Katherine Mansfield’s “Life Of Ma Parker” : Women’s Plight Essay, Research Paper
Katherine Mansfield?s ?Life of Ma Parker?: Women?s Plight
Katherine Mansfield?s ?Life of Ma Parker? presents the plight of Ma Parker as a working-class woman at the turn of the century, in terms of her position in the sphere of the family and in the sphere of society.
?Life of Ma Parker? is a story of a widowed charwoman. Like Miss Brill, Ma Parker is a very lonely woman, but their equally painful story is told quite differently, mainly because Mansfield supplies no background to account why Miss Brill?s Sunday passes as it does. As the title of the story denotes, we receive the story of Ma Parker?s life, which explains her current situation.
?As servant, wife, and mother, she?s the generic British working-class female at the turn of the century ? cowed by drudgery and burdened by loss. Her husband, a baker, died of ?white lung? disease, and those children who survived the high rate of infant mortality fell victim to other ills of the late-Victorian underclass: emigration, prostitution, poor health, worse luck? (Lohafer 475). At the present point in the story, Ma Parker arrives to work in the house of the literary gentleman after she buried the previous day her loving grandson, Lennie, who was the only ray of light in her dreary life.
According to Irigaray, ?all the systems of exchange that organize patriarchal societies and all the modalities of productive work that are recognized, values, and rewarded in these societies are men?s business?.[t]he work force is this always assumed to be masculine, and ?products? are objects to be used, objects of transaction among men alone? (171). Ma Parker has to play the role of an object circulated among masculine employers as she has to support her children and herself. Ma begins working as early as the age of sixteen as a ?kitching-maid? (143). Later on, ?[w]hen that family was sold up she went as ?help? to a doctor?s house, and after two years there, on the run from morning till light, she married her husband? (144). Ma is an object of transaction among men, as she transfers from one male employee to another, until she is married. Now then, Ma was working for the literary man, as people advised him to ?get a hag in once a week to clean up? (142, my italics). The literary man, insensitive to his surroundings and lonely as Ma Parker at the same time, dirties everything around him and leaves it all looking like ?a gigantic dustbin? (142), but Ma ?pitied the poor young gentleman for having no one to look after him? (142). Instead of thinking of herself, of her plight, her poverty and loneliness, Ma pities the gentleman she works for. At this point she does not stop to think of her troubles, of her grief, of her hard life.
While Miss Brill lives in a world of her own creation and is a mere spectator of life (much like the literary gentleman Ma Parker works for), Ma Parker is an active participant in the cruel and difficult reality of her time, and suffers the hardships of a working-class woman. Ma Parker realizes she has had a hard life and wonders to herself, ?[w]hy must it all have happened to me??what have I done??What have I done?? (Mansfield 148-149).
Ma Parker, sadly, has grown ?accustomed to the pain? (141). She and her husband ?had thirteen little ones and buried seven of them. It if wasn?t the ?ospital it was the infirmary? (144). Her husband then dies of consumption and Ma Parker is left alone to struggle to bring up six little children and ?keep herself to herself? (145). She must keep herself to herself, for ?the gender-coded expectation [is] that Ma should swallow her suffering? (Lohafer 477) and keep on being strong for the sake of everyone concerned. She does not have the privilege of breaking down and actually feeling her pain.
?Mother, virgin, prostitute: these are the social roles imposed on women? (Irigaray 186). As Ma?s children are grown she is left alone and is ?robbed? of her social role as an active mother. She has no place in the patriarchal society therefore unless she assumes a role to play. Ma Parker feels emptiness as a result therefore until Lennie is born and she takes on the role of his mother. According to Susan Lohafer, the relationship between Ma Parker and Lennie is ?at the core of the story ? the coy and tender interaction between a child and a mothering grandparent? (477). Lennie ?was gran?s boy from the first? (Mansfield 146). He was ?the focus of all her love, all her joy, all her hope? (Lohafer 480). When Lennie gets sick, Ma feels herself guilty for not being able to do anything to help him and as if responsible for his sickness although she tells Lennie, ?[i]t?s not your poor old gran?s doing, my lovely? (Mansfield 148). But Lennie ?bent his head and looked at her sideways as though he couldn?t have believed it of his gran? (149). Lennie?s death devastates Ma, for now she realizes her true loneliness. The love of her life now gone, she also loses her role as a mothering grandparent. She loses her identity. What possible position could she now have in society?
Lennie?s death counterbalances Miss Brill?s experience at the Jardins Publiques, when she eavesdrops on the lovers? conversation. Both experiences bring about a change in the lives of these two marginal women, a realization of their loneliness. The full effect of Miss Brill?s observation of the lovers does not come until she goes home, her day ruined. Miss Brill is so hurt that she does not even stop at the baker?s to get her usual slice of honey-cake which sometimes has an almond in it (Mansfield 335). When she arrives home, she finally recognizes herself as one of the ?[o]ther people?.[who] looked as though they?d just come from dark little rooms or even ? even cupboards!? (332). Miss Brill has never before seen herself as one of those funny old people. When she returns her fur to its box and puts on the lid, she thinks she hears something crying. Miss Brill has been so detached from reality that she does not even realize it is her who is crying. Ma Parker on the other hand, does realize her need to cry. All her life Ma ?has internalized her sorrows, accepting them, going about the business of serving her family, her employer? (Lohafer 480-481). Ma had to suffer for the sake of others, had to always be strong for her family and had not been allowed to show her pain. Ma is like the ?sad-looking sky?whenever there were clouds they looked very worn, old clouds, frayed at the edges, with holes in them, or dark stains like tea? (Mansfield 142-143). Ma herself was worn down by life?s misfortunes, she too was old, and her miseries engraved dark stains on her heart. Lennie?s death brought about this realization (Mansfield 149):
It was too much she?d had too much in her life to bear. She?s borne it up till now, she?s kept herself to herself, and never once had she been seen to cry. Never by a living soul. Not even her own children had seen Ma break down. She?d kept a proud face always. But now! Lennie gone what had she? she had nothing.
?The economy of exchange ? of desire ? is man?s business? (Irigaray, 177), however, Ma, now, for the first time in her life, realizes what she desires, what she wants, and acknowledges to herself what she needs. She wants to cry. She needs to cry over every misery that life has brought upon her. Ma looks everywhere for a place to cry, but there is nowhere she could go and be herself, not at home and not even outside on a public bench. ?Ma Parker stood, looking up and down. The icy wind blew out her apron into a balloon. And now it began to rain. There was nowhere? (150). As the sky is an analogy to Ma Parker (like Miss Brill?s fur is an analogy to Miss Brill), the story ends with the sad-looking sky crying in the place of Ma Parker. Like Miss Brill perhaps, Ma does not realize it is in fact she who is crying as she has lost all hope for happiness in life.
Irigaray, Luce. ?Women on the Market? (chapter 8). This Sex Which Is Not One. pp.
Lohafer, Susan. ?Why the ?Life of Ma Parker? Is Not So Simple: Preclosure in
Issue-bound Stories?. Studies in Short Fiction. 33.4 (1996): 475-86.
Mansfield, Katherine. ?Life of Ma Parker?. The Garden Party and Other
Stories. Ed. Alfred A. Knopf. New York: 1922. pp. 140-150.
(taken from the web-site: http://www.cs.cmu.edu/~mmbt/women/mansfield/garden/parker.html)
Mansfield, Katherine. ?Miss Brill?. pp. 330-336