Bliss Summary by Katherine Mansfield

Bliss Summary by Katherine Mansfield


An Introductory Note :

Bliss is a modernist short story by Katherine Mansfield first published in 1918. The story “Bliss” was first published in The English Review in 1920. Later that year, it became the title story for Mansfield’s second collection, Bliss, and Other Stories. The story (and the volume) helped solidify Mansfield’s reputation as an important contemporary writer.

Substance :

The story follows a dinner party given by Bertha Young and her husband Harry. The writing shows Bertha depicted as a happy soul, though quite naive about the world she lives in and those closest to her. The story opened up a lot of questions, about deceit, about knowing oneself and also about the possibility of homosexuality at the start of the 20th century.

The story gives us a bird’s eye view of the dinner party, which is attended by a couple, Mr. and Mrs. Norman Knight, who are close friends to Bertha and Harry. Guest, Eddie Warren, is an effeminate character, who adds an interesting mix to someone who Bertha is mysteriously drawn to for reasons unknown to her at the start. The interesting thing is that Bertha’s husband is presented to the reader as Bertha perceives him in her mind.

Because Bertha is so naive, the reader first gets the impression that Harry is a crude, disinterested person who has a strong dislike for Pearl by his conversational tone and curtness towards her as the conversation unfolds. As the dinner party progresses, Bertha questions her own interest and fascination towards Pearl. The fact that. Eddie, who is most likely homosexual, is present, lends an air to the possibility that Bertha’s interest in Pearl is more than a platonic feeling one has towards a friend of the same sex.

It is only after Bertha analyzes her feelings towards Pearl that she realizes that the connection she feels with Pearl is their mutual attraction for Harry, and coming out of her “blissful” reverie she makes the discovery that Harry and Pearl are having an affair. The title to this story alludes to the sentiment that ignorance is bliss. The story leaves the question about whether it is best to live blissfully ignorant of the truth or live with the knowledge of a harsh reality.

An Analytical Summary :

I. Even though Bertha Young is nearly thirty, she still sometimes feels the urge to “run instead of walk,” to skip on and off the pavement, or to play games like chasing a “hoop” or catching a ball, the way she used to do when she was a child. At other times she has the urge to just “stand still” and laugh for no reason at all. She wonders what a grown woman can do if she is still, periodically, overwhelmed by a feeling of “absolute bliss,” as though she has swallowed a piece of the sun and it shines inside her.

Bertha thinks that civilized society is “idiotic” because, if she were to act as she liked and express her feelings of joy, people would think her “drunk and disorderly.” She wonders why she has been given a body at all if she cannot use it any way she likes and instead must “keep it locked up in a case like a rare, rare fiddle.”

II. Bertha arrives home and asks her maid if the fruit that she has ordered has been delivered. The maid tells her that everything has arrived, and Bertha says that she will arrange the fruit herself. She goes into the dining room and throws off her coat, unable to stand the “tight clasp” of it any longer. Even though the room is cold, Bertha feels warmed by the feeling of bliss which is still burning inside her.

She “hardly dares to breathe” for fear of “fanning” this feeling. As she looks at herself in the mirror, she feels a sense of anticipation and thinks that she has the look of a woman who is waiting for something “divine” to en.

III. The maid brings in the fruit for Bertha to arrange. Bertha looks at the beautiful colors of the fruit, which she has chosen specifically to match the décor and the color of the carpet in the dining room. She thinks that this does seem like a rather “absurd” thing to do but remembers that, at the time, when she was choosing the fruit, it seemed like a totally sensible decision. When she has finished, she looks at the fruit and sees that it does match the carpet perfectly.

In her excited and joyful mood this looks “incredibly beautiful” to her. She starts to laugh at the beauty of the scene but, afraid that she is growing “hysterical,” she hurries out of the room and rushes upstairs to the nursery.

IV. In the nursery, the Nurse is feeding Bertha’s infant daughter, Little B, her supper. When the baby sees Bertha, she gets excited and the Nurse becomes visibly annoyed that Bertha has come in and interrupted them. Nurse tells Bertha what she has done with the baby that day and that, when she took Little B to the park, Little B played with a dog.

Bertha wants to tell the Nurse that it is “rather dangerous” to let Little B play with a “strange dog” but she is too timid. Watching Nurse feed the baby, Bertha feels like a “poor little girl” watching a rich child play with a beautiful doll. She wonders why she has bothered to have a child if that child is always to be looked after by someone else.

V. Little B smiles at Bertha and Bertha is so delighted that she can no longer contain herself and begs Nurse to finish feeding Little B herself. Nurse is irritated and does not think that this is a good idea because she thinks it will over excited Little B. Bertha insists however, and Nurse leaves the pair alone. Bertha enjoys feeding her daughter and finds that holding and playing with Little B gives her the same feeling of “bliss” that she has felt all day and that she doesn’t know what to do with. Nurse re-enters the nursery and tells Bertha that someone is on the phone for her.

Bertha hands Little B back over to Nurse, who takes the baby back triumphantly. It is Bertha’s husband, Harry, on the phone. He tells her that he will be late for the dinner party. Bertha wants to explain her feeling of “bliss” to Harry but feels that it would be ridiculous if she were suddenly to exclaim that it has been “a divine day.” Instead, she hangs up the phone and thinks again that civilized society is “idiotic.”

VI. The Youngs have people coming over for dinner. Bertha thinks about the guests she has invited: “the Norman Knights” and Eddie Warren. Mr. Norman Knight is an aspiring theatre director, his wife Mrs. Knight is interested in “interior decoration,” and Eddie Warren is a writer who has recently published some poems and whom it is currently fashionable to invite to dinner. Bertha has also invited a woman called Pearl Fulton, whom she has become friends with recently and “fallen in love with,” as she often does fall for “beautiful women who have something strange about them.”

VII. Although Bertha has met Pearl several times and has had long conversations with her, Bertha still feels that there is a level of reserve about Pearl and that she has not really been able to get to know her. She feels that, although Pearl is “wonderfully frank” about some things, there is a “certain point'” beyond which Pearl will not go. Bertha finds this quality mysterious in Pearl and wonders if there is anything more to Pearl’s character.

VIII. Bertha’s husband Harry feels that there is not, and that Pearl is, in fact, cold and dull. Bertha refuses to agree with him on this until she has found out for sure. She thinks that she can find something behind some of Pearl’s mannerisms, such as her habit of “sitting with her head a little on one side.” Harry thinks that there is a “good stomach” or “pure flatulence” behind it.

Bertha admits that she likes Harry’s habit of contradicting her and of making irreverent jokes. Bertha goes into the drawing room and begins arranging the sofa cushions. As she does this, she is startled to find herself clutching one of the cushions to her chest and hugging it “passionately.” This action does not quell the feeling of “bliss” which is building in her chest but instead increases it.

IX. The window in the drawing room looks out over the garden. Bertha looks out of the window at the pear tree on the lawn and admires it against the dusky, “jade-green” sky. She notices that all its buds and petals are alive and looks down at the flowerbeds underneath it. In this flowerbed, she sees a grey cat slinking across the lawn, followed by a black cat. This image makes Bertha shudder.

Bertha turns away from the window and paces the room. She feels overwhelmed by the scent of the garden coming in through the window and throws herself down on the couch. She feels that she is “too happy.” Closing her eyes, she seems to see a vision of the pear tree and thinks that it is a “symbol of her own life” with all its blossoms and petals open.

X. Lying on the sofa, Bertha thinks about all the wonderful things that she has that should make her happy with her life. She thinks that she and Harry are very happily married, they have good friends, and a beautiful child, they are financially secure and have a lovely home and garden.

Their friends are “modern” and bohemian and interested in cultural and “social questions.” It makes her feel “dizzy” and she suddenly feels exhausted and wonders how she is going to get herself ready for the evening. She notices that her outfit matches the garden outside with the green dusk and the white petals of the pear tree under the moon.

XI. Mr. Norman Knight and his wife, Mrs. Knight, arrive. Mrs. Knight is wearing a bright, orange coat decorated with a pattern of monkeys. As she enters the house, she tells Bertha that her coat has caused a stir on the train and that people were so shocked by the color and pattern of her coat that they stared at her on the journey.

Mrs. Knight blames the commotion on the fact that the middle-classes are so “stodgy.” Mr. Knight agrees and thinks that it was very amusing when Mrs. Knight snapped at a woman on the train and asked her if she’d “never seen a monkey before.” Bertha thinks that Mrs. Knight does look like a monkey in her yellow dress, and that her earrings look like nuts.

XII. Eddie Warren arrives next and is very shaken by his experience with the taxi driver who brought him. He tells the group that he could not get the driver to stop the cab and that, in the moonlight, the driver looked sinister and “bizarre.” He says that he saw himself being driven away in a “timeless” taxi by an otherworldly taxi driver. When Mrs. Knight compliments Eddie Warren’s white socks, he tells her that they have grown whiter in the moonlight.

Bertha feels that Eddie is a very attractive person. Harry arrives and rushes upstairs to get dressed for dinner. Bertha knows that Harry is not really worried about being late but that he enjoys making a show of being “extravagantly cool and collected.” She feels that Harry has a love of being contradictory and for fighting even if there is no need for it and Bertha appreciates this quality in him.

XIII. Enjoying the company of her guests, Bertha almost forgets that Pearl Fulton is still to arrive. When Pearl does arrive, Bertha tells the other guests that Pearl uses taxis all the time. She does this with a knowing manner, which she finds that she often develops with her female friends. Harry says that Pearl will get fat if she never walks anywhere and always gets taxis. Pearl Fulton enters the party. Her outfit is all silver and she asks Bertha if she is late. Bertha says no and takes Pearl’s arm. When she does this, she feels the feeling of “bliss” return and strengthen.

XIV. During the dinner, Bertha feels an inexplicable certainty that Pearl is feeling the same way that she is. The guests discuss theatre and Bertha thinks delightedly about what a “decorative” group they make, like characters in a play. When Harry compliments the food, Bertha again feels almost overwhelmed with tenderness and joy. Everything in the world seems good to her and her thoughts keep on returning to the image of the pear tree in the moonlight.

She thinks about these things as she watches Pearl peel an orange and her fingers look silver in the light. After dinner, the group retire to the drawing room and Mrs. Knight, whose nickname is “Face,” describes the burned down fire as a “nest of baby phoenixes.” Pearl asks Bertha to show her the garden and Bertha feels that this is a “sign.” Bertha takes Pearl to the window and the two women stand and look out at the pear tree under the moon. Bertha thinks the tree looks like a flame, stretching up into the sky, and almost touching the moon.

XV. Bertha loses track of how long she and Pearl stand by the window but feels that they share a connection; bathed in the “circle of unearthly light” coming through the window from the moon. She feels that they are like “creatures” from a different world and that both are under the spell of “bliss” which drops “treasure” and “silver flowers” on them. As Bertha thinks this, she believes that she hears Pearl say: “Yes. Just that.” The light in the room is switched on, breaking the spell that Bertha feels she is under.

The other guests are in the room and are making coffee. Mr. Knight is complaining that he never sees his daughter and that he will take no interest in her until she is an adult and has a suitor. Eddie Warren is talking about a play he wants to write for Mr. Knight’s theatre. Harry complains that modern playwrights are too “romantic” and that you can’t “put out to sea without being seasick and wanting a basin,” and that young writers should have the “courage of those basins.”

XVI. Pearl sits down, and Harry offers her a cigar. Bertha watches and thinks that, from the way that he is talking to her, Harry is not only bored by Pearl but really dislikes her. Watching Pearl’s reaction, she believes that Pearl feels this too and is hurt by it. Bertha thinks that Harry is “quite wrong” about Pearl and that he would find her “wonderful” (just as Bertha does) if he got to know her. As she thinks this, Bertha suddenly remembers that the guests will leave soon, and that she will be left alone with Harry.

She has a moment of panic thinking about the bed which she and Harry share, before she realizes that, “for the first time in her life,” she “desires” her husband. She thinks that she has always been in love with him but that she has never loved him “in that way.” This troubled her when they were first married but Harry has been very kind about it and they have reached an understanding and are now “good pals.”

XVII. Mr. and Mrs. Knight say that they need to leave to catch the last train and begin to say goodbye. Pearl and Eddie Warren agree to share a taxi. Pearl goes to get her coat from the hall and Harry follows her. Bertha thinks that he is trying to make amends for being rude to Pearl. Eddie asks Bertha if he can borrow a book of poetry which includes an “incredibly beautiful line”:

“Why must it always be tomato soup?” Bertha says that she does have this book and goes to get it for Eddie Warren. As she comes back past the hall, she glances in and sees Harry take Pearl in his arms. He sees Harry mouth “I adore you” to Pearl and Pearl smiles up at him. Bertha sees Harry’s lips move into a “hideous grin” as he murmurs the word “tomorrow,” while Pearl nods in agreement.

XVIII. Bertha returns to the drawing room and hears Harry say loudly that he can call Pearl her own cab if she’d like. Pearl and Eddie say goodbye and as Pearl takes leave of Bertha, she presses Bertha’s hand and says: “Your lovely pear tree!” Bertha watches them leave and thinks that Eddie and Pearl look like the grey cat and the black cat that she saw creeping across the lawn that evening. Harry goes to lock up the house and Bertha rushes to the window. She wonders what is going to happen next and looks out at the pear tree, which is as “lovely” and “still” as ever under the moon.

Title :

“Bliss” reflects social attitudes towards homosexuality and towards women in early twentieth century Britain. In 1918, when “Bliss” was written, most women in Britain could not vote, although in 1918 a law was passed granting wealthy women over thirty the right to do so. The title to this story alludes to the sentiment that ignorance is bliss.


One of her finest short stories, “Bliss,” serves as prime examples of these defining qualities. The protagonist of the story, Bertha, experiences a sense of rapture as she reflects on her life, which later turns to disappointment and resignation as she discovers that her husband is having a love affair with her friend. Mansfield’s Bliss, and Other Stories, published in 1920, secured the author’s literary reputation.

While readers and critics at the time generally lauded the short fiction collection, a few reviewers objected to its controversial subject matter-infidelities, discussions of sexuality, cruel and superficial characters. Today “Bliss” is one of Mansfield’s most frequently anthologized stories and still resonates with modern readers. 



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