analysis of an extract from the singing lesson by katherine mansfield

With despair – cold, sharp despair – buried deep in her heart like a wicked knife, Miss Meadows, in cap and gown and carrying a little baton, trod the cold corridors that led to the music hall. Girls of all ages, rosy from the air, and bubbling over with that gleeful excitement that comes from running to school on a fine autumn morning, hurried, skipped, fluttered by; from the hollow class-rooms came a quick drumming of voices; a bell rang; a voice like a bird cried, “Muriel. ” And then there came from the staircase a tremendous knock-knock-knocking.

Someone had dropped her dumbbells. “ ‘The Singing Lesson’ by Katherine Mansfield is a short story written with elements hinting at the modernist movement of the late 19th century. We are instantly informed of the solemn feel of the story with the opening words “With despair- cold, sharp despair-” which eject a sombre tone to the piece. Mansfield’s use of parenthesis beginning and ending with the repetition of “despair” successfully captures a reader’s attention by isolating the description, highlighting its significance.

The three adjectives “despair”, “cold” and “sharp” are all harsh sounding and evoke emotions of pain and suffering, telling us that the story is about something bad. The use of the verb “buried” is poignant because of its connotations of death, reiterated by the simile “… deep in her heart like a wicked knife”. The imagery of the knife, cold and sharp suggests death or immense pain. We are first introduced to the main character, Miss Meadows “in cap and gown and carrying a little baton” as a strong stern woman, most likely a teacher because of the formality of the “Miss”.

The image of her carrying a baton is police like and emits a strong female presence. She is described as walking with a “trod” which is animalistic and contrasts how the school girls are “bubbling over with gleeful excitement” and the way in which they move like autumn leaves. The huge contrast between the cold harsh language used to describe Mrs Meadows and the light-hearted past participles like “bubbling”, to describe the pupils highlights the different character’s personalities and shows two extremes.

Mansfield has used long sentences which suggest ongoing thoughts and emotions of the character Miss Meadows surrounded by a busy hectic environment. The subordinate clauses inject lots of extra information for the reader, and the power of three “hurried, skipped, fluttered” effectively portray imagery of an autumn morning. However, the past tense of the three verbs breaks the previous present tense imagery, suggesting that the narrator is clasping onto something from her past. “Hollow” and “drumming” imply drums and have connotations of emptiness, an element of Miss Meadows personality which has possibly been affected by her past.

The description of the bird links back to the imagery of the autumnal morning, and are an example of the modernistic movement about the thoughts in our subconscious. Another example of this is the last sentence “Someone had dropped her dumbbells” which is totally unrelated to anything in the first passage, but shows another thought forming in the character’s mind. It reminds us as the reader that it is a modernist piece of writing, with an abstract writing style which is more like ‘real life’.

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