Bliss (short story)
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The story follows a dinner party given by Bertha Young and her husband, Harry. The writing shows Bertha depicted as a happy soul, though quite naive about the world she lives in and those closest to her. The story opened up a lot of questions, about deceit, about knowing oneself and also about the possibility of homosexuality at the start of the 20th century. The story gives us a bird's eye view of the dinner party, which is attended by a couple, Mr. and Mrs. Norman Knight, who are close friends to Bertha and Harry. Guest, Eddie Warren, is an effeminate character, who adds an interesting mix to the party. The only other guest, Pearl Fulton, is someone who Bertha is mysteriously drawn to for reasons unknown to her at the start. The interesting thing is that Bertha's husband is presented to the reader as Bertha perceives him in her mind. Because Bertha is so naive, the reader first gets the impression that Harry is a crude, disinterested person who has a strong dislike for Pearl by his conversational tone and curtness towards her as the conversation unfolds. As the dinner party progresses, Bertha questions her own interest and fascination towards Pearl. The fact that Eddie, who is most likely homosexual, is present, lends an air to the possibility that Bertha's interest in Pearl is more than a platonic feeling one has towards a friend of the same sex. It is only after Bertha analyzes her feelings towards Pearl that she realizes that the connection she feels with Pearl is their mutual attraction for Harry, and coming out of her "blissful" reverie she makes the discovery that Harry and Pearl are having an affair. The title to this story alludes to the sentiment that ignorance is bliss. The story leaves the question about whether it is best to live blissfully ignorant of the truth or live with the knowledge of a harsh reality.
Characters in "Bliss"
- Bertha Young, the main character, age 30. She is depicted as being extremely naïve but happy. The reader is bound to sympathize with her, because she is the only character in the story who seems to have genuine feelings towards somebody else. The presence of servants in Harry's and Bertha's house implies that the couple is part of the upper class.
- Harry, Bertha's husband. Like most characters, he is characterized only through Bertha's thoughts towards him. At the end of the story it becomes clear that her view of him was not entirely accurate.
- Little Bertha/Little B, Bertha's baby daughter
- Mary - servant
- Nurse - Little B's nanny
- Mr and Mrs Norman Knight: refer to each other when alone or in the company of close friends as "Mug" and "Face"; a playwright and an interior designer, respectively.
- Eddie Warren: a poet, and an effeminate and possibly homosexual (as well as a bisexual or heterosexual) character.
- Pearl Fulton: Bertha's new 'find'; an attractive blonde woman who Bertha is immediately drawn to. There is an air of uncertainty about Pearl, though Bertha is not entirely sure what it is that they share which unites them. She later realises it is a desire for Harry, and that Pearl is sharing in Bertha's Bliss. Bertha does not know Pearl very well, but falls in love with her nonetheless (as she always did fall in love with beautiful women who had something strange about them). The language describing social outburst is fitting for a middle-class family that is concerned about image and acceptable behavior.
Pearl is positively characterized by Bertha's thoughts and feelings towards her. Harry seemingly despises her, but since the story is told through the eyes of Bertha, the reader is incapable of seeing Harry's deceit. Bertha possibly has homoerotic feelings towards Pearl, as she reckons that it is Pearl who seems to inspire the bliss within her, and also the newfound sexual desire towards her own husband. These thoughts induce the reader to ponder on the implications of being homosexual in the early 20th century.
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Nature - the pear tree
Bertha sees the blooming pear tree in the garden as a symbol of her happiness and her friendship with Pearl. However, when Bertha's mood changes rapidly in the end, the tree remains the same, showing the error in Bertha's perception of a connection. ("But the pear tree was as lovely as ever and as full of flower and as still.")
The pear tree has also been described as phallic in nature and referring to Harry himself; at one point the pear tree is said to be growing towards the moon, the moon having been compared to Pearl at an earlier point in the story. This is said to potentially symbolize Harry's lust for Pearl. Some people think that the pear tree symbolizes the whole idea of being blissful, and how ignorance itself could be bliss.
- Katherine Mansfield, Selected Stories, Oxford World's Classics, explanatory notes
- The English Review Archives. "The English Review, August 1918". Retrieved on 16 May 2013.