How do we know what a character knows? What assumptions do we make about a character and their awareness when we read a text? How, in fact, does a text codify and construct knowledge, character, and thought? This essay addresses these questions in relation to Katherine Mansfield’s short story, “Bliss.” Most readers of “Bliss” assume that the protagonist, Bertha, knows nothing of her husband’s apparent affair with a guest at their dinner party and even that she is unaware of her own burgeoning homosexual desire for this same guest. And yet the persistent ambiguity of Mansfield’s free indirect style, at the least, allows Bertha to be read as knowing, deliberate, and complicit in her apparent ignorance. In conjunction with the text’s critique of gender roles and expectations, Mansfield’s free indirect style implicitly criticizes her reader’s willingness to sideline Bertha’s self-awareness. Mansfield’s demonstration of the fungibility of the ownership of thoughts is underscored by her critique of Bertha’s largely privileged lifestyle filled with possessions she is ultimately unable to fully possess.
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Research Article| December 01 2022
What Bertha Knows: Proprietary Narration in Katherine Mansfield’s “Bliss”
Kezia Whiting recently completed her doctorate at SUNY University at Buffalo. Her dissertation, entitled “Modernist Intimacy,” examines the relation between free indirect style and subjectivity in modernist literature. She has published essays on James Joyce, J. M. Coetzee, Elizabeth Bowen, and David Malouf.
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Twentieth-Century Literature (2022) 68 (4): 437–465.
Kezia Whiting; What Bertha Knows: Proprietary Narration in Katherine Mansfield’s “Bliss”. Twentieth-Century Literature 1 December 2022; 68 (4): 437–465. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/0041462X-10237795
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