About the Author
Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923) is known for realism and psychological analysis in her stories. She is one of the best modern story writers. Her real name was Katherine Mansfield. She was born on 14 October 1888 in New Zealand. She was sent to London to train for a musical career, and there at the age of eighteen she began to publish stories in a weekly review, New Age. It was in The United Kingdom that she became a friend of modernist writers such as D.H. Lawerence and Virginia Woolf. She had to battle the rest of her life with ill health. In 1913, she married John Middleton Murray, the literary critic. Her works include In a German Pension (1911) , Bliss and Other Stories (1920), The Garden Party (1922), The Dove’s Nest (1923) and Collected Stories. Her stories are born out of her response to life. They explore the inner recesses of the mind and unearth dramatic situations. Her characterizations are sensitive and reveal a warm humanity. She often draws on her own experiences, with subject matter suggested by personal hardships and longings.
About the Story
‘The Singing Lesson’ is one of Katherine Mansfield’s stories included in The Garden Party and Other Stories. It is written in the third person from a female perspective. It concentrates on the woman at work, rather than on woman at home, a shift from the perspective of stories written in the Victorian Age by women writers.
The story explores the theme of despair, sadness, reliance, appearance, desperation and happiness. It describes the changing moods of the protagonist Miss Meadows, a music teacher in a girl’s school. Her singing lesson to her students of Forms Four, Five and Six in the school music hall is determined by the fits of her moods, first very sad and later joyous and excited. As she crosses the cold corridor leading to the music hall she feels a heavy weight on her heart because of the latest letter she had received from her fiance. There is cold, sharp despair buried deep in her heart like a wicked knife. So instead of teaching the prepared lesson of joy and excitement, she starts with the lesson of despair and frustration that reflects the agony of her heart because her fiance Bsail has expressed ‘disgust’ in his relationship with her. But as soon as she gets the telegram from Basil apologizing to her for his unbecoming and hurting letter, she is transformed. So with ‘wings of hope, of love, of joy’ she proceeds to the class with the lesson ‘Flowers overladen’, with Baskets of Fruit and Ribbons to boot. To congratulate……..’ . Thus the story reveals impressionistically the inner struggle going on in Miss Meadows’ heart.
On the way to the classroom : In cap and gown, the academic dress, Miss Meadows, a music teacher was on her way to the classroom. She walked through the cold corridor. She was in total despair and bad, irritated mood. Girls of all ages went past her, laughing, running, calling out to one another. Miss Meadows, who had lately received a letter from her fiance Basil calling off the wedding, was indifferent to the gleeful excitement of the girls because of her own melancholy mood.
Meeting with the Science Mistress : Miss Meadows was stopped on the way by the Science Mistress, her colleague in the school. She hated the Science Mistress for her cheerfulness, her beauty and charm. Today she hated her especially sweetness. Exchanging strained pleasantries with the Science Mistress, Miss Meadows walked down the hall to her classroom where Forms Four, Five and Six were waiting. Paying no attention to her students’ excitement, she gave two sharp taps with her baton for silence. Mary Beazley, her favourite student, was to play accompaniment at the piano.
Sense of anguish and anger : Though Miss Meadows gauged her students’ irritation with her, she could not hide her anger and anguish for long. Quite true. “What could the thoughts of those creatures matter to someone who stood there bleeding to death, pierced to the heart, to the heart, by such a letter.” ….. “I feel more and more strongly that our marriage would be a mistake.” Basil had written to Miss Meadows. He had mentioned in his letter that he was not a “marrying man” and that although he loved her the thought of marrying her filled him with regret. Miss Meadows saw he had written “disgust” first and had crossed it out and wrote , “regret”. She felt that Basil perhaps thought she would not be able to read of his ‘disgust’ towards her.
The sad song : Feeling tormented at heart and ignorant of the world around her, Miss Meadows walked to the piano where her favourite pupil Mary Beazley, who played accompaniments, tried to engage her in conversation as part of their usual routine. But Miss Meadows silenced her excited girls with her shout and asked them to start at page fourteen, “A Lament”, instead of page thirty-two, as earlier planned. She did not even take the beautiful yellow Chrysanthemum that Mary had brought for her. Fighting her tears back, Mary began to play.
Song reflecting Miss Meadows’ sad mood : Miss Meadows instructed the students to sing the song without expression and the result was indeed tragic : “Every note was a sigh, a sob, a a groan of mournfulness.” All the time Miss Meadows was thinking of Basil. How could he have written such a letter? What had prompted him to do so? How could he have changed his mind so quickly when in his last letter he had talked about buying a hat-stand? When the song ended, Miss Meadows called upon the girls to use their imagination and sing the song with expression and find the exact feeling behind the words of the song. She instructed them to sing ‘drear’ as if a cold wind were blowing through. Miss Meadows spoke as if her voice was made of stone, and the youngest students began to feel frightened.
Thoughts of Basil : Miss Meadows once again waves the baton and the lament began again with the turmoil in Miss Meadows’ mind rising. She began to think if their engagement were off, then she would have to leave the school. People were really surprised when they learnt that Miss Meadows in her thirty could get engaged to Basil who was just twenty-five. While the song was being rendered by the girls, Miss Meadows’ mind was tossed by the thoughts of Basil. She wished Basil could continue to love her and keep the relation, else she would have to disappear.
Miss Meadows’ meeting with the headmistress : Just then the door opened and a student entered and told Miss Meadows that the headmistress Miss Wyatt wanted to see her. Instructing the girls not to be noisy while she was away, Miss Meadows walked to the headmistress’ office. She was handed a telegram by the headmistress. It was from Basil : “Pay no attention to letter, must have been mad, bought hat-stand today.”
The headmistress’ reprimand : Miss Wyatt asked if the telegram contained bad news. Miss Meadows, who had been transformed by the message contained in the telegram, said it was a good news. Miss Wyatt, speaking her mind, told her that in future good news should wait until after school hours.
Drastic shift in Miss Meadows’ mood : Miss Meadows returned to her class in a happy and excited mood. She was ‘on the wings of hope, of love, of joy’. Now in this mood of excitement, she led the girls in a different song, one of congratulations. Miss Meadow’s voice sang the loudest of all the voices.
Inner Turmoil : The story, as the opening line makes it clear, is a case study of inner turmoil. The author is concerned with studying how sadness and despair caused by something undesirable affect the mind and the body of an individual.
The opening line of the story ‘With despair – cold, sharp despair – buried deep in her heart like a knife’ sets the tone for the story. The words ‘cold’, ‘sharp’, ‘knife’ point out clearly how deeply affected Miss Meadows is after she has read her fiance Basil’s latest letter. Miss Meadows is treading the ‘cold corridor’ to the music hall. This itself shows how her poignant pain is. Her mood of desperation has a negative effect on the girls in her music class. This is noticeable by the choice of song that Miss Meadows tells the girls to sing – a lament. Every note of that song appears to be a sigh, a sob, a groan of awful mournfulness.
Importance of appearance : Another theme of the story is the theme of reliance and appearance. As the story unfolds we learn that Miss Meadows aged thirty is five years older than Basil, who is twenty-five . In those times thirty was viewed as old, when came to a woman getting married. Perhaps Miss Meadows is fully aware that if her engagement with Basil is called off, she may never again get the opportunity to marry. She is on this ground reliant on him to marry her. Miss Meadows begins to believe that if marriage goes not take place, she may have to leave the school, her job. This brings in the theme of appearance. If she leaves the school, what will be her fate? Miss Meadows is concerned about how she will appear to others (the Science Mistress and the girls in her class) now that Basil has called off their engagement. Quite evidently she feels embarrassed by the fact that she is to remain single. Mansfield also explores the theme of desperation. Miss Meadows is not concerned by how much (or little) may Basil love her, as she reflects ‘I don’t mind how much it is. Love me as little as you like’. It is quite evident that Miss Meadows is prepared to settle for (and marry) a man who may not love her at all. It would appear that Miss Meadows is desperate to get married again. It is possible that she fears how she will be perceived by others should she remain single. Knowing that Basil does not love her, she gets excited at the end of the story on receiving Basil’s telegram. This suggests that appearance in more important to Miss Meadows than whether Basil really loves her.
The aim of the modern story is not to convey any explicit message. It is up to us as readers to deduce any relevant message from a story like ‘The Singing Lesson’. The message on the individual level is that we should have the guts to face and accept reality. We should not be escapist. Miss Meadows in the story is unable to accept the fact that her fiance Basil does not love her, even if he revises his decision to marry her. His letter clearly reveals that he is is no mood to marry a woman who is older than him and is possibly not good-looking. It is Miss Meadows who does not want to remain single as a social stigma is attached to the single status of a woman. That is why, she feels that she will have to leave her school and disappear if Basil breaks off their engagement.
The message on the social level is for society. The society should ensure an atmosphere in which a single woman could live with honour and dignity. The Western society has changed a lot, and no one even notices if a woman is single or married. However, in Indian and other ‘backward’ countries a single woman is open to unthinkable exploitation, harassment, sarcasm and taunt. It is wrongly thought that a single woman is deficient or abnormal in some way.
The title of the story ‘The Singing Lesson’ is appropriate and suggestive. It is through the singing lesson that the writer conveys the inner turmoil in Miss Meadows’ mind at first, and then later the happy state of her mind. The sad song ‘A Lament’ is sung by the girls in a way that brings out the feelings of despair in Miss Meadows’ mind. The happy song ‘We come here To-day……’ reflects her inner happiness on learning that her fiance has changed his mind and is now ready to marry her.
In fact, the title has double sense. It may mean either a class where people how to sing or a lesson that is singing itself, as if it were alive. Life follows the music. Maybe music is played according to life. Music is like an iced fragment that transmits the impression of a certain moment, like an impressionist painting. In ‘The Singing Lesson’, Miss Meadows allows her inner turmoil to influence not only her song choices when teaching her class but the way in which the songs are interpreted. ‘A Lament’ is a reflection of her inner turmoil. But when Miss Meadows receives Basil’s apology her music choice reflects her change in the mood and she sings a happy song, allowing her own voice to sing loudest, symbolizing her return to happiness.
Miss Meadows is the protagonist of the story ‘The Singing Lesson’. She is thirty years old. She does not seem to be good-looking. So there is no physical description about her. That she is a working woman and is in focus is important given she conditions of the society in which the story is written.
She is no doubt a popular teacher. Her students admire her. When we first see her she wears “cap and gown” and handles “little baton”. When she talks to the Science Mistress, “hugging the knife”, there is no real knife. It is a wedged letter on her throat, a metaphor about how she feels in her heart.
She stands keenly contrasted with her colleague, the Science Mistress, who is portrayed as “sweet, pale, like honey”. She has yellow hair. While the Science Mistress has a “sugary smile”, Miss Meadows is frozen, grim.
Miss Meadows is the singing teacher who carries the baton. She beats the baton and asks for silence. The baton is a sign of her power, like a magician’s stick or a magic wand. The girls who wear a “sea of coloured flannel blouses” get scared and silent, as if the colours had to be stagnated. She imposes her will and moods on her students and makes them behave and act as her mood dictates. She is not soft on her favourite pupil Mary Beazley, playing accompaniment. She gives sharp taps with her baton for silence. Her glance sweeps over the bobbing pink faces. But she silences them all. She remains indifferent to their excitement because “What could the thoughts of those creatures matter to someone who stood there bleeding to death, pierced to the heart, by such a letter “from Basil who feels “more and more strongly that our marriage would be a mistake”.
She is very sensitive. It is Basil’s latest letter that has hurt her most. Miss Meadows allows her inner turmoil to influence not only her song choices when teaching her class but the way in which the songs are interpreted. She picks a lament for the class’s first song and instructs her students not to feel any emotion while singing and their voices are, as a result, lifeless and a reflection of her inner thoughts. A reflection of her mood, the music continues to tread along, the students instinctively picking up on Miss Meadows’ emotions become angry and afraid as a result. Yet all the time students remain unaware of the clear cause of her mood. Thus for Miss Meadows , music serves as her emotional outlet without having to divulge her private thoughts. After Miss Meadows receives Basil’s apology, her music choice reflects her change in the mood and she sings a happier song. She “beams at the girls”, since the sun is shining inside her. The air, the voices, the sound and all the rest become light. At this point she demonstrates her place at the hierarchy, the goddess that she really is. She recovers the full moon aspect, Demeter , mother, wife.
According to the typology described by Jung, Miss Meadows seems to be the kind of person sentimental/ introverted, which specially appears on women. Such persons tend to be quiet, difficult to approach often being a childish or banal masque. They have also a melancholic temperament.
Miss Meadows, as the gods of Olympus in Greek mythology, has human attitudes and defects. She is susceptible to suffer with the changes of fortune in life and she can make use of her power indiscriminately against the weaker and more vulnerable people to overflow her pain, hate or joy. Miss Meadows’ inclement mood subdues the girls.
Miss Meadows’ personality skirts the line between that of stereotypical “schoolmarm” or “old maid” and that of a woman who, until recently, seems to have enjoyed her job and was popular with her students. Her identity struggles between who is at school and who is in marriage.
Basil is Miss Meadows’ fiance, and is an important character, even though he does not appear in the story. His presence is felt at every moment. It seems as if Miss Meadows is incomplete without him. He is an object of value for her. It is important to note that Miss Meadows’ whose moods are determined by what Basil has done or written to her. That way Basil occupies an important place in this story. He is described to be a young man of twenty-five, committed to marry Miss Meadows, five years senior to him in age. Last time Miss Meadows has seen Basil, he had worn a rose with his buttonhole. “How handsome he had looked in that bright blue suit, with that dark red rose.”
Basil is Miss Meadows’ invisible companion, so his absence causes sadness. While instructing her students Miss Meadows analyses the contents of Basil’s letter which read as : “I feel more ad more strongly that our marriage would be a mistake. Not that I do not love you. I love you as much as possible for me to love any woman, but, truth to tell, I have come to the conclusion that I am not a marrying man, and the idea of settling down fills me with nothing but……”
And the word “disgust” was scratched out lightly and “regret” written over the top.
Basil appears to be selfish and wavering. Miss Meadows is devastated by Basil’s use of the word “disgust” to describe his feelings towards marrying her. She takes it to mean that he cannot love her. No doubt, he crosses out the word “disgust” and replaces it with regret, but he does not do so carefully and she can still read the original word. All the same, “disgust” is Basil’s true feeling on the matter. He crosses the word to hide his thoughts or perhaps his true inclination. His letters to Miss Meadows reveal his personality as a man more fixated on furnishing than on sending love notes to his betrothed. He appears to be abnormal human being not capable of enjoying a marital bliss. Miss Meadows interprets Basil’s latest letter in her own way as her internal monologue cries out for answers. Only Basil’s apologetic telegram can lift Miss Meadows’ spirits. When she returns to her singing lesson, the song she sings is a reflection of her enhanced mood.
Basil demonstrates the does not have greatness enough to understand love and to be selfless. Either he does not have mental structure to be engaged or he does not have enough maturity. He must have been confused, in addition, he is impulsive and selfish.
Basil emerges to be a hurtful, wicked person who may be associated with they mythological creature basilisk, that is an unbelievable kind of snake . “People have been surprised enough that she had got engaged . ….She was thirty. Basil was twenty-five.” It had been a miracle that Basil appeared, like the basilisk, that is, able to kill with its breath, stare or physical contact, like Basil could hurt just using words of a letter.
Simple and Gripping Story : The plot is very simple. A despairing music teacher, Miss Meadows, has to start her class, but she has just received a letter from her fiance who has expressed his inability to carry on with her affair with her saying that he is an unmarrying person.
Unable to bear the desperation, Miss Meadows changes what she had prepared for the classes and asks the students to sing the saddest song, ‘A Lament’, while she plays the piano. She leads her students through the sad song all the while thinking of her fiance Basil. Here “every note was a sigh, a sob, a groan of mournfulness.”
Soon a telegram from Basil is sent to Miss Meadows , asking her to apologize to him. The teacher comes back to the class smiling and asks the students to sing another song, happy and sweet, without explanations, as if nothing happened.
The story ends on a happy note with Miss Meadows releasing her utmost tension and singing joyously. The shift in the mood of Miss Meadows shows that for her appearance is more important than reality. She appears to be happily married, even though Basil does not love her.
Characterization : The characters in the story are middle class people. Because of their visceral mediocrity, they tend to cause nothing but indifference. Miss Meadows and the Science Mistress are middle class characters. So after evoking in a few lines of whirlwind of sensations, the author hurries to dismantle that effect. So she carefully adds more to the narrative by exploring the hidden recesses of the mind of the protagonist. The author employs apt symbols to bring out the complex personalities of the characters. For example, she uses red, blue, yellow Chrysanthemum, Basil and Meadows that stand for different ideas and emotions.
Style : The story ‘The Singing Lesson’ is an excellent example of Katherine Mansfield’s unique talent for realistically capturing a moment in time. Her simplistic style conceals complex insights. Miss Meadows’ ordeal in “The Singing Lesson” is written in the third person from a female perspective.
Mansfield, noted for her preference for a woman’s point of view, moves away from the examination of a woman at home at the turn of the twentieth century and instead concentrates on the woman at work. This story shows Mansfield’s wondrous skills in expressing the inexpressible feelings of the protagonist. The author uses highly symbolic elements, contributing to the ontological narrative, bringing archetypes to everyday situations.
The story denounces the society of that age, not explicitly, with vestiges of Victorian moral. The hypocrisy is present at the school environment with a piece of irony and sarcasm. There is a subtle feminist denunciation against the oppression of women, and consequently, on children.
The environment created in the story is like a mirror that reflects the emotions of the characters. It is the pain exceeding the body’s walls, transcending it. “With despair – cold, sharp despair…..” creates a tense atmosphere. Then there are words which remind death, like the smile : “buried deep in her heart like a wicked knife”.