LIFE OF MA PARKER
Katherine Mansfield was born in Wellington, New Zealand, in 1888. She went
to London to study music when she was quite young. When she later returned to
New Zealand, she found life there difficult, and moved to England again.
Because of serious lung disease which eventually led to her death, she also spent
many years of her life in Germany and France. She died in 1923.
Katherine Mansfield is remembered as one of the classical writers of
English short stories, and it is very much due to her works that the short story
gained a full literary status.
In Life of Ma Parker, we meet Ma Parker, an aging woman, now working as a
housekeeper. She was born in Stratford-on-Avon, and left home at the age of 16
to work as a maid in London. She had to work hard, she was never allowed to
go out and she was harassed by the cook. After working here, she worked just as
hard in a doctor's house for a couple of years before marrying her husband, who
was a baker. They had 13 children together, but only six of them survived.
When the children still were young, her husband died of consumption. Her
husband's sister then came to assist her, but soon afterwards hurt herself so
badly that Ma Parker now had one more person to look after. Ma Parker's
children grew up, but only one of her daughters kept in touch. The daughter
married a waiter and got Lennie, Ma Parker's only joy in life. However, also he
died because of consumption. We meet Ma Parker working in a young
gentleman's house the day after Lennie was buried.
As in most short stories, the setting in Life of Ma Parker plays an important role
and is quite relevant to the story. The description of the weather outside plays an
important role in conveying the right melancholic and dark mood. The
gentleman's apartment is probably also very typical for the places where Ma
Ma Parker has had a very hard life. Because of this, she's both physically and
psychologically exhausted. You can notice this when she's taking off her boots.
For many years that has meant great agony to her, so her face expresses the pain
even before she starts taking them off. She probably doesn't look very well
anymore either. This is supported by what the young gentleman tells his friends
about his household system and thinks about her as a hag; «You simply dirty
everything you've got, get a hag in once a week to clean up, and the thing's
Ma Parker has worked as a servant for others almost whole her life, and
therefore also behaves like one. She wants to do her job, and not be in anyone's
way. Even if she's dissatisfied with things, she doesn't usually complain. When
she's talking to an employer she's using a polite and inferior language and she
doesn't express any of her own feelings or ideas. Actually, she's normally not
showing any feelings to close family members. She has never cried in front of
others, not even her own children.
As we follow her throughout this specific day, Ma Parker comes closer
and closer to a point where she will break down. The more she thinks about her
misery over the years, the more she wants to cry about it all. Unfortunately it
will take too much time, and wherever she starts to cry, she will bother
someone. Therefore, in her opinion, she can't...
Ma Parker is probably quite representative for her social background as a
member of the poor working class. She, as many others, has had a life filled
with poverty, hard work, lousy wages and lack of appreciation. Because of her
social position, she hasn't got much of an education and she hadn't learnt about
Shakespeare, even if he was from her home city.
The «literary gentleman» who Ma Parker works for, isn't very concerned
by her situation. He does ask her how her grandson is, but judging by his
comment upon Lenny's burial («I hope the funeral was a success»), it seems he
asks mostly to be polite and to show that he after all is paying some attention.
The gentleman seems to think that Ma Parker is quite stupid. After giving his
unsuitable comment on the burial, he thinks she has problems understanding
him, while it really is him who has said something extremely stupid. Her
neighbors talk among themselves about how hard a life Ma Parker has had, but
without feeling very sorry for her.
Because of the life she has had, and because of the hard work she still
does, I feel very much respect and sympathy towards Ma Parker. She has also
got a tremendous self discipline. On the positive side, this has made her able to
work hard and raise six children almost on her own. However, the strong self
discipline has also stopped her from expressing her feelings, and therefore also
get rid of the burden she's bearing in her mind. Because of that, she's now on the
edge of a nervous breakdown.
Judging by his conversations with Ma Parker, it seems that the «literary
gentleman» is not very self confident. He tries to prove to himself and to his
housekeeper the opposite, but he's quite a helpless person, not even capable of
looking after his own apartment. During his upbringing in a middle or upper
class family, he's probably been taken so much care of that he's not able to stand
on his own feet as an adult. I don't think he's a typical representative of his
social background, but his personality has very much been shaped by his social
background. For someone from Ma Parker's social layer, it would be almost
impossible to get as coddled as her employer is. Both he and Ma Parker are
victims of different circumstances, but I don't feel as much sympathy for «the
literary gentleman» as for Ma Parker.
Life of Ma Parker follows one plot all the time, with the otherwise
chronological story being broken up by Ma Parker looking back at her life and
reflecting about her grandson.
Throughout the story, as we get to know Ma Parker better and learn about
all her problems, the tension increases. It's quite obvious that she eventually will
break down. However, the end of the story doesn't suggest when this is going to
happen, as Ma Parker can't think of anywhere to cry. At this point the tension
drops, but it's still there as it's up to the reader to think of what probably
happened in the end. The plot hasn't really indicated anything about the ending,
so it isn't that unexpected.
During most of the story we see things from an outside point of view.
However, the point of view switches to one inside Ma Parker sometimes when
she's thinking. The way Katherine Mansfield uses the point of view is important
to make the story as simple in construction as it is, because you haven't got more
than two points of view to relate to.
To support the story's simple construction, symbols and figures of speech aren't
very much used, the language is quite simple, the vocabulary not especially rich
and there are few connotations in use. The tone throughout the story is quite
gloomy, supported by Ma Parker's sad thoughts and also the cold and rainy
I would say that the theme in Life of Ma Parker is how unfair life can be. Ma
Parker has worked hard for herself and her family her whole life, but has
nothing left. In my opinion, the author wants to tell us that it's important to show
sympathy and understanding across traditional class borders.