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Character, Conflict and Imagery in Katherine Mansfield’s “The Voyage” Essay

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Updated: Oct 26th, 2021

Modernism as a large cultural wave emerged in Europe at the beginning of the 20th century. The dominating tendencies seemed to be absolutely different from traditional life; the traditional techniques lost their value. The life presented in the new works was more scientific, more technological and faster. The term modernism covers the reforming movements in literature, music, art which emerged during this period. In modernism, every aspect of life was re-examined and replaced with something innovative.

One of the main figures of the new modernistic movement was a famous short-story writer Katherine Mansfield. Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp was born in Wellington, New Zealand. In 1910 she began to publish her short stories in The New Age, an avant-garde magazine. At the same time, she began to work under the pen-name, Katherine Mansfield. A year later she presented her first book of stories, In a German Pension. The volume wasn’t a big success. After this, she submitted a story for a new avant-garde magazine Rhythm. There she met the editor, critic and writer John Middleton Murry. Their relations eventually culminated in marriage in 1918. She also built important professional relationships with D. H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf.

At the same time, her health has become worse. She spent most of her last years on the south coast of France. In the last three years, she managed to produce her most sensitively executed and technically assured works. She died at the age of thirty-four in 1923 (Poplawski, 256).

Such works as At the Bay, The Voyage, The Daughters of the Late Colonel and Prelude represent Mansfield’s skills as a talented modernist writer masterly experimenting with stylistic methods. She widely used different techniques of depicting consciousness. In many of Mansfield’s stories, the complexities of family relationships are depicted. In The Voyage she focuses on female characters; she describes and analyzes frustrations and contradictions of women’s existence in the cruel world. Feminism is a characteristic of most of her works; in this story the feministic voice is overt. Matriarchal figures are in most cases idealized. In the story under analysis Fenella’s grandmother is presented as kind and all-forgiving. She is ready to accept her fate whatever it is, and she doesn’t look for a person to blame.

Mansfield’s style represents all the modernistic narrative techniques. The words Mansfield uses only half-express the emotion; they indicate the direction in which the feeling or a thought may be found but don’t take the reader there. Her style is often characterized as “pure”.

The short story The Voyage can serve as a good example to demonstrate her perfect writing skills. Like in many of her stories, the main character is a child, a small girl, Fenella. Mansfield writes a lot about children, because they cannot lie, and their feelings are not yet spoilt with education. In the kaleidoscopic narrative world, the reader easily penetrates into the psyches of Mansfield’s characters. Among the characteristics of her exquisite style stands the non-linear presenting of time. The narration smoothly shifts from the present to the past, so the reader is unable to understand the tragedy firstly, he can just observe the present moment. The non-linear presenting of time is also a significant modernistic invention. In this short story, the narrative easily moves backwards and forwards in harmony with the thoughts and emotions of the characters.

The simple characters are Fenella’s father, her grandfather and the steward; there are few details about them. The round characters are Fenella’s grandmother, Mrs Crane, and Fenella herself.

The story opens with the description of a beautiful night. The colouring is mainly dark, all the epithets are referred to as blackness:” It was dark, very dark”, “blackness”, “black mushroom”. We know nothing about the story itself yet, but dark colours create an atmosphere of subdued sorrow and mourning. Fenella’s father is seeing off his mother and daughter. He is nervous, though it is not said directly. We can judge it from his quick strides. “He sounded stern, but Fenella, eagerly watching him, saw that he looked tired and sad”. (Mansfield, 170). We understand that the part for a very long time. The moment of separation is very difficult for the family. Fenella’s father knows that it’s time to leave, but he tries to delay the moment:” It’s all right, mother. I’ve got another three minutes.” It hurts immensely when Finella understands they are parting forever. Again this is not said directly, the characters don’t speak about it, because the words would make the whole situation completely unbearable. Though Fenella’s father is a strong man, he is unable to hide his emotions, he tries to prolong the last moments:” He was the last of the ship”. As the tension grows, the colours become darker: “The strip of water grew broader, darker” (Mansfield, 171).

Fenella’s grandmother manages to control her emotions, too; she understands her granddaughter’s feelings, and though for her the moment is also painful, she does her best to comfort the child. Gradually some light penetrates the palette: “bright look”, “bright nod”. Deeply religious, Fenella’s grandma hopes that God will help them through this period: “Then Fenella saw that her lips were moving and guessed that she was praying”. Grandma is optimistic, though there is obviously nothing to be happy about. This character can be considered a stereotype because she is loving, caring and intelligent just like an ideal grandmother should be.

They are poor, two pence is an extremely high price for a sandwich. And usually, they do not take a cabin, this is too luxurious for them. And only here, in the middle of the story, the reader comes to understand that a tragedy happened. Somebody died. Through the stewardesses eyes, we see that the old woman and the girl are in mourning. What makes this story so touching is that everybody tries to sound as if nothing has happened. It was Fenella’s mother who died, but all the grandmother says is “It was God’s will”. This is the climax of the story, the feelings are intense. Eventually, the reader understands what the tragedy is. There are no tears, no cries. This is a characteristic feature of Mansfield’s works; her female characters are usually strong and sensible.

The cabin the girl and the old woman sailed in was small and stuffy, but still, for them, it was an inadmissible luxury. The reason for it was Fenella’s father’s “thoughtfulness”. Again we cannot find any notion about the reasons of it, because it is no use speaking and nothing would help. So it is better to be self-controlled and optimistic.

The description of nature helps to create the atmosphere of cold and indifference:” Even the shapes of the umbrella ferns showed, and those strange silvery withered trees that are like skeletons” (Mansfield, 180). Even the nature grieves, we can see signs of death everywhere around.

Yet the end of the story is rather optimistic. Fenella is with her grandparents. The surroundings look warm now. Fenella strokes the white cat; her granddad smiles at her merrily, so things look much better than at the beginning. “No Reward Is Offered For It Is Gone For Ever!” (Mansfield, 181). Yes, life is often difficult, but still, it does go on. This is the message of the story, and this is the most important lesson Fenella learns.

The language of the story is rather simple, it is not rich in stylistic devices. But still, the author widely uses epithets and comparisons (“spider-like steps”, “water was a kind of blue jelly”). But against a background of this simplicity, the feelings are even more profound. The author does not want to compare one character with another, her aim is to depict life as it is.

So in this short story, the reader is invited to a world of people’s sufferings. Nothing can be worse for a child than to lose her mother, and the most awful tragedy for a man is the death of his wife. But all these emotions are not allowed to show, everybody, suffers only in his mind. The narrator’s voice is preserved. But in total the reader is welcomed to experience the whole palette of emotions.

In conclusion, I would like to say that Mansfield is sometimes called a mystic, and she surely was. By most scholars, Mansfield is considered to be the most prominent figure in the development of modernist literature. Her experiments with interior monologue and with innovatory ways of exploring people’s consciousness made her a pioneer in the development of modernism. At that time the leading writers of modernism, Joyce and Woolf, had not published their main works yet. Her works show extreme sensitivity to all the nuances of parents and children’s relationships. In her stories, the problems that husbands, wives and siblings face in their everyday lives are explored. So it is impossible to overestimate the value of her works.

Works Cited

Mansfield, Katherine. The Voyage. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1922. pp. 168-181.

Poplawski, Paul, ed. Encyclopedia of Literary Modernism /. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2003.

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IvyPanda. "Character, Conflict and Imagery in Katherine Mansfield's "The Voyage"." October 26, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/character-conflict-and-imagery-in-katherine-mansfields-the-voyage/.


IvyPanda. 2021. "Character, Conflict and Imagery in Katherine Mansfield's "The Voyage"." October 26, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/character-conflict-and-imagery-in-katherine-mansfields-the-voyage/.


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