I was going back and forth for a long time on which story should be my final Story of the Month for 2009. (Yes, it’s hard to be believe, but That’s Classic! is almost a year old! On that note, stay tuned in the coming weeks for a special one-year anniversary celebration of That’s Classic!) I was torn between one of my favorite novels and one of my favorite short stories, but, ultimately, I relented and went with the short story, since not enough people read it…and it’s so well written that that has to change! So here it is, That’s Classic!‘s last SOTM for 2009: the Story of the Month for November 2009 is Bliss by Katherine Mansfield. (I have included a link to a full-text version of the story at the bottom of this post.)
I have honestly read “Bliss” more times than I could possibly remember. But I do remember that the first time I read it, about two years ago, I hated it. Not because the writing was bad, but because I just didn’t get the story. Why was the main character so ridiculously happy and, dare I say, blissful? Why was the story written so happily when the tone was so unhappy? And was this blissfully happy narrator legitimately happy, or just plain crazy? I was quick to write her off as the latter. (Frankly, at the time, it was easier to disregard the contrast in language and tone than to unpack what it meant and why Mansfield created this contrast.) Then I ended up reading “Bliss” again that semester, only a few weeks later. And, that time, I had a completely different experience with it.
“Bliss” tells the story of Bertha Young, a thirty-year-old woman who is happily–blissfully!–married and has a daughter with her beloved husband. But, one day in particular, Bertha is overtaken by an extreme, overwhelming sense of bliss. We follow her throughout that day, as she prepares her home for a dinner party, spends some “quality” time with her daughter, Little B, and interacts with her husband and dinner guests. The guests include the strange yet amusing Mr. and Mrs. Norman Knight, the dreary and newly-published Eddie Warren, Pearl Fulton, the woman with whom Bertha had just simply “fallen in love.” At first, Bertha has a strong sense that she and Miss Fulton secretly share this overpowering sense of bliss, but Bertha soon realizes how silly that must be; there is no common feeling there. But Bertha maintains her happy mood until the very end of the story, when Bertha catches a sight of her husband and Miss Fulton that threatens to destroy everything she thought she knew and believed about her wonderful life with Harry.
It took reading “Bliss” a second time for me to have the “Aha!” moment I needed to fully appreciate the story. The contrast between the language (often gotten through Bertha’s thoughts) and the underlying tone of the story was everything! It was intentional. It didn’t make Bertha crazy, it made the story beautifully tragic. We needed Bertha to feel so blissfully happy so that this moment of realization, that her husband may be (and most likely is) cheating on her, really rock her core being. Otherwise, this could easily be a story of lust, betrayal, and love lost or never had. But it’s so much more than that. We don’t just pity Bertha or feel bad for her. The fact that she doesn’t completely lose it within the time frame of the story (she’d have to break down sometime after this realization, but the story ends before we see that moment) makes us truly feel this with her. Harry isn’t just cheating on Bertha; Harry’s cheating on us, too. That might be a bit of a stretch, but it feels like such as sucker-punch at the end of the story that I can’t help but feel some of Bertha’s pain as her innocent feelings of happiness with her life are so quickly shattered.
You might be surprised to learn that the story is written in third person. It would have been easy to get caught up in Bertha’s sweet, blissful mind throughout the story if it had been written in first person. But the way Mansfield writes it, we are still privy to Bertha’s thoughts about her friends, her family, herself, and her way of life. But it also allows Mansfield to pull out of Bertha’s head a bit so that we can see the image of Harry and Miss Fulton together, and feel the blow of that moment from outside of Bertha’s thoughts. Then, when we return to her, we almost do so with a sense of dread and despair.
Without Bertha’s overwhelming sense of bliss, there would be no story. Sure, there’d be a story, but it wouldn’t be memorable, just another tale of a husband cheating on his sweet wife with her dear friend. But this story is different. Perhaps it’s because Mansfield breaks her writer-reader contract with us. From the first line of “Bliss,” Mansfield sets up a contract with us that the story will be told in third person, with access only to Bertha’s thoughts, and will be told with language that mirrors Bertha’s feeling of bliss. And right at the end, Mansfield breaks that contract. Sure, the language is still beautiful. But she pulls the rug out from under us, so to speak, and we’re left shaky and trying to understand what this new realization means for Bertha, how it will change her life and the way she sees the world. The seemingly happy tone of the overall story is instantly shattered, replaced by bitter, festering secrecy that’s been lying beneath the surface all along. And when we become aware of that, we’re torn. I was torn between being seriously upset with Mansfield and deeply impressed by her writerly manipulation. She got me to feel safe that I knew what the story was about, then turned it all around, just at the end. Now that is some strong use of language and storytelling there.
So pick up “Bliss” and give it a try. If you find yourself resisting the airy quality of the language, try to push past it and read for meaning. When you get to the end, you’ll feel that sucker-punch, too. Just remember that what you think you know about the story and what it really is about might not be the same thing. That’s okay. Read through it a second time, and you’re sure to have that “Aha!” moment, just like I did.
To read a full-text version of “Bliss,” please click here. (Thanks to americanliterature.com for posting this story.)