Book Review

Katherine Mansfield: Inversions of the Heteronormative

Katherine Mansfield was modernist short story writer from New Zealand, although she spent most of her short adult life in England and continental Europe. She was a brilliant, highly influential author of the twentieth century: if you’re interested in her life, check out The Poetry Foundation’s biographical entry on her, which is quite extensive. If you’d like some context before you dive into her works, Stephanie Forward’s introduction to her short stories is a great, brief read and can be found on the British Library’s website.

I’ll be referring to Katherine Mansfield’s Selected Stories, Norton Critical Edition, which can be purchased here: the critical essays in this version are extremely helpful if you’re doing any sort of critical thinking or writing on Mansfield’s work, but somewhat cheaper options are also available, such as this one. 

I’ll be speaking specifically about the story At The Bay, published in 1922, and thinking about the ways that Mansfield’s depicts ambivalence within sexuality in the portrayals and relationships of Mrs Kember and Mr Kember, and Mrs Kember and Beryl. I would propose that Mansfield might seek to raise questions about the queerness that lies within sexuality, and the imposed stigmas which nonetheless dictate our desires.

I’ll firstly consider the portrayal of Mrs Harry Kember in her juxtaposition against her husband, particularly in the way she symbolizes an ambivalence, or queerness, of gender. From her incessant smoking, vulgar language, lack of vanity, treatment of other men as her equals, and her disregard for any domestic affairs, she exemplifies qualities which are typically associated with the “masculine”. She is described as always laying in the sun, and never being able to soak in enough of it, and she seems to be “parched and withered” as a result, suggesting a certain sexual barrenness. Despite this, she is also described as “cold”, depicting a certain feeling of masculine emotional detachment around her. She is never referred to by her first name, but always as Mrs Harry Kember, resulting in a blurring of her femininity through masculine identification, as well as a subsequent ambivalence in the relationship between Mr Kember and herself. In many ways, she seems to occupy the dominant masculine role within her marriage, while her “red-lipped” and “perfect dancer” of a partner fills a passive, silent and feminine role. It is suggested that the only conceivable reason her husband might have married her is the “money, of course”- both reducing her husband to someone incapable of providing for himself, and cementing her as a woman of independent financial means. Finally, Mrs Kember is described as a “horrible caricature” of her husband as she bobs in the water. Although she embodies so many of the typically “masculine” qualities which Mr Kember does not perceivably have, from wealth, independence, to confidence, she is still only a caricature, unable to breach her sex and gender fully in order to occupy a truly masculine space in her own right, and only exists in her juxtaposition against her husband.

I would also consider Beryl and Mrs Kember’s relationship, within which seems to exist a power dynamic reminiscent of that in a heteronormative relationship between man and woman.  Mrs Harry Kember once again occupies the traditional place of the “dominant male” and Beryl takes on that of the “submissive woman”. Mrs Kember’s sexual power and Beryl’s poorly concealed desire to be affirmed against it and actualized in Mrs Kember’s constant objectification of Beryl’s appearance. Consider, for example, the way Mrs Kember refers to her as “…a little beauty”, to which Beryl weakly responds “Don’t”, and yet she does feel like a “little beauty”. Mrs Kember retains the masculine power to actualize Beryl’s sexual fantasies of herself as a submissive, beautiful creature. Despite her initial embarrassment to undress in front of Mrs. Kember, she is convinced otherwise when Mrs Kember tells her “I shan’t be shocked like those other ninnies”, and that it is “a crime for her to wear clothes”, implying that she is comfortable around nude women, once again stepping into the masculine dominant role to oppose Beryl’s feminine submissive one. However, I would argue that there is no way for Mrs Kember’s desire for Beryl to be actualized. Beryl’s hesitation to undress in front of Mrs Kember is quickly abated, and she does so without further qualm, despite Mrs Kember’s suggestive comments towards her. Mrs Kember is never really either a sexual option or threat, because she is not truly a man, despite the ambivalently sexual and masculine space she occupies.

Mansfield’s interest in queerness (and perhaps her own suppressed sexuality) manifests itself in this modernist work of gender-bending. I would suggest that Mrs Kember’s inability to act upon her queer desire speaks to the range and strength of power that heteronormativity has over our sexualities and lives. Whether Mansfield’s inversions of the heteronormative are seen as a success, or the inability to actualize this inverted heteronormative relationship is seen as a failure, Mansfield forces us to consider her inversions nonetheless.

Again, you can purchase a copy of Mansfield’s Selected Stories here: I would also highly suggest reading Bliss and Prelude, as they are my two favourites next to At The Bay. 


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