of the pelt as more of a companionable pet…” (Fast 2), as indicated by the imagery Mansfield uses describing the removal of the fur from its box and the wearing of the fur. Mansfield personifies the fur by telling the reader that Miss Brill believes she can almost hear the fur say, “What has happened to me?” (Mansfield 119). Miss Brill imagines the fur lying in her lap and petting it as one would a loved dog. Mansfield illustrates Miss Brill’s feelings of resentment that her much loved pet was insulted by the young couple, suggesting the fur had cried when placed back in its box. The writer’s imagery and personification associated with the fur leaves the reader with the idea that Miss Brill’s fur represents not only a loved pet but also Miss Brill’s pride and self-image.
As with the fur, the people and the events occurring around Miss Brill while she sits on her park bench are important in developing Miss Brill as a character. Miss Brill sees several exchanges between others in the park, commenting to herself on each as she sits watching. Viewing these exchanges as acts in a play, Miss Brill thinks of herself as one of the characters “plac[ing] herself into her “actress” mode to avoid vulnerability” (Fast 2). She suggests that she has been an actor for some time because she has been coming to the park for many years. However, Miss Brill appears unconnected to the events around her, a stock character in the play. The young couple also has a place in this fantasy of a theater; they are the young lovers, the hero and heroine (Mansfield 122). When they sit at the end of Miss Brill’s bench, she prepares to listen in on the next act. Unfortunately because Miss Brill eavesdrops and turns her ear to the young couple, she shatters her own fanciful illusions. The theater of life being symbolic of Miss Brill’s external self, the young couple’s words reveal the outside world’s true view of Miss Brill.
Mansfield skillfully develops the reader’s mood with images of a theater and a description of the pride with which Miss Brill wears her fur by placing Miss Brill in the open environment of the park and allowing the reader to explore Miss Brill though her eyes. The imagery used to describe Miss Brill’s view of the park and personification of Miss Brill’s fur creates a picturesque scene of self-delusion, “… [an altered] perception of reality…” (Fast 2). Using the self-deluded state of Miss Brill, Mansfield interjects the young couple to give the reader the outside world’s view of Miss Brill. Mansfield uses the style='color:black'>theater of life to present the reader with Miss Brill’s view on the outside world; conversely, the fur is used to represent Miss Brill’s inner self.
Fast, Jamie. “The End of an Illusion”. Sample ENG 1001 Essay on Mansfield’s “Miss Brill”. 2003. 20 July. 2003. .
Mansfield, Katherine. “Miss Brill.” Literature: Reading, Reacting, Writing. Laurie G. Kirszner and Stephen R. Mandell. 4th ed. Fort Worth: Harcourt College Publishers, 1991: 119-23.