Critical Voice by Terry Locke

Chapter 4: The art of the short story

We might call the short story a short, artfully constructed narrative. Its modern form arose in the mid-Nineteenth Century. However, short narrative has a much longer history. Old forms of short narrative include the fable, parable, exemplum, folktale and fabliau.

Language Tool Kit:
Fable: A short story, often with animals as characters, which teachers a moral lesson.
Parable: A short story in which the characters tend to represent or symbolise certain moral qualities.
Exemplum:  A moralising story rather similar to a parable.
Folktales: Stories that have been passed down orally within a culture, often concerned with legendary heroes and the supernatural.
Fabliau: A down-to-earth, ribald mediaeval tale which usually pokes fun at the clergy and middle class.

One of the originators of the short story, American writer Edgar Allan Poe, argued that a short story was ‘a prose tale’ which could be read in a single one-and-a-half to two-hour session. Short stories tend to have a small number of carefully etched characters, a pared down plot development, a central unifying focus or event, a limited focus on setting and an economical and suggestive use of language.

The following topics will be covered in this chapter

The elements of story
At your elbow: The omniscient narrator
Perspectives on the action: Irony
Stories and scenes

4.1. The elements of story

The New Zealand writer, Frank Sargeson, published ‘A Piece of Yellow Soap’ in a magazine called Tomorrow, in July, 1935. We are going to use this little story (so little that it is often termed a sketch) as a focus for exploring the reading and writing of short stories. Here is the story:

 She is dead now, that woman who used to hold a great piece of yellow washing soap in her hand as she stood at her kitchen door. I was a milkman in those days. The woman owed a bill to the firm I worked for, and each Saturday I was expected to collect a sum that would pay for the week’s milk, and pay something off the amount overdue. Well, I never collected anything at all. It was because of that piece of yellow soap.

   I shall never forget those Saturday mornings. The woman had two advantages over me. She used to stand at the top of the steps and I used to stand at the bottom; and she always came out holding a piece of yellow soap. We used to argue. I would always start off by being very firm. Didn’t my living depend on my getting money out of the people I served? But out of this woman I never got a penny. The more I argued the tighter the woman would curl her fingers on to the soap; and her fingers, just out of the washtub, were always bloodless and shrunken. I knew what they must have felt like to her. I didn’t like getting my own fingers bloodless and shrunken. My eyes would get fixed on her fingers and the soap, and after a few minutes I would lose all power to look the woman in the face. I would mumble something to myself and take myself off.

   I have often wondered whether the woman knew anything about the power her piece of yellow soap had over me, whether she used it as effectively on other tradesmen as she used it on me. I can’t help feeling that she did know. Sometimes I used to pass her along the street, out of working hours. She acknowledged me only by staring at me, her eyes like pieces of rock.

   She had a way too of feeling inside her handbag as she passed me, and I always had the queer feeling that she carried there a piece of soap. It was her talisman, powerful to work wonders, to create round her a circle through which the more desperate harshnesses of the world could never penetrate.

   Well, she is dead now, that woman. If she has passed into Heaven I can’t help wondering whether she passed in holding tight to a piece of yellow washing soap. I’m not sure that I believe in Heaven or God myself, but if God is a Personal of Sensibility I don’t doubt that when He looked at that piece of yellow washing soap He felt ashamed of Himself.

[Published online here with the permission of the Frank Sargeson Trust. I thank them for this privilege.]

Close reading (individual or group)
In the following sections, either individually or in groups, answer the questions that follow the explanations.

a) Point of View
If you ask the questions, ‘Whose voice do I hear as I read this story?’ or ‘Who is actually telling me this story?’ you are attempting to identify a story’s narrator. (See the discussion of voice in Chapter 1) There is quite a lot of information available to you about the narrator of this story, as you will discover as you answer the following questions. Provide textual reasons (for example, by quoting or referring to evidence in the story itself) for each of your answers.

  1. What sex is the narrator?
  2. What age-group would you put the narrator in?
  3. What is the narrator’s occupation?
  4. From the information provided, what do you think the narrator believes in?
  5. Come up with three adjectives to describe the kind of person the narrator is.
  6. The narrator of a story should not be confused with the writer. The writer of this story is Frank Sargeson. On the basis of this story alone, which of the above questions can you answer if you substitute the word ‘writer’ for the word ‘narrator’?
  7. How would you go about finding answers to the questions that can’t be answered on the basis of information found in the story
  8. How might knowledge about Frank Sargeson contribute to your reading of this story?
  9. If you think of a story as providing a particular window onto the world — a particular angle of vision — then you are reflecting on the important notion of point of view. Point of view answers the question, ‘Through whose eyes or from what vantage point am I viewing the action that is being presented in this story.’ (A useful analogy here is to imagine a movie camera and to think about how its location affects what we see when we are watching a movie.) From whose perspective is this story being told?
  10. How much time has elapsed between the story being told and the telling itself?
  11. How limited is the narrative point of view? To answer this question, try identifying the sorts of information that the narrator cannot access.
  12. How involved is the narrator in the story? Is he quite central to the action or is he quite peripheral (like a witness to a motor accident)?
  13. Finally, we can distinguish between first-person and third-person narrators. ‘A Piece of Yellow Soap’ is a an example of a first-person narrative, told from the point of view of a character who has quite a degree of involvement in the story being told. Identify the pronouns in the first paragraph of this story which tell you whether this is a first-person or third-person narrative.
Language Tool Kit:
Narrator: The voice one can identify as telling a story.
Point of view: The perspective from which the events of a story are presented.
Chronological time: The order followed by events as they actually happened.
Psychological time: The order of events as they are recalled or reconstructed in a person’s mind.

b) Time
Exploratory writing (individual)
You can’t tell a story without thinking about time. The following learning log exercise is designed to make you think about the relationship between time and story-telling.

  1. Write down in chronological order the things you did after you woke up this morning. (You don’t have to go on for too long.)
  2. Underline the words you used to indicate the sequence in time of what you were recounting. (‘First’, ‘Then’, ‘later’ are examples of such words.)
  3. From the ‘flow of events’ that have occurred since you woke up, choose and describe the most memorable.
  4. Add to this description an account of what lead up to or caused this event to happen.

By doing activities 3 and 3 you have reversed the order of chronological time and replaced it by an order which has been determined by a choice you have made as a writer. Psychological time is the realm of dream, fantasy and the imagination. In psychological time, the sequence ordered by chronological time can be altered in all sorts of ways.

Now, individually or in groups, return to ‘A Piece of Yellow Soap’.

  1. This story refers to two periods in time. The first is a ‘present’ which coincides with the story-telling itself, the second is a ‘past’ when the narrator was a milkman. Which parts of the story relate to the present? Which parts relate to the past?
  2. Writers use words and phrases to as time-pointers in story-telling. Discuss the function served in this story by:
    • the adverb now;
    • the prepositional phrase in those days;
    • the tense of the verb ‘owed’.
  3. In paragraphs two to four of this story, there is the suggestion that certain incidents happened more than once. Find examples of the following word classes that tell you this:
    • adverbs
    • verbal groups.
Language Tool Kit:
Tense: The tense of a verb tells us whether an action is past, present or future and also indicates the status of an action as have been completed or whether it is continuing. The following is a table of English verb tenses.
Adverb: A class of word which usually modifies a verb (He moved slowly)but can also modify adjectives (She was a really kind person.) and other adverbs (Despite his injury, he moved very freely.)
Verbal groups: Most verbs in English contain more than one word. Some groups contain a participle and more than one auxiliary (e.g. was finishing, will have been seen). Modal verbs incorporate such words as can, should, may, might, could and must (e.g. must go, could buy). Phrasal verbs contain ‘non-verb’ elements such as prepositions which are needed to complete the verb’s meaning (e.g. His friend backed up his version of the incident.)
TenseActive VerbPassive Verb
simple present
present continuous
present perfect
present perfect continuous

simple past
past continuous
past perfect
past perfect continuous

future continuous
future perfect
future perfect continuous
I watch
I am watching
I have watched
I have been watching

I watched
I was watching
I had watched
I have been watching

I shall watch
I shall be watching
I shall have watched
I shall have been watching
I am watched
I am being watched
I have been watched

I was watched
I was being watched
I have been watched

I shall be watched
I shall be being watched
I shall have been watched

c) Plot
In simple terms, the plot of a story is the way its events are organised. This sounds simple enough. But in fact, it’s not as simple as it sounds. Let’s begin by asking the question: ‘What is an event.’ Which of the following would you describe as an event?

  • a death
  • the visit of a tradesperson to a client to collect money
  • a chance meeting on a street
  • a defeat
  • a sudden awareness of something
  • a reflection

If your answer is ‘All of them’, then you mind find it useful to distinguish between the first three items, which we will call observable events, and the last three items, which we will call psychological events.

  1. Why can it be said that a defeat occurs in paragraph two?
  2. What is the sudden awareness or realisation that occurs to the narrator in paragraph four?
  3. What is the reflection that occurs in paragraph six?
  4. How do you respond to the statement that the most important event in this story is a change that has occurred in the milkman as a result of his relationship with the woman? How would you describe this change?
Language Tool Kit:
Plot: The way the events of a story are organised.
Observable events: Those  narrative events which can be experienced through the senses.
Psychological events: Those narrative events which occur within a character’s mind and heart.

d) Elements of plot: structure
There are a number of plot elements that can be used to shape or structure a narrative. The selection and arrangement of these plot elements have an enormous impact on the effect a story has on its readers. Although ‘A Piece of Yellow Soap’ is a very short story, it contains a number of plot elements.

Questions on structure

  1. Exposition: Exposition is the provision of important background information so that a reader feels oriented to what is happening in a story. How effective is the opening paragraph of this story as an example of exposition?
  2. Predicament: A predicament is a difficult choice — difficult because it involves a character in a choice between two undesirable options. What is the narrator’s predicament as described in paragraph one?
  3. Conflict: Most plots involve conflict. Conflict occurs in a plot when a character or group’s  interests are opposed by another character or group. Why is the narrator in conflict with the woman?
  4. On the face of it, the woman is the milkman’s antagonist. Find evidence in the story that the narrator also feels himself in conflict with:
    • his firm;
    • the way his society’s economy is organised;
    • certain people’s views about God.
  5. Conflict can also be internal. Internal conflict occurs when two parts of a character are in involved in a struggle with each other. In what way might the narrator of this story be described as in conflict with himself?
  6. Rising action: The part of a story, often accompanied by tension and suspense, which leads up to a climax or some other defining moment. In what way does paragraph two contain suspense?
  7. Climax: A climax is the ‘highest point’ in a single action, the decisive moment towards which events appear to be heading. Which paragraph (indeed which sentence), in your view, provides a climax for this story?
  8. Denouement: This is a French word meaning ‘unravelling’. It refers to the process which follows a climax, where some kind of sense is made of the proceeding events. Sometimes the denouement involves a discovery or a disclosure. Sometimes, as in this case, it involves a moment of recognition — a sudden growth in awareness or the realisation of some truth. In what sense do the last two paragraphs of this story provide a recognition.
  9. Is this recognition for the narrator, the reader (or both)?
Language Tool Kit:
Exposition/Orientation: The provision of essential background information early in the narration of a story.
Predicament: A difficult choice between undesirable alternatives, often presented to a character early in a narrative.
Conflict: A situation where the interests of characters or groups of characters are opposed.
Antagonist: Usually, but not always, a character whose interests are opposed to those of the main character or group of characters in a story.
Internal conflict: A situation where two parts of a single character are in conflict with each other.
Rising action: The suspenseful part of a story leading up to its climax.
Climax: The decisive moment in a story towards which events appear to be heading.
Denouement: The process of unravelling or winding down that occurs in the aftermath of a story’s climax.

e) Character and characterisation
Stories need characters — persons who do and say things and who are interpreted by readers as being particular sorts of people. We have already spent some time considering the sort of character the narrator of ‘A Piece of Yellow Soap’ is.

  1. How would you describe the woman in this story. What can you say about her physical features? Her personality?
  2. Characterisation refers to the process whereby readers construct characters on the basis of evidence in the text provided by writers. This evidence can include:
    • actions;
    • thoughts, feelings and deliberations;
    • descriptions (from a narrator or another character);
    • dialogue
      Which of the above list were you able to use in constructing your interpretation of the woman’s character? Give examples.
  3. Which items in the above list enable you to construct an interpretation of the narrator’s character? Give examples.
  4. Rank the above list from most important to least important in helping you interpret the narrator’s character.
  5. A term frequently used in the discussion of character is motivation. Motivation answers the question why characters act the way they do. In your view, what is it that motivates the narrator in this story?
  6. What motivates the woman?
  7. What makes the second of these questions harder to answer than the first?
  8. In discussing characters we can often distinguish between flat (or one-dimensional) characters and round (or two-dimensional) characters. Flat characters are based around a single identifying trait  (such as ‘greedy’ or ‘cunning’). Round characters are fully developed individuals, who often act out of complex motivations. As with people in real life, they can be unpredictable, whereas flat characters always act in a way which is consistent with their major trait. How rounded are the characters in this story?
  9. Do characters need to be fully rounded for a story to be successful. Give reasons for your answer.
Language Tool Kit:
Character: A person in a narrative who is capable of being interpreted as having a particular personality and motivation.
Motivation: What makes a person act they way they do.
Characterisation: The process whereby readers construct characters on the basis of evidence provided in a text.
Flat (one-dimensional) character: A character who can be described in terms of a single motivational trait.
Round (two-dimensional) character: A character who is fully developed and who acts out of a complex set of motivations.
Setting: Where and where the action of a narrative takes place.

f) Setting
Setting refers to where and when the action of a narrative takes place. In this book, we will be distinguishing between setting, so defined, and the cultural setting in which a work is composed. (Shakespeare wrote Macbeth in the cultural setting of Elizabethan England, but the setting of the play is mediaeval Scotland.)

  1. Somebody reading ‘A Piece of Yellow Soap’ when it was first published would realise that it was set during the Great Depression in New Zealand. Find evidence in the text that indicates that the story was written during this time?
  2. How important is it to your reading of the story to know when it was set? Give reasons.

g) Style
As mentioned in Chapter 3, style is a combination of the way a writer uses words, syntax and punctuation. In some books, the word texture is used to denote the characteristics of style a reader is aware of any point in a narrative. As such it can usefully be contrasted with the term ‘structure’ which refers to the organisation of a text as a whole.

Let’s look at the diction of ‘A Piece of Yellow Soap’:

  1. Would you describe the diction of this short story as mainly literal or mainly figurative?
  2. Discuss the effect of the concrete image, ‘bloodless and shrunken’?
  3. Identify the simile in paragraph four. What is its effect?
  4. In paragraph four, the narrator uses the metaphor of a talisman. What is a ‘talisman’? How appropriate is this use of the talisman as metaphor?
  5. An anecdote is a short, uncomplicated account, usually oral, of a single incident, often told in an entertaining manner. This story is rather more complex than an anecdote. Yet it retains its connection with spoken language. Find sentences that remind you of the way people speak..
  6. In the last paragraph, there are two complex sentences containing adverbial clauses beginning with ‘if’. Explain why these syntactical structures should occur at this point in the story.
  7. The term decorum is used of literary texts to describe the extent to which the language a character (or narrator) uses matches the sort of person they are. A narrative which has a good match is said to have a high degree of decorum. How highly would you rate the decorum of ‘A Piece of Yellow Soap’?

h) Theme
Traditionally, a theme is a central message ‘put in’ a work by a writer who is deliberately concerned to raise an issue with or communicate a lesson to their reader. (In this sense, the novel Animal Farm contains a warning against communism as an ideology.)

Language Tool Kit:
Texture: The characteristics of style a reader is aware of any point in a narrative.
Anecdote: A short, uncomplicated account, usually oral, of a single incident, often entertainingly told.
Decorum: The extent to which the language in a narrative matches the personality of its narrator and characters.
Theme (1): The central message or set of concerns dealt with in a literary work.
Theme (2): The cluster of central ideas or issues identified in the act of reading a text.

In this book, however, as Chapter 2 has suggested, we are viewing the meaning of a text as a reading constructed by a reader. To that extent, we are viewing theme as involving that cluster of central ideas and issues identified in the act of reading a text. Different readers may well elicit different themes from the same text.

Which of the following themes have occurred to you as you read ‘A Piece of Yellow Soap’? Give reasons for your choice(s).

  • The difficulty of negotiation;
  • Poverty;
  • The power of good luck charms;
  • The harshness of the economic system;
  • The nature of God;
  • Your choice

Extension task (group)
Use sections a to h in this section to get ideas for a set of questions related to a short story your class has studied. When you have formulated your set of questions, publish a neat copy and give them to another group to answer.

4.2 At your elbow: the omniscient narrator
The word ‘omniscient’ means ‘all-seeing’. The first-person narrator we met in ‘A Piece of Yellow Soap’ is anything but all-seeing. His perspective on events is limited. He tries to identify with the woman – he seems to be a compassionate man – but she remains shut off from him. And because his access is limited, so also is ours as readers.

The third-person omniscient narrator has an altogether different perspective. This narrator can move freely backward and forward in time. They can provide all sorts of background information at will. They can move effortless from one setting to another and know what is happening in two places simultaneously. They know what different characters are thinking and feeling.

Language Tool Kit:
Omniscient narrator: A narrator who has the power to enter the minds of a range of characters and who has access to a wide range of information pertaining to the story.
Omniscient narrators can restrict themselves to accessing the thoughts of only one or two characters. In such cases, a writer is said to be adopting a limited omniscient perspective.
Foreshadowing: A technique whereby a detail (of plot, setting, aspect of character, for example) is ‘planted’ near the beginning of a narrative in anticipation of something important that happens later.

‘The Shell’ by Colin Thiele, is from a collection entitled The Rim of The Morning, which is easy to access.

a) Who’s calling the shots here?
You might describe this story as a tragedy. A father and son are swept to their deaths from a ledge during a outing to a rather wild stretch of Australian coastline. However, your experience as a reader has been rather carefully stage-managed by the writer Thiele.

Close Reading (Group)
Use the following tasks as a way of exploring how an omniscient perspective manipulates the reader’s response to a story.

  1. The opening paragraph focuses on the sea. The description is highly figurative. Identify the figures of speech in this paragraph and discuss the way they position you as a reader to view the sea and the reef in a particular way.
  2. Whose voice do you hear in this opening paragraph.
  3. Discuss the simile that rounds off paragraph two. In what way does it foreshadow events later in the story.
  4. Discuss the way the following figurative images position you to view the sea as having a personality:
    • ‘…like a sentient thing’
    • ‘…bruised…by the sea-tumult’
    • ‘…like exploding depth-charges’
    • ‘…with the speed of a shark’s rush’
    • ‘…a sort of incessant clubbing’
    • ‘…like a hand coming up over a shelf for a rag doll’
    • ‘…as if satisfied with its random muscle-flexing’
    • ‘…like a tigress dozing’
    • ‘…like a cat rubbing its back against his legs’
  5. What picture of the sea do you get from this imagery?
  6. Complete the sentence: ‘But in our view, the sea can also be seen as…’
  7. As a group, come up with at least one figurative image that supports th is alternative way of viewing the sea.
  8. Not only does Thiele position you to view the sea in a particular way. He is also wanting you to reflect on the relationship between human beings and nature. In the third paragraph, the narrator uses an adverb to tells us something about Ethel’s motivation. Identify the adverb. What does it tell us about Ethel?
  9. In the group’s view, what theme is being discussed in the following sections of dialogue?         
    • “I read somewhere that we take too much from the sea and give nothing back.”
      “It always seems to have plenty to spare.”
      “Yes, it can take as well as give. It’s old enough to look after itself.”
      “One shipwreck would be worth a million shells.”
      “Perhaps when it feels that the ledger is getting out of balance it just helps itself again.”
    • “I’m taking it home to my wife. These shells are currency in some countries, you know.”
      “Blood-money! The sea’s buying you off!”
  10. How do you think the writer wants you to view the relationship that should exist between human society and the sea (or nature)?

Extension task (Individual writing)
In your learning log, write a positional critique of ‘The Shell’. You might address yourself to the position the writer appears to be advocating, or to the way the writer uses the story to expound his views. (Is he too heavy-handed, for example?)

b) More on time and structure
The events in this story take place over a period of around five to six hours. Yet the story can be read in about 15 minutes.

Close reading (group)

  1. The one-line gap between the first and second sections of the story allow for three hours to pass. In the first section of the story,
    • Find points where the writer has ‘built in’ a gap in time.
    • What words are used to indicate that a gap in time has or could have occurred?
    • Find a section where ‘narrative time’ has been ‘stretched’, i.e. where the events in ‘real time’ would have taken much longer than they do in ‘narrative time’.
  2. There is very little exposition in this story. How much background information do you get about the characters involved in this story in the initial page? Explain Thiele’s use of flat characters.
  3. In most plot structures, characters make crucial choices. (We’ll be looking at this in some detail next chapter.) Who makes the crucial choice in this story? At what point does this occur?                        
  4. At what point would you locate the climax of this story?
  5. The last section of this story is a kind of denouement. What function does it serve?

c) Texture
Much of the impact of this story stems from its texture. Look closely at the first three paragraphs.

Close reading (individual)

  1. Come up with three well-chosen examples of each of the following word-classes:
    • nouns
    • verbs
    • adverbs
    • adjectives
      Rank these word-classes in order of importance to the opening of this story. Give reasons.
  2. What sentence forms (simple, minor, compound or complex) dominate in the first three paragraphs. Why should this be?
  3. Discuss the function played by phrases in the sorts of sentence structures Thiele uses here.
Language Tool Kit
Simple sentence: A simple sentence contains one finite verb: The student completed the assignment.
Compound sentence: A sentence formed by the ‘con-joining’ of one or more simple sentences using conjunctions such as and, but or then. The student completed the assignment and handed it in.
Minor sentence: A sentence without a finite verb, often used for stylistic effect.

5.3. Perspectives on the action: irony
‘The Little Governess’ was written by Katherine Mansfield in May, 1915 and was published in a collection of short stories entitled Bliss (1920). As you will see from the story, it is divided into four sections. However, for reference purposes I have split it into thirteen segments indicated by small Roman numerals [German phrases are glossed].

 (i) Oh, dear, how she wished that it wasn’t night-time. She’d have much rather travelled by day, much much rather. But the lady at the Governess Bureau said: “You had better take an evening boat and then if you get into a compartment for ‘Ladies Only’ in the train you will be far safer than sleeping in a foreign hotel. Don’t go out of the carriage; don’t walk about the corridors and be sure to lock the lavatory door if you go there. The train arrives at Munich at eight o’clock, and Frau Arnholdt says that the Hotel Grunewald is only one minute away. A porter can take you there. She will arrive at six the same evening, so you will have a nice quiet day to rest after the journey and rub up your German. And when you want anything to eat I would advise you to pop into the nearest baker’s and get a bun and some coffee. You haven’t been abroad before, have you?” “No.” “Well, I always tell my girls that it’s better to mistrust people at first rather than trust them, and it’s safer to suspect people of evil intentions rather than good ones. . . . It sounds rather hard but we’ve got to be women of the world, haven’t we?”
        It had been nice in the Ladies’ Cabin. The stewardess was so kind and changed her money for her and tucked up her feet. She lay on one of the hard pink-sprigged couches and watched the other passengers, friendly and natural, pinning their hats to the bolsters, taking off their boots and skirts, opening dressing-cases and arranging mysterious rustling little packages, tying their heads up in veils before lying down. Thud, thud, thud, went the steady screw of the steamer. The stewardess pulled a green shade over the light and sat down by the stove, her skirt turned back over her knees, a long piece of knitting on her lap. On a shelf above her head there was a water-bottle with a tight bunch of flowers stuck in it. “I like travelling very much,” thought the little governess. She smiled and yielded to the warm rocking.
        (ii) But when the boat stopped and she went up on deck, her dress-basket in one hand, her rug and umbrella in the other, a cold, strange wind flew under her hat. She looked up at the masts and spars of the ship, black against a green glittering sky, and down to the dark landing-stage where strange muffled figures lounged, waiting; she moved forward with the sleepy flock, all knowing where to go to and what to do except her, and she felt afraid. Just a little–just enough to wish – oh, to wish that it was daytime and that one of those women who had smiled at her in the glass, when they both did their hair in the Ladies’ Cabin, was somewhere near now. “Tickets, please. Show your tickets. Have your tickets ready.” She went down the gangway balancing herself carefully on her heels. Then a man in a black leather cap came forward and touched her on the arm. “Where for, Miss?” He spoke English – he must be a guard or a stationmaster with a cap like that. She had scarcely answered when he pounced on her dress-basket. “This way,” he shouted, in a rude, determined voice, and elbowing his way he strode past the people. “But I don’t want a porter.” What a horrible man! “I don’t want a porter. I want to carry it myself.” She had to run to keep up with him, and her anger, far stronger than she, ran before her and snatched the bag out of the wretch’s hand. He paid no attention at all, but swung on down the long dark platform, and across a railway line. “He is a robber.” She was sure he was a robber as she stepped between the silvery rails and felt the cinders crunch under her shoes. On the other side–oh, thank goodness!–there was a train with Munich written on it. The man stopped by the huge lighted carriages. “Second class?” asked the insolent voice. “Yes, a Ladies’ compartment.” She was quite out of breath. She opened her little purse to find something small enough to give this horrible man while he tossed her dress-basket into the rack of an empty carriage that had a ticket, Dames Seules, gummed on the window. She got into the train and handed him twenty centimes. “What’s this?” shouted the man, glaring at the money and then at her, holding it up to his nose, sniffing at it as though he had never in his life seen, much less held, such a sum. “It’s a franc. You know that, don’t you? It’s a franc. That’s my fare!” A franc! Did he imagine that she was going to give him a franc for playing a trick like that just because she was a girl and travelling alone at night? Never, never! She squeezed her purse in her hand and simply did not see him – she looked at a view of St. Malo on the wall opposite and simply did not hear him. “Ah, no. Ah, no. Four sous. You make a mistake. Here, take it. It’s a franc I want.” He leapt on to the step of the train and threw the money on to her lap. Trembling with terror she screwed herself tight, tight, and put out an icy hand and took the money–stowed it away in her hand. “That’s all you’re going to get,” she said. For a minute or two she felt his sharp eyes pricking her all over, while he nodded slowly, pulling down his mouth: “Ve-ry well. Trrrès bien.” He shrugged his shoulders and disappeared into the dark. Oh, the relief! How simply terrible that had been! As she stood up to feel if the dress-basket was firm she caught sight of herself in the mirror, quite white, with big round eyes. She untied her “motor veil” and unbuttoned her green cape. “But it’s all over now,” she said to the mirror face, feeling in some way that it was more frightened than she.
        (iii) People began to assemble on the platform. They stood together in little groups talking; a strange light from the station lamps painted their faces almost green. A little boy in red clattered up with a huge tea-wagon and leaned against it, whistling and flicking his boots with a serviette. A woman in a black alpaca apron pushed a barrow with pillows for hire. Dreamy and vacant she looked–like a woman wheeling a perambulator – up and down, up and down – with a sleeping baby inside it. Wreaths of white smoke floated up from somewhere and hung below the roof like misty vines. “How strange it all is,” thought the little governess, “and the middle of the night, too.” She looked out from her safe corner, frightened no longer but proud that she had not given that franc. “I can look after myself – of course I can. The great thing is not to –” Suddenly from the corridor there came a stamping of feet and men’s voices, high and broken with snatches of loud laughter. They were coming her way. The little governess shrank into her corner as four young men in bowler hats passed, staring through the door and window. One of them, bursting with the joke, pointed to the notice Dames Seules and the four bent down the better to see the one little girl in the corner. Oh dear, they were in the carriage next door. She heard them tramping about, and then a sudden hush followed by a tall thin fellow with a tiny black moustache who flung her door open. “If mademoiselle cares to come in with us,” he said, in French. She saw the others crowding behind him, peeping under his arm and over his shoulder, and she sat very straight and still. “If mademoiselle will do us the honour,” mocked the tall man. One of them could be quiet no longer; his laughter went off in a loud crack. “Mademoiselle is serious,” persisted the young man, bowing and grimacing. He took off his hat with a flourish, and she was alone again.
        (iv) “En voiture. En voi-ture! ” Someone ran up and down beside the train. “I wish it wasn’t night-time. I wish there was another woman in the carriage. I’m frightened of the men next door.” The little governess looked out to see her porter coming back again–the same man making for her carriage with his arms full of luggage. But – but what was he doing? He put his thumb nail under the label Dames Seules and tore it right off, and then stood aside squinting at her while an old man wrapped in a plaid cape climbed up the high step. “But this is a ladies’ compartment.” “Oh no, Mademoiselle, you make a mistake. No, no I assure you. Merci, Monsieur.” “En voi-turre! ” A shrill whistle. The porter stepped off triumphant and the train started. For a moment or two big tears brimmed her eyes and through them she saw the old man unwinding a scarf from his neck and untying the flaps of his Jaeger cap. He looked very old. Ninety at least. He had a white moustache and big gold-rimmed spectacles with little blue eyes behind them and pink wrinkled cheeks. A nice face – and charming the way he bent forward and said in halting French: “Do I disturb you, Mademoiselle? Would you rather I took all these things out of the rack and found another carriage?” What! that old man have to move all those heavy things just because she . . . “No, it’s quite all right. You don’t disturb me at all.” “Ah, a thousand thanks.” He sat down opposite her and unbuttoned the cape of his enormous coat and flung it off his shoulders.
        (v) The train seemed glad to have left the station. With a long leap it sprang into the dark. She rubbed a place in the window with her glove but she could see nothing–just a tree outspread like a black fan or a scatter of lights, or the line of a hill, solemn and huge. In the carriage next door the young men started singing “Un, deux, trois.” They sang the same song over and over at the tops of their voices.
        “I never could have dared to go to sleep if I had been alone,” she decided. “I couldn’t have put my feet up or even taken off my hat.” The singing gave her a queer little tremble in her stomach and, hugging herself to stop it, with her arms crossed under her cape, she felt really glad to have the old man in the carriage with her. Careful to see that he was not looking she peeped at him through her long lashes. He sat extremely upright, the chest thrown out, the chin well in, knees pressed together, reading a German paper. That was why he spoke French so funnily. He was a German. Something in the army, she supposed – a Colonel or a General – once, of course, not now; he was too old for that now. How spick and span he looked for an old man. He wore a pearl pin stuck in his black tie and a ring with a dark red stone on his little finger; the tip of a white silk handkerchief showed in the pocket of his double-breasted jacket. Somehow, altogether, he was really nice to look at. Most old men were so horrid. She couldn’t bear them dodder – or they had a disgusting cough or something. But not having a beard – that made all the difference–and then his cheeks were so pink and his moustache so very white. Down went the German paper and the old man leaned forward with the same delightful courtesy: “Do you speak German, Mademoiselle?” “Ja, ein wenig, mehr als Franzosisch [Yes, a little more than French],” said the little governess, blushing a deep pink colour that spread slowly over her cheeks and made her blue eyes look almost black. “Ach, so!” The old man bowed graciously. “Then perhaps you would care to look at some illustrated papers.” He slipped a rubber band from a little roll of them and handed them across. “Thank you very much.” She was very fond of looking at pictures, but first she would take off her hat and gloves. So she stood up, unpinned the brown straw and put it neatly in the rack beside the dress-basket, stripped off her brown kid gloves, paired them in a tight roll and put them in the crown of the hat for safety, and then sat down again, more comfortably this time, her feet crossed, the papers on her lap. How kindly the old man in the corner watched her bare little hand turning over the big white pages, watched her lips moving as she pronounced the long words to herself, rested upon her hair that fairly blazed under the light. Alas! how tragic for a little governess to possess hair that made one think of tangerines and marigolds, of apricots and tortoiseshell cats and champagne! Perhaps that was what the old man was thinking as he gazed and gazed, and that not even the dark ugly clothes could disguise her soft beauty. Perhaps the flush that licked his cheeks and lips was a flush of rage that anyone so young and tender should have to travel alone and unprotected through the night. Who knows he was not murmuring in his sentimental German fashion: “Ja, es ist eine Tragoedie! [Yes, this is a tragedy!] Would to God I were the child’s grandpapa!”
        “Thank you very much. They were very interesting.” She smiled prettily handing back the papers. “But you speak German extremely well,” said the old man. “You have been in Germany before, of course?” “Oh no, this is the first time”–a little pause, then – “this is the first time that I have ever been abroad at all.” “Really! I am surprised. You gave me the impression, if I may say so, that you were accustomed to travelling.” “Oh, well–I have been about a good deal in England, and to Scotland, once.” “So. I myself have been in England once, but I could not learn English.” He raised one hand and shook his head, laughing. “No, it was too difficult for me. . . . ‘Ow-do-you-do. Please vich is ze vay to Leicestaire Squaare.'” She laughed too. “Foreigners always say . . . ” They had quite a little talk about it. “But you will like Munich,” said the old man. “Munich is a wonderful city. Museums, pictures, galleries, fine buildings and shops, concerts, theatres, restaurants – all are in Munich. I have travelled all over Europe many, many times in my life, but it is always to Munich that I return. You will enjoy yourself there.” “I am not going to stay in Munich,” said the little governess, and she added shyly, “I am going to a post as governess to a doctor’s family in Augsburg.” “Ah, that was it.” Augsburg he knew. Augsburg – well – was not beautiful. A solid manufacturing town. But if Germany was new to her he hoped she would find something interesting there too. “I am sure I shall.” “But what a pity not to see Munich before you go. You ought to take a little holiday on your way”– he smiled –”and store up some pleasant memories.” “I am afraid I could not do that,” said the little governess, shaking her head, suddenly important and serious. “And also, if one is alone . . . ” He quite understood. He bowed, serious too. They were silent after that. The train shattered on, baring its dark, flaming breast to the hills and to the valleys. It was warm in the carriage. She seemed to lean against the dark rushing and to be carried away and away. Little sounds made themselves heard; steps in the corridor, doors opening and shutting–a murmur of voices–whistling. . . . Then the window was pricked with long needles of rain. . . . But it did not matter . . . it was outside . . . and she had her umbrella . . . she pouted, sighed, opened and shut her hands once and fell fast asleep.

        (vi) “Pardon! Pardon!” The sliding back of the carriage door woke her with a start. What had happened? Someone had come in and gone out again. The old man sat in his corner, more upright than ever, his hands in the pockets of his coat, frowning heavily. “Ha! ha! ha!” came from the carriage next door. Still half asleep, she put her hands to her hair to make sure it wasn’t a dream. “Disgraceful!” muttered the old man more to himself than to her. “Common, vulgar fellows! I am afraid they disturbed you, gracious Fräulein, blundering in here like that.” No, not really. She was just going to wake up, and she took out her silver watch to look at the time. Half-past four. A cold blue light filled the window panes. Now when she rubbed a place she could see bright patches of fields, a clump of white houses like mushrooms, a road “like a picture” with poplar trees on either side, a thread of river. How pretty it was! How pretty and how different! Even those pink clouds in the sky looked foreign. It was cold, but she pretended that it was far colder and rubbed her hands together and shivered, pulling at the collar of her coat because she was so happy.
        The train began to slow down. The engine gave a long shrill whistle. They were coming to a town. Taller houses, pink and yellow, glided by, fast asleep behind their green eyelids, and guarded by the poplar trees that quivered in the blue air as if on tiptoes, listening. In one house a woman opened the shutters, flung a red and white mattress across the window frame and stood staring at the train. A pale woman with black hair and a white woollen shawl over her shoulders. More women appeared at the doors and at the windows of the sleeping houses. There came a flock of sheep. The shepherd wore a blue blouse and pointed wooden shoes. Look! look what flowers–and by the railway station too! Standard roses like bridesmaids’ bouquets, white geraniums, waxy pink ones that you would never see out of a greenhouse at home. Slower and slower. A man with a watering – can was spraying the platform. “A-a-a-ah!” Somebody came running and waving his arms. A huge fat woman waddled through the glass doors of the station with a tray of strawberries. Oh, she was thirsty! She was very thirsty! “A-a-a-ah!” The same somebody ran back again. The train stopped.
        The old man pulled his coat round him and got up, smiling at her. He murmured something she didn’t quite catch, but she smiled back at him as he left the carriage. While he was away the little governess looked at herself again in the glass, shook and patted herself with the precise practical care of a girl who is old enough to travel by herself and has nobody else to assure her that she is “quite all right behind.” Thirsty and thirsty! The air tasted of water. She let down the window and the fat woman with the strawberries passed as if on purpose, holding up the tray to her. “Nein, danke,” said the little governess, looking at the big berries on their gleaming leaves. “Wei viel? ” she asked as the fat woman moved away. “Two marks fifty, Fräulein.” “Good gracious!” She came in from the window and sat down in the corner, very sobered for a minute. Half a crown! “H-o-o-o-o-e-e-e!” shrieked the train, gathering itself together to be off again. She hoped the old man wouldn’t be left behind. Oh, it was daylight–everything was lovely if only she hadn’t been so thirsty. Where was the old man – oh, here he was – she dimpled at him as though he were an old accepted friend as he closed the door and, turning, took from under his cape a basket of the strawberries. “If Fräulein would honour me by accepting these . . . ” “What, for me?” But she drew back and raised her hands as though he were about to put a wild little kitten on her lap.
        “Certainly, for you,” said the old man. “For myself it is twenty years since I was brave enough to eat strawberries.” “Oh, thank you so very much. Danke bestens [Thanks very much],” she stammered, “sie sind so sehr schön! [They’re very beautiful!] ” “Eat them and see,” said the old man, looking pleased and friendly. “You won’t have even one?” “No, no, no.” Timidly and charmingly her hand hovered. They were so big and juicy she had to take two bites to them – the juice ran all down her fingers – and it was while she munched the berries that she first thought of the old man as her grandfather. What a perfect grandfather he would make! Just like one out of a book!
        The sun came out, the pink clouds in the sky, the strawberry clouds were eaten by the blue. “Are they good?” asked the old man. “As good as they look?”
        (vii) When she had eaten them she felt she had known him for years. She told him about Frau Arnholdt and how she had got the place. Did he know the Hotel Grunewald? Frau Arnholdt would not arrive until the evening. He listened, listened until he knew as much about the affair as she did, until he said – not looking at her – but smoothing the palms of his brown suède gloves together: “I wonder if you would let me show you a little of Munich to-day. Nothing much–but just perhaps a picture gallery and the Englischer Garten. It seems such a pity that you should have to spend the day at the hotel, and also a little uncomfortable . . . in a strange place. Nicht wahr? [Isn’t that so?] You would be back there by the early afternoon or whenever you wish, of course, and you would give an old man a great deal of pleasure.”
        (viii) It was not until long after she had said “Yes”– because the moment she had said it and he had thanked her he began telling her about his travels in Turkey and attar of roses – that she wondered whether she had done wrong. After all, she really did not know him. But he was so old and he had been so very kind – not to mention the strawberries. . . . And she couldn’t have explained the reason why she said “No,” and it was her last day in a way, her last day to really enjoy herself in. “Was I wrong? Was I?” A drop of sunlight fell into her hands and lay there, warm and quivering. “If I might accompany you as far as the hotel,” he suggested, “and call for you again at about ten o’clock.” He took out his pocket-book and handed her a card. “Herr Regierungsrat. . . . ” He had a title! Well, it was bound to be all right! So after that the little governess gave herself up to the excitement of being really abroad, to looking out and reading the foreign advertisement signs, to being told about the places they came to – having her attention and enjoyment looked after by the charming old grandfather – until they reached Munich and the Hauptbahnhof. “Porter! Porter!” He found her a porter, disposed of his own luggage in a few words, guided her through the bewildering crowd out of the station down the clean white steps into the white road to the hotel. He explained who she was to the manager as though all this had been bound to happen, and then for one moment her little hand lost itself in the big brown suède ones. “I will call for you at ten o’clock.” He was gone.
        (ix) “This way, Fräulein,” said the waiter, who had been dodging behind the manager’s back, all eyes and ears for the strange couple. She followed him up two flights of stairs into a dark bedroom. He dashed down her dress-basket and pulled up a clattering, dusty blind. Ugh! what an ugly, cold room – what enormous furniture! Fancy spending the day in here! “Is this the room Frau Arnholdt ordered?” asked the little governess. The waiter had a curious way of staring as if there was something funny about her. He pursed up his lips about to whistle, and then changed his mind. “Gewiss [Sure],” he said. Well, why didn’t he go? Why did he stare so? “Gehen Sie [Go away],” said the little governess, with frigid English simplicity. His little eyes, like currants, nearly popped out of his doughy cheeks. “Gehen Sie sofort [Go away at once],” she repeated icily. At the door he turned. “And the gentleman,” said he, “shall I show the gentleman upstairs when he comes?”

        (x) Over the white streets big white clouds fringed with silver – and sunshine everywhere. Fat, fat coachmen driving fat cabs; funny women with little round hats cleaning the tramway lines; people laughing and pushing against one another; trees on both sides of the streets and everywhere you looked almost, immense fountains; a noise of laughing from the footpaths or the middle of the streets or the open windows. And beside her, more beautifully brushed than ever, with a rolled umbrella in one hand and yellow gloves instead of brown ones, her grandfather who had asked her to spend the day. She wanted to run, she wanted to hang on his arm, she wanted to cry every minute, “Oh, I am so frightfully happy!” He guided her across the roads, stood still while she “looked,” and his kind eyes beamed on her and he said “just whatever you wish.” She ate two white sausages and two little rolls of fresh bread at eleven o’clock in the morning and she drank some beer, which he told her wasn’t intoxicating, wasn’t at all like English beer, out of a glass like a flower vase. And then they took a cab and really she must have seen thousands and thousands of wonderful classical pictures in about a quarter of an hour! “I shall have to think them over when I am alone.” . . . But when they came out of the picture gallery it was raining. The grandfather unfurled his umbrella and held it over the little governess. They started to walk to the restaurant for lunch. She, very close beside him so that he should have some of the umbrella too. “It goes easier,” he remarked in a detached way, “if you take my arm, Fräulein. And besides it is the custom in Germany.” So she took his arm and walked beside him while he pointed out the famous statues, so interested that he quite forgot to put down the umbrella even when the rain was long over.
        After lunch they went to a café to hear a gypsy band, but she did not like that at all. Ugh! such horrible men were there with heads like eggs and cuts on their faces, so she turned her chair and cupped her burning cheeks in her hands and watched her old friend instead . . . . Then they went to the Englischer Garten.
        (xi) “I wonder what the time is,” asked the little governess. “My watch has stopped. I forgot to wind it in the train last night. We’ve seen such a lot of things that I feel it must be quite late.” “Late!” He stopped in front of her laughing and shaking his head in a way she had begun to know. “Then you have not really enjoyed yourself. Late! Why, we have not had any ice-cream yet!” “Oh, but I have enjoyed myself,” she cried, distressed, “more than I can possibly say. It has been wonderful! Only Frau Arnholdt is to be at the hotel at six and I ought to be there by five.” “So you shall. After the ice-cream I shall put you into a cab and you can go there comfortably.” She was happy again. The chocolate ice-cream melted – melted in little sips a long way down. The shadows of the trees danced on the tablecloths, and she sat with her back safely turned to the ornamental clock that pointed to twenty-five minutes to seven. “Really and truly,” said the little governess earnestly, “this has been the happiest day of my life. I’ve never even imagined such a day.” In spite of the ice-cream her grateful baby heart glowed with love for the fairy grandfather.
        (xii) So they walked out of the garden down a long alley. The day was nearly over. “You see those big buildings opposite,” said the old man. “The third storey – that is where I live. I and the old housekeeper who looks after me.” She was very interested. “Now just before I find a cab for you, will you come and see my little ‘home’ and let me give you a bottle of the attar of roses I told you about in the train? For remembrance?” She would love to. “I’ve never seen a bachelor’s flat in my life,” laughed the little governess.
        The passage was quite dark. “Ah, I suppose my old woman has gone out to buy me a chicken. One moment.” He opened a door and stood aside for her to pass, a little shy but curious, into a [Page 258] strange room. She did not know quite what to say. It wasn’t pretty. In a way it was very ugly – but neat, and, she supposed, comfortable for such an old man. “Well, what do you think of it?” He knelt down and took from a cupboard a round tray with two pink glasses and a tall pink bottle. “Two little bedrooms beyond,” he said gaily, “and a kitchen. It’s enough, eh?” “Oh, quite enough.” “And if ever you should be in Munich and care to spend a day or two – why, there is always a little nest – a wing of a chicken, and a salad, and an old man delighted to be your host once more and many many times, dear little Fräulein!” He took the stopper out of the bottle and poured some wine into the two pink glasses. His hand shook and the wine spilled over the tray. It was very quiet in the room. She said: “I think I ought to go now.” “But you will have a tiny glass of wine with me–just one before you go?” said the old man. “No, really no. I never drink wine. I – I have promised never to touch wine or anything like that.” And though he pleaded and though she felt dreadfully rude, especially when he seemed to take it to heart so, she was quite determined. “No, really, please.” “Well, will you just sit down on the sofa for five minutes and let me drink your health?” The little governess sat down on the edge of the red velvet couch and he sat down beside her and drank her health at a gulp. “Have you really been happy to-day?” asked the old man, turning round, so close beside her that she felt his knee twitching against hers. Before she could answer he held her hands. “And are you going to give me one little kiss before you go?” he asked, drawing her closer still.
        It was a dream! It wasn’t true! It wasn’t the same old man at all. Ah, how horrible! The little governess stared at him in terror. “No, no, no!” she stammered, struggling out of his hands. “One little kiss. A kiss. What is it? Just a kiss, dear little Fräulein. A kiss.” He pushed his face forward, his lips smiling broadly; and how his little blue eyes gleamed behind the spectacles! “Never – never. How can you!” She sprang up, but he was too quick and he held her against the wall, pressed against her his hard old body and his twitching knee, and though she shook her head from side to side, distracted, kissed her on the mouth. On the mouth! Where not a soul who wasn’t a near relation had ever kissed her before. . . .
        She ran, ran down the street until she found a broad road with tram lines and a policeman standing in the middle like a clockwork doll. “I want to get a tram to the Hauptbahnhof,” sobbed the little governess. “Fräulein?” She wrung her hands at him. “The Hauptbahnhof. There – there’s one now,” and while he watched very much surprised, the little girl with her hat on one side, crying without a handkerchief, sprang on to the tram – not seeing the conductor’s eyebrows, nor hearing the hochwohlgebildete Dame [highly-educated lady] talking her over with a scandalised friend. She rocked herself and cried out loud and said “Ah, ah!” pressing her hands to her mouth. “She has been to the dentist,” shrilled a fat old woman, too stupid to be uncharitable. “Na, sagen Sie ‘mal [You don’t say…], what toothache! The child hasn’t one left in her mouth.” While the tram swung and jangled through a world full of old men with twitching knees.        

(xiii) When the little governess reached the hall of the Hotel Grunewald the same waiter who had come into her room in the morning was standing by a table, polishing a tray of glasses. The sight of the little governess seemed to fill him out with some inexplicable important content. He was ready for her question; his answer came pat and suave. “Yes, Fräulein, the lady has been here. I told her that you had arrived and gone out again immediately with a gentleman. She asked me when you were coming back again – but of course I could not say. And then she went to the manager.” He took up a glass from the table, held it up to the light, looked at it with one eye closed, and started polishing it with a corner of his apron. ” . . . ?” “Pardon, Fräulein? Ach, no, Fräulein. The manager could tell her nothing–nothing.” He shook his head and smiled at the brilliant glass. “Where is the lady now?” asked the little governess, shuddering so violently that she had to hold her handkerchief up to her mouth. “How should I know?” cried the waiter, and as he swooped past her to pounce upon a new arrival his heart beat so hard against his ribs that he nearly chuckled aloud. “That’s it! that’s it!” he thought. “That will show her.” And as he swung the new arrival’s box on to his shoulders – hoop ! – as though he were a giant and the box a feather, he minced over again the little governess’s words, “Gehen Sie. Gehen Sie sofort. Shall I! Shall I!” he shouted to himself.

a) An initial overview
An initial reading task (individual)
On the basis of an initial reading of this story, come up with subtitles for each of the four sections Katherine Mansfield divided her story into.

b) Limiting the omniscient narrator
In ‘The Shell’, the major point of view on the action is the omniscient narrator’s. Occasionally, we get to see things from the point of view of one of the characters, but not very often. In ‘The Little Governess’, Mansfield uses the technique of limited omniscience. Specifically, she limits her point of view to that of the little governess. For most of this story, we experience the action through her eyes — from her point of view.

Close reading (group)
Re-read segment iii.

  1. Find evidence that the setting in the first paragraph here is being seen from the little governess’ point of view.
  2. How does the sentence, ‘They were coming her way,’ lead us to share the little governess’ point of view.
  3. Find and discuss two other sentences which function in this way.
  4. Find two sentences which reveal to us what the little governess is thinking about her situation at this point in the action.
  5. Give examples of information we can’t access in this segment because of the point of view we have been restricted to.           

c) Telling and presenting
In reading ‘The Shell’, you would have been very aware of a third-person narrator telling you things about the setting, the characters and offering opinions. In ‘The Little Governess’, situations are presented by the third-person narrator without us being aware of a judgement being passed on the characters.

Language Tool Kit:
Telling: A type of narrative strategy where the narrator (perhaps intrusively) describes and often passes judgement on characters, situations and events. (This strategy is sometimes called editorial omniscience.)
Presenting: A type of narrative strategy where the narrator simply shows characters talking and acting in situations without obviously directing the reader’s judgement of their motives and values.

Close reading (group)
Re-read segment ii of the story. This segment takes us from the little governess’ disembarking from the boat to her embarking on the train for Munich.

  1. Write down the words from this segment which indicate that a judgement is being passed on the porter.
  2. What evidence is there that this judgement belongs to the little governess and not the narrator?
  3. Find evidence in this segment that the little governess’ judgement is not trustworthy.
  4. On the basis of the evidence presented to you in this segment, construct your own view of the porter.
  5. In what way is your view of the porter different from the little governess’?

d) Dramatising the exposition
Many readers dislike an exposition where an omniscient narrator rather laboriously goes into lots of background detail. A more dramatic way of handling exposition is to provide background information through dialogue or through an interior thought process.

Close reading (individual)
Re-read segment i:

  1. List the important background detail you learn as you read this segment.
  2. Write ‘Dialogue’ next to the information you got through reading the dialogue.
  3. Write ‘ITP’ next to the information you got through your access to what the little governess is thinking.
  4. Identify examples of the past perfect verb tense in segment i.
  5. What is the function of this use of the past perfect tense?
  6. Identify and discuss an example of foreshadowing in segment i.

e) Dramatic irony
Re-read segments iv and v. These take us to the end of the first section of ‘The Little Governess’.

Close reading (group)

  1. What initial judgement does the little governess pass on the old man in segment iv?
  2. On what basis does she make this judgement?
  3. What is it about the appearance of the old man, as described in segment v, which appeals to the little governess?
  4. A subtle change occurs in the point of view with the words ‘How kindly the old man in the corner….’  What has Mansfield done as a way of inviting readers to view the old man from a perspective other than the little governess’? 
  5. What other way might a reader interpret the ‘flush’ that appears in the old man’s cheek?
  6. What tone is introduced by the use of the intensified ‘How’ in two sentences here?
  7. Explain the dramatic irony that occurs here.
  8. Towards the end of this segment we find the words: ‘The train shattered on, baring its dark, flaming breast to the hills and to the valleys. It was warm in the carriage. She seemed to lean against the dark rushing and to be carried away and way.’ Discuss the language that has been used here. How might it connect with the situation that exists between the little governess and the old man?
Language Tool Kit:
Dramatic irony: Irony occurs in narrative when a character involved in the action is crucially unaware of what’s really going on. When this occurs the reader or viewer (in the case of play or movie) enjoys a feeling of superiority because of the perspective they occupy.

f) Interpreting character
Reading to write (individual)
Re-read segment vi. When writers present characters, they are more or less leaving the act of judgement up to you. On the basis of your reading of this segment:

  1. Write an interpretation of the old man’s behaviour in a way that differs from the construction the little governess puts upon it.
  2. Write down and justify your own judgement of the little governess’ personality and behaviour. (For example, would it be fair to say that she is actually leading the old man on?)

g) A tragedy?
Close reading (group)
Re-read segment viii. In segment v, there are two verbal references to tragedy. (Tragedy is a form we will be looking at in some detail in the next chapter.) One of the features of tragedy is what is sometimes called a ‘tragic error’ — an error of judgement with rather immense consequences.

  1. What evidence is there that the little governess experiences an internal conflict in segment viii?
  2. What choice is she reflecting on in this segment?
  3. What are her misgivings about the choice she has made?
  4. How does she finally convince herself that her choice is the right one?
  5. Would your group call this story a tragedy or a comedy? Give reasons.

h) More on irony
Close reading (individual)

  1. In segment ix, Mansfield uses the hotel waiter as a reminder that there are other ways of viewing the little governess. Imagine you are the waiter in this segment. Write an account of your impressions of the little governess and her relationship with the old man.
  2. In segment x, the little governess begins her day in Munich with the old man. Explain the irony in the sentence: ‘So she took his arm and walked beside him while he pointed out the famous statutes, so interested that he quite forgot to put down the umbrella even when the rain was long over.’
  3. In segment xi (the scene in the ‘Englischer Garten), we find the words, ‘…she sat with her back safely turned to the ornamental clock that pointed to twenty-five minutes to seven.’ Explain the irony.
  4. Do you think Mansfield needed to point out the detail of the time? Or is this making the irony too obvious?
  5. Discuss the effect of the language in this sentence: ‘In spite of the ice-cream her grateful baby heart glowed with love for the fairy grandfather.’
  6. Does this language push the story in the direction of tragedy or comedy? Explain your choice.

i) Climax and denouement
Close reading (individual)

  1. Explain the nature of the climax that occurs in segment xii.
  2. In what way is the little governess changed by what happens in this segment?
  3. Discuss the way in which segment xiii operates as a denouement.
  4. What is the structural importance of the waiter in this story?
Language Tool Kit:
Cautionary tale: a story that has a message recommending a particular form of conduct by showing the consequences of acting in the opposite way. A cautionary tale might show the merits of not drinking when driving by showing the tragic consequences of driving while drunk.

j) Some critical questions
Close reading (group)

  1. Make a case arguing that ‘The Little Governess’ is a cautionary tale.
  2. How admirable are the male characters in this story? Make a case which argues that Mansfield’s portrayal of men in this story is either fair or unfair.
  3. Make a case which argues that the little governess got what she deserved.

5.4. Stories and scenes
Let’s return to the consideration of time we engaged in near the beginning of this chapter. Think again about the stretch of chronological time that has elapsed since you woke up. This stretch of time will be filled with actions, encounters with other people, conversations and, from your point of view, a number or feelings, thoughts, reflections and fantasies.

Imagine converting this stretch of time into a narrative. Chances are it would be extremely long and full of tedious detail. In practice, writers very carefully select and edit segments out of the flow of chronological time (as it is created or recreated in their imaginations).

We’re going to call these segments scenes. A scene is a stretch of narrative action continuous in time and taking place in one general locale.

a) A writing exercise (individual)
Select the most interesting segment you can from the stretch of time that has elapsed since you woke up.

  1. What happens in this segment? Where does it happen? Who, beside yourself, is involved in the action? Does any conversation take place?
  2. Decide the exact point where your scene begins. We’ll call this the inpoint. The inpoint might be an action. John looked up as the teacher entered the room. It might be a piece of dialogue:“I’m not looking forward much to today,’ said Sally. It might be a suggestion of setting. The row in the classroom was terrible.
  3. Having established your inpoint, decide on your narrative point of view — first-person or third-person.
  4. Write your scene. Use dialogue where you can and see if you can use dramatic means to convey background information.
  5. What you don’t want to happen is to have your scene ramble on past the point where it begins to lose interest. You need to decide on a precise point at which to stop the action. We call this the outpoint. The outpoint might be an event or the last significant utterance in a conversation.
Language Tool Kit:
Scene: A scene is a stretch of narrative action continuous in time and taking place in one general locale.
Inpoint: The precise point (line of dialogue, action, event, suggestion of setting) with which a scene begins.
Outpoint: The precise point (line of dialogue, action, event, often a mini-climax) with which a scene ends.
Panorama: That component of narrative wherein a narrator provides links between scenes, background information, an overview of a stretch of action and an occasional commentary on the action.

In a narrative, once scenic inpoints and outpoints have been selected, scenes have to be connected. One of the writer’s tasks in handling time is to provide links between one scene and the next. Sometimes these links can be made very simply with a single adverbial clause. The final segment of ‘The Little Governess’ begins: When the little governess reached the hall of the Hotel Grunevald…. The reader knows that some time has elapsed and are cued for the beginning of another scene.

Sometimes these links are quite elaborate and are used by a writer to provide background information, summarise a stretch of action and occasionally comment on it. Such writing can be termed a panorama, because it provides a reader with a ‘wide view’ of the action (as opposed to the ‘close up’ of the scene.

b) A scenic analysis: ‘The Little Governess’ (group)

  1. Which part or parts of segment x are panoramic? Say why.
  2. Which part of parts of segment x are scenic? Say why.

Chapter Summary

This chapter has made the following key points:

  • Short stories tend to have a small number of carefully etched characters, a pared down plot development, a central unifying focus or event, a limited focus on setting and an economical and suggestive use of language.
  • A narrator is the voice one can identify as telling a story.
  • Point of view in narrative is the perspective from which the events of a story are presented.
  • Managing time is an important task for any story-teller.
  • The plot of a narrative is the way its events are organised in the telling.
  • An event can be observable or psychological.
  • Important plot elements include: exposition, predicament, conflict, rising action, climax and denouement.
  • Readers access characters through characterisation.
  • Setting refers to where and when the action of a narrative takes place.
  • Readers are active in constructing themes from texts. Messages put into texts by writers are not necessarily the same as the messages taken out of texts by readers.
  • Narrators can be more or less obvious in the way they position readers to take messages out of texts. Telling is a more obvious way; presenting is a less obvious way.
  • Irony occurs in narrative when a character involved in the action is crucially unaware of what’s actually going on.
  • Most narratives consist of an arrangement of panoramic and scenic passages.

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