"At The Bay""At the Bay" - from The Garden Party (1922)
Mansfield refers to "At the Bay" as "that long seaweedy story of mine" (letter to Dorothy Brett Oct 15 1921). Written as a sequel to "Prelude", it rejoins the life of the Burnell family in which little has changed apart from the birth of the baby who had been promised in "Prelude". This snapshot of existence is an excursion to the beach, an outing used to explore the cycle of birth through to death. The pastoral opening to the story: "Very early morning. The sun was not yet risen, and the whole of Crescent Bay was hidden under a white sea-mist" expresses a desire to return to the origins of birth where freedom can be found. Mansfield's arresting use of tenses - "the sun was not yet risen" - both introduces a childlike form of expression and also suggests the intermixing of time and she brings the reader into immediacy with: "now the leaping, glittering sea was so bright it made one's eyes ache to look at it."
The dangers of the sea and the sun to the individual are a recurring image throughout the story - "the sun beat down, beat down hot and firey on the fine sand, baking the grey and blue and black and white- veined pebbles." Instead of its usual role as a life source, it kills people off and acts as a source of oppression: Mrs Harry Kember is "burnt out and withered... when she was not playing bridge... she spent her time lying in the full glare of the sun. She could stand any amount of it; she never had enough. All the same, it did not seem to warm her." Where the sun equals death, the sea equals birth and thus represents the role of the mother. The sea becomes representative of freedom - suggested by Mansfield's imagery of the "ebb and flow of life" but also dangerous: "What was going on down there?" The reaction of the characters towards the sea and sun is significant. Linda avoids the sea and sits in her "steamer chair" on dry land and escapes into an imaginary freedom. She dreams of going with her father "up a river in China", a safe 'sea' because it never has to be touched, nothing is sacrificed by going there. Linda's husband, Stanley, is different - he is the first to get in the sea and complains because there are other people in the sea with him. His idea of freedom is a selfish and individual freedom, which he would share with nobody else. The danger of the sea is that it nourishes the difference between the possibility and the reality so that Jonathan, a clerk whose freedom is curtailed for "eleven months and a week" bemoans having stayed in too long as on re- entering reality, "it was as though some one was wringing the blood out of him". To combat these external and unstoppable dangers, the family form comforting rituals like the lamp lighting and setting of the table.
A sense of childhood permeates strongly in this story as Mansfield believed that the way to reach the universal consciousness was to go back to being a child and reanimate the characters that everybody meets there as we all experience much more similar views of the world in childhood. In section IX, "A strange company assembled in the Burnell's washhouse after tea. Round the table there sat a bull, a rooster, a donkey that kept forgetting it was a donkey, a sheep and a bee." The animals reflect the individuals - Rags is the sheep, Kezia is the bee with the power to sting. The story is unified by the animal imagery. Mrs Harry Kember has a "strange, neighing laugh" and when Linda is in the garden, she describes Stanley as looking like a "trapped beast".
Inertia - a fear of leaving the known and familiar, is contrasted with exploration - a longing to experience new dimensions of life: "Lazily flopped the warm sea"; "slow, sleepy smile"; "man walking in his sleep". Inertia is a recurring theme and is linked with the imagery of the sea and the sun. In section VII, the sleep becomes more serious: "He went to the mines, and he got sunstroke there and died" narrates old Mrs Fairfield. Darkness descends at the end of the story, reminiscent of the ending of "Something Childish But Very Natural", but the ending is brought to Mansfield's usual conclusion: "a cloud, small, serene, floated across the moon... all was still".
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