In The Garden Party by Katherine Mansfield, Laura Sheridan’s inability to escape the social caste system is represented by her extravagant hat. While Laura grapples with class distinctions and accepting her role in an upper-class family, her relatives have been fully socially conditioned to ignore the misery in the outside world. Her sister, Jose, is a prime example of how cold and self-absorbed nobles were raised to be. She sings with mock passion along to a melancholy song about life being “wee-ary, a tear—a sigh” (4) even though she cannot remotely relate to ever having a weary or tearful life. Ignorant of the suffering of others, Jose thus sings without real compassion, which shows when she flashes a “brilliant, dreadfully unsympathetic” (5) grin as the final chord to the gloomy song plays. In contrast, the reader can see Laura questioning her narrow-minded education. While conversing with the work men of a lower class, she decides: “It’s all the fault…of these absurd class distinctions…and how she despised stupid conventions” (2). She yearns to bridge the divide between these lower-class workers and herself, and by imagining herself as a “work-girl” (2) rather than an aristocratic woman, she shows her awareness of a class-conscious society and an ability to relate to others. This empathy sets her apart from the rest of her family. They all have a small inkling of the world outside of their shallow and privileged bubble, but Laura attempts to push past the purposeful ignorance. This clash is seen more clearly when Laura calls her mother and sister “terribly heartless” (8) for easily dismissing the death of their penurious neighbor, Scott, and for not stopping the garden party out of respect. However, her resistance against throwing the party vanishes when Mrs. Sheridan places a fashionable and striking hat on Laura’s head.
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After seeing her beautiful reflection in the mirror, Laura decides to go along with her mother and forget about her impoverished and grieving neighbors. Her plan to mention her qualms and doubts about the garden party to her brother, Laurie, also fades once he compliments her hat. Throughout the garden party, Laura becomes completely enveloped in the superficial and profligate upper-class life; as more people praise her hat and appearance, the more her previous worries about offending Scott’s family becomes “blurred, unreal, like a picture in the newspaper” (8). Thus, the hat symbolizes her status. Due to her insular upbringing, such as the way she was taught to treat others of lower classes, she becomes a person who cares little for the well-being of others. Social values and her surrounding family sets a cage around Laura’s natural curiosity and empathy. With the hat, Mrs. Sheridan also passed on her class-consciousness and provincial worldview to Laura. The hat, both literally and figuratively, keeps her head covered as she is now ensnared by the social stratification that restricts her understanding of others’ suffering. In fact, she is so swept up with the garden party that she now becomes hesitant to bring a food basket to Scott’s family.
As she starts down the road to her neighbor’s house, her pre-party anxieties had evaporated into “kisses, voices, tinkling spoons, laughter…She had no room for anything else” (10). Laura has become just as cold and self-absorbed as her sister, Jose. It is not until she gazes upon Scott’s peaceful features that she is reminded of the trivial class restrictions that she has been unconsciously questioning with her entire life. When she sobs “forgive my hat” (12) at the dead man, the reader understands that Laura has reached a crucial turning point—Laura admits to selfishly enjoying fancy clothes, expensive food, and extravagant parties, but she now somewhat understands that life has a deeper meaning and is much more than frivolous festivities and goods. Laura’s face-to-face encounter with death and poverty shocks her into a realization that her life is superficial because she will always be her status—a “party hat”—a façade of show and decoration to impress others and nothing else.
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