"Prelude" - from Bliss and Other Stories (1920)

"Prelude" was written in 1917 and has been said to be groundbreaking in the short story genre. Based on Mansfield's own family, it focuses on the need to retain a sense of individualism within the family unit. It spans just three days, opening with the family moving house to the country: "Holdalls, bags and boxes were piled up on the floor" - the metaphorical stage set that has defined their habits and roles lies scattered across the front garden. Despite the story's seemingly haphazard narrative, the story is intricately structured around the cycles of time and like its sequel, "At the Bay", has twelve sections reminiscent of months of the year and hours of the day. The essence of the family is that nothing is going to happen and nothing is going to change despite Linda's dreams of escape and Beryl's fantasy lover.

Mansfield deals with the question of identity, so long explored by her contemporary Virginia Woolf, in "Prelude" and the concept of the false masks of society is seen most strongly in the character of Beryl. It is significant that Beryl has the name of a precious stone whose colour vacillates between nuances of green and blue serving to highlight the divisions within herself that she cannot synthesise, as she herself observes: 'it was her other self who had written that letter. It not only bored, it rather disgusted her real self' - an expression comparable to that in "Je ne Parle pas Francais": "my other self left me when I began to analyse my grand moment". Mansfield's characters hover on the brink of self-discovery, as in "A Dill Pickle" where "that old self" sporadically surfaces, always at the wrong moment. Beryl's unhappiness causes the adoption of a false front and the creation of a fantastical ideal lover and life: "There is a ball at Government house... Who is that exquisite creature in the eau-de-nil satin? Beryl Fairfield..." In fact, all of the characters are nourished on foundations of dream and fantasy. Even Alice the servant girl is addicted to the possibility of a meaningful existence in a different realm and is obsessed with dream interpretation books: "Alice dropped the knife and slid the dream book under the butter dish" - the private world is hidden just under the layers of trivial reality. Birds and music as images of the illusory world - Beryl's imaginary lover thrusts "his head among the bright waxy flowers' and 'birds I see that sing aloud from every tree." The bird motif suggests the common bond among the females as it symbolises a childbearing function and highlights the fact that Linda appears to have a fear of giving birth. The individual swabs of life in each section are united by this strength of the symbolism. The use of children suggests the time when adult dreams are hatched - the children go from playing 'hospital' to 'ladies', illustrating the fact that there is no difference between the fantasies of the children and those of adults. The only two characters who are not touched by fantasy are the practical grandmother and Pa, the coachman and it is evident that Mansfield venerates these characters because they fully exist in the real world.

There is a recurring image of swelling in the story causing some critics to read "Prelude" as an annunciation of the birth of the author's brother. Linda strokes a small bird and finds that it begins to swell: "It grew bigger and bigger... It had become a baby with a big naked head and a gaping bird mouth." The central swelling image is the aloe growing on the front lawn of the house and was the initial title of the story: "Linda looked at the fat swelling plant with its cruel leaves and fleshy stem. High above them, as though becalmed in the air, and yet holding so fast to the earth it grew from, it might have claws instead of roots." Capable of always bearing fruit, this plant is set in juxtaposition with Linda's fear of the brutality of sex from her husband Stanley, whom she refers to as "my Newfoundland dog." She admires the aloe's inherent self- protection against violation - the 'long, sharp thorns' as she has none. Throughout "Prelude" are images of escape - the "corset laces hanging out"; a blind "pulled down, but not drawn close"; the "crack of the floor" - all suggesting an escape through a fictional and fantastical universe of the imagination running parallel to the real world.

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