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Freud in the Soup: Implications of Hysteria in Katherine Mansfield’s ‘Bliss’

01 June 2021

Sasha Clarke, Birkbeck College, University of London

When considering the development of the modernist form, Freudianism represents perhaps the most significant trajectory toward modernity. While Freud’s work is predominantly characterised by scientific rationality, similar sentiments were embraced by the great modern poets, most notably, T. S. Eliot, whose reference to the ‘dissociation of sensibility’ characterised the potential to separate thought from feeling.[1] As Freud found prominence in the late nineteenth century, largely as a result of his Studies on Hysteria published in 1895, it was the subject of these psychoanalyses, Bertha Pappenheim, who inspired the tropes most widely recognised as authentically modernist: self-fragmentation, irrationality, subjectivity, and the formative role of sexuality in developing one’s persona.

Published over twenty years later in 1918, Katherine Mansfield’s celebrated short story, ‘Bliss’, is a study in Freudian psychology and repressed desire, unfurling within the frame of a love triangle enacted amongst the complexities and hysterias of a group of self-designed Bohemians luxuriating in the festivities of a dinner party. Mansfield’s protagonist, coincidentally or not also named Bertha, propels forth a narrative laden with absurdities, the majority of which occur or are observed as a result of her own eccentricities and consequent sexual awakening. The reader learns, while Bertha prepares for her guests to arrive, that Pearl Fulton will be amongst the invitees, a woman with whom ‘Bertha had fallen in love […] as she always did fall in love with beautiful women who had something strange about them’.[2] Ebullient yet constricted by inexplicable rushes of effervescent feeling, Bertha’s dinner party culminates in the sordid revelation that her husband and Pearl are lovers: a discovery that unrelentingly destroys her sense of traditional marital bliss and consolidates Bertha’s own repressed homoerotic desires.

As such, it becomes increasingly clear throughout ‘Bliss’ that a style of hesitancy and stifled lust is the chosen means by which thoughts circulate throughout Bertha’s mind. This utilisation of an overwhelmingly elliptical interior monologue portends the manifesting self-repression that finally erupts when the protagonist acknowledges the contextually deviant bliss she feels as a result of her attraction to Pearl. After all, ‘[w]hat was there in the touch of that cool arm that could fan—fan—start blazing—blazing—the fire of bliss that Bertha did not know what to do with?’.[3] Mansfield’s reliance on repetition and dashes hints at sentiments sought to be silenced by overarching narratives of self-denial and sexual shame, pockets of hidden anxieties that infiltrate Bertha’s internal monologue lest it ‘speak its truth’. Consequently, when the dinner party guests finally begin to arrive, the sighting of her husband, Harry, reminds Bertha that the beloved ‘Pearl Fulton had not turned up’, an observation that prompts Bertha’s mind to jolt back and forth between the two apexes of her affection, the momentum of which gains significance as her self-realisation comes to fruition.[4]

This self-realisation is largely enabled via Mansfield’s use of Freudian implications when describing the dinner party cuisine, which plays an undeniably important role. Bertha’s first reported action in the story is that of ‘[b]ring[ing] the fruit up to the dining room’.[5] This precious cargo causes her to delight in the beauty of her edible arrangements, all the while second-guessing the absurdity and hysteria which must have induced this wonder. Fearing the intensity of emotion which suffuses when gazing upon the ‘tangerines and apples stained with strawberry pink’ alongside the ‘yellow pears, smooth as silk’, she chastises herself for ‘getting hysterical’, this chosen adjective undeniably echoing the psychoanalytic predicament of women during the early-twentieth-century.[6] As she fulfils the role of hostess, this image of fruit establishes a cataphoric reference to multiple ensuing interactions with food that take place throughout the festivities, most notably, Pearl’s ‘turning [of] a tangerine in her slender fingers’, thus rendering the fruit not only an object of seduction, but largely symbolic of forbidden temptation.[7] In a most unusually lacklustre fashion, tomato soup is eventually served, a dish which is emboldened with dissonant eternality. In the process of ‘stirring the beautiful red soup in the grey plate’, Mansfield’s choice of adjectives works potentially as a direct prototype of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s significant Gatsby-esque use of colour, with each shade and tone hinting at more complex, covert depths.[8] In this case, the visceral juxtaposition of the ‘red’ and the ‘grey’ hark to the psychoanalytic subtext already rooted in the narrative:; the brain’s grey matter eliciting the chemical reactions and subsequent bursts of feeling that climax over the course of the party. While the vibrancy of the dish underlines the stark intrusion of science into the traditionally divine realm of romance, it becomes increasingly apparent that while the soup is not only ‘so dreadfully eternal’, it is also ‘so dreadfully’ symbolic of the complexities of female desire, largely objectified by the misogynistic generalisations of female hysteria.[9] Therefore, if food represents desire in ‘Bliss’, the interaction with it exemplifies frustration and self-repression.

In her letters, Mansfield communicated her desire to inhabit the psyche of her characters, writing that ‘when I am writing of “another” I want so to lose myself in the soul of the other’.[10] Her implementation of modernism’s burgeoning interest in psychiatry, all the while sanctioning contextually ‘deviant’ same-sex desires, allowed for the intellectual development of what it meant for a woman to be modern within the confines of a conventionally domestic setting. Laden with psychoanalytic imagery ascribed to Mansfield’s engagement with Freudian discourse, dinner party food in ‘Bliss’ is thus manipulated as a means by which modernist attitudes toward sexuality, integrity, and science are both fed and starved.


Sources:

[1] Roger Horrocks and Jo Campling, Freud, Modernism and Postmodernism (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001), pp. 2–4.

[2] Katherine Mansfield, ‘Bliss’, The Collected Short Stories of Katherine Mansfield (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981), p. 95.

[3] Ibid, p. 99.

[4] Ibid, p. 99.

[5] Ibid, p. 92.

[6] Ibid, p. 92.

[7] Ibid, p. 101.

[8] Ibid, p. 100.

[9] Ibid, p. 105.

[10] Walter E. Anderson, ‘The Hidden Love Triangle in Mansfield’s “Bliss”’, Twentieth Century Literature, 28 (1982), 397–404 (p. 403).

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