“Miss Brill” by Katherine Mansfield: Story, Summary, Themes & Analysis

Here is the text of “Miss Brill”. Following the story, there’s  a summary, a look at themes, and some questions to consider.


Although it was so brilliantly fine—the blue sky powdered with gold and great spots of light like white wine splashed over the Jardins Publiques—Miss Brill was glad that she had decided on her fur. The air was motionless, but when you opened your mouth there was just a faint chill, like a chill from a glass of iced water before you sip, and now and again a leaf came drifting—from nowhere, from the sky. Miss Brill put up her hand and touched her fur. Dear little thing! It was nice to feel it again. She had taken it out of its box that afternoon, shaken out the moth-powder, given it a good brush, and rubbed the life back into the dim little eyes. “What has been happening to me?” said the sad little eyes. Oh, how sweet it was to see them snap at her again from the red eiderdown! … But the nose, which was of some black composition, wasn’t at all firm. It must have had a knock, somehow. Never mind—a little dab of black sealing-wax when the time came—when it was absolutely necessary … Little rogue! Yes, she really felt like that about it. Little rogue biting its tail just by her left ear. She could have taken it off and laid it on her lap and stroked it. She felt a tingling in her hands and arms, but that came from walking, she supposed. And when she breathed, something light and sad—no, not sad, exactly—something gentle seemed to move in her bosom.

There were a number of people out this afternoon, far more than last Sunday. And the band sounded louder and gayer. That was because the Season had begun. For although the band played all the year round on Sundays, out of season it was never the same. It was like some one playing with only the family to listen; it didn’t care how it played if there weren’t any strangers present. Wasn’t the conductor wearing a new coat, too? She was sure it was new. He scraped with his foot and flapped his arms like a rooster about to crow, and the bandsmen sitting in the green rotunda blew out their cheeks and glared at the music. Now there came a little “flutey” bit—very pretty!—a little chain of bright drops. She was sure it would be repeated. It was; she lifted her head and smiled.

Only two people shared her “special” seat: a fine old man in a velvet coat, his hands clasped over a huge carved walking-stick, and a big old woman, sitting upright, with a roll of knitting on her embroidered apron. They did not speak. This was disappointing, for Miss Brill always looked forward to the conversation. She had become really quite expert, she thought, at listening as though she didn’t listen, at sitting in other people’s lives just for a minute while they talked round her.

She glanced, sideways, at the old couple. Perhaps they would go soon. Last Sunday, too, hadn’t been as interesting as usual. An Englishman and his wife, he wearing a dreadful Panama hat and she button boots. And she’d gone on the whole time about how she ought to wear spectacles; she knew she needed them; but that it was no good getting any; they’d be sure to break and they’d never keep on. And he’d been so patient. He’d suggested everything – gold rims, the kind that curved round your ears, little pads inside the bridge. No, nothing would please her. “They’ll always be sliding down my nose!” Miss Brill had wanted to shake her.

The old people sat on the bench, still as statues. Never mind, there was always the crowd to watch. To and fro, in front of the flower-beds and the band rotunda, the couples and groups paraded, stopped to talk, to greet, to buy a handful of flowers from the old beggar who had his tray fixed to the railings. Little children ran among them, swooping and laughing; little boys with big white silk bows under their chins, little girls, little French dolls, dressed up in velvet and lace. And sometimes a tiny staggerer came suddenly rocking into the open from under the trees, stopped, stared, as suddenly sat down “flop,” until its small high-stepping mother, like a young hen, rushed scolding to its rescue. Other people sat on the benches and green chairs, but they were nearly always the same, Sunday after Sunday, and—Miss Brill had often noticed—there was something funny about nearly all of them. They were odd, silent, nearly all old, and from the way they stared they looked as though they’d just come from dark little rooms or even—even cupboards!

Behind the rotunda the slender trees with yellow leaves down drooping, and through them just a line of sea, and beyond the blue sky with gold-veined clouds.

Tum-tum-tum tiddle-um! tiddle-um! tum tiddley-um tum ta! blew the band.

Two young girls in red came by and two young soldiers in blue met them, and they laughed and paired and went off arm-in-arm. Two peasant women with funny straw hats passed, gravely, leading beautiful smoke-colored donkeys. A cold, pale nun hurried by. A beautiful woman came along and dropped her bunch of violets, and a little boy ran after to hand them to her, and she took them and threw them away as if they’d been poisoned. Dear me! Miss Brill didn’t know whether to admire that or not! And now an ermine toque and a gentleman in grey met just in front of her. He was tall, stiff, dignified, and she was wearing the ermine toque she’d bought when her hair was yellow. Now everything, her hair, her face, even her eyes, was the same color as the shabby ermine, and her hand, in its cleaned glove, lifted to dab her lips, was a tiny yellowish paw. Oh, she was so pleased to see him—delighted! She rather thought they were going to meet that afternoon. She described where she’d been—everywhere, here, there, along by the sea. The day was so charming—didn’t he agree? And wouldn’t he, perhaps? … But he shook his head, lighted a cigarette, slowly breathed a great deep puff into her face, and even while she was still talking and laughing, flicked the match away and walked on. The ermine toque was alone; she smiled more brightly than ever. But even the band seemed to know what she was feeling and played more softly, played tenderly, and the drum beat, “The Brute! The Brute!” over and over. What would she do? What was going to happen now? But as Miss Brill wondered, the ermine toque turned, raised her hand as though she’d seen some one else, much nicer, just over there, and pattered away. And the band changed again and played more quickly, more gayly than ever, and the old couple on Miss Brill’s seat got up and marched away, and such a funny old man with long whiskers hobbled along in time to the music and was nearly knocked over by four girls walking abreast.

Oh, how fascinating it was! How she enjoyed it! How she loved sitting here, watching it all! It was like a play. It was exactly like a play. Who could believe the sky at the back wasn’t painted? But it wasn’t till a little brown dog trotted on solemn and then slowly trotted off, like a little “theatre” dog, a little dog that had been drugged, that Miss Brill discovered what it was that made it so exciting. They were all on the stage. They weren’t only the audience, not only looking on; they were acting. Even she had a part and came every Sunday. No doubt somebody would have noticed if she hadn’t been there; she was part of the performance after all. How strange she’d never thought of it like that before! And yet it explained why she made such a point of starting from home at just the same time each week—so as not to be late for the performance—and it also explained why she had quite a queer, shy feeling at telling her English pupils how she spent her Sunday afternoons. No wonder! Miss Brill nearly laughed out loud. She was on the stage. She thought of the old invalid gentleman to whom she read the newspaper four afternoons a week while he slept in the garden. She had got quite used to the frail head on the cotton pillow, the hollowed eyes, the open mouth and the high pinched nose. If he’d been dead she mightn’t have noticed for weeks; she wouldn’t have minded. But suddenly he knew he was having the paper read to him by an actress! “An actress!” The old head lifted; two points of light quivered in the old eyes. “An actress—are ye?” And Miss Brill smoothed the newspaper as though it were the manuscript of her part and said gently; “Yes, I have been an actress for a long time.”

The band had been having a rest. Now they started again. And what they played was warm, sunny, yet there was just a faint chill—a something, what was it?—not sadness—no, not sadness—a something that made you want to sing. The tune lifted, lifted, the light shone; and it seemed to Miss Brill that in another moment all of them, all the whole company, would begin singing. The young ones, the laughing ones who were moving together, they would begin, and the men’s voices, very resolute and brave, would join them. And then she too, she too, and the others on the benches—they would come in with a kind of accompaniment—something low, that scarcely rose or fell, something so beautiful—moving … And Miss Brill’s eyes filled with tears and she looked smiling at all the other members of the company. Yes, we understand, we understand, she thought—though what they understood she didn’t know.

Just at that moment a boy and girl came and sat down where the old couple had been. They were beautifully dressed; they were in love. The hero and heroine, of course, just arrived from his father’s yacht. And still soundlessly singing, still with that trembling smile, Miss Brill prepared to listen.

“No, not now,” said the girl. “Not here, I can’t.”

“But why? Because of that stupid old thing at the end there?” asked the boy. “Why does she come here at all—who wants her? Why doesn’t she keep her silly old mug at home?”

“It’s her fu-fur which is so funny,” giggled the girl. “It’s exactly like a fried whiting.”

“Ah, be off with you!” said the boy in an angry whisper. Then: “Tell me, ma petite chérie—”

“No, not here,” said the girl. “Not yet.”

On her way home she usually bought a slice of honeycake at the baker’s. It was her Sunday treat. Sometimes there was an almond in her slice, sometimes not. It made a great difference. If there was an almond it was like carrying home a tiny present—a surprise—something that might very well not have been there. She hurried on the almond Sundays and struck the match for the kettle in quite a dashing way.

But to-day she passed the baker’s by, climbed the stairs, went into the little dark room—her room like a cupboard—and sat down on the red eiderdown. She sat there for a long time. The box that the fur came out of was on the bed. She unclasped the necklet quickly; quickly, without looking, laid it inside. But when she put the lid on she thought she heard something crying.

Published 1920, © Public Domain


Summary of “Miss Brill”

It’s a fine day with a slight chill in the air in the Jardin Publiques, a park in France. Miss Brill wears her fur stole, which is starting to show its age a bit. She’ll touch it up when it’s necessary. She had taken it out of storage that afternoon and brushed it.

It’s more crowded than last Sunday; the busy season has started. The band plays louder and the atmosphere feels lighter.

Seated next to Miss Brill is an old couple who don’t speak. She’s disappointed as she’s very good at surreptitiously listening in on people’s conversations.

Miss Brill hopes they’ll leave soon. Last week wasn’t that interesting, either. A couple had a dull conversation about the wife needing glasses that went nowhere.

Miss Brill turns her attention to the crowd. There are people walking, talking and buying flowers, and children wearing their best clothes. Others sit on benches and chairs—they’re old and odd, like they’ve come out of dark rooms or cupboards.

She continues watching—young people pair off; two peasant women lead donkeys; a nun hurries by; a beautiful woman drops flowers, has them returned, and discards them again.

A woman in an ermine toque has a conversation with a dignified looking man. He abruptly ends it by blowing smoke in her face and walking off. The woman waves like she sees someone and leaves.

The old couple next to Miss Brill get up and march off.

She loves sitting there watching it all. It’s like a play and they’re all part of the performance, including her. Someone would notice if she was missing. It’s the first time she’s realized this.

She’s shy about telling her English pupils what she does on Sundays, and she gets there the same time every week because she’s an actress. She thinks of the old invalid man she reads to four times a week, and imagines him realizing she’s an actress.

The band starts up again. It’s a light, uplifting tune and Miss Brill feels that everyone could start singing. She senses that everyone shares an understanding of some sort.

A really young, beautiful couple sit next to her. They seem like the hero and heroine of the performance. Miss Brill listens in. The girl rebuffs an advance. The boy asks if it’s because of Miss Brill’s presence. He calls her a “stupid old thing” and asks, “who wants her?” The girl makes fun of her fur stole.

Miss Brill walks home. She usually buys a slice of cake at the bakery as a Sunday treat. Today she doesn’t. She climbs the stairs to her dark, little room and sits on the bed. She takes off her fur and quickly puts it back in its box. She closes the lid. She thinks she hears something crying.

Theme: Alienation

Alienation is one of the most prominent themes, which we’ll expand here to include loneliness and isolation.

First, Miss Brill lives alone in a small room. She also goes on her recurring Sunday outing by herself. She goes all year round, in the busy and slow seasons. This implies she doesn’t have any other engagements. These things in themselves wouldn’t necessarily indicate loneliness, but they’re part of a larger pattern.

She considers herself an expert eavesdropper. This seems like a substitute for personal interaction. She would no doubt like to have the conversation herself; lacking any connections, the best she can do is pick up some of the scraps around her.

The people who enter the protagonist’s thoughts also tell us how isolated she is. She spends much of the time thinking about the strangers who sit next to her and strangers whom she can see from her seat. She briefly thinks of her English students, who have a practical reason for spending time with her. She thinks of the old man she reads to, how he could be dead without her noticing—they clearly don’t talk much.

Also noteworthy is who Miss Brill doesn’t think about. There’s no mention of any family or friends. As an English expatriate in France, it’s understandable that she has no relatives near. The circumstances around her move aren’t given. It’s easy to imagine that she had no close ties in her own country, and thus, had no reason to stay there.

It’s noteworthy that Miss Brill doesn’t say a single word to anyone during the story. Despite her desire for a connection, she doesn’t greet the people who sit next to her. Her alienation is strong enough to prevent this small step.

The only people in the story to whom we could infer that she speaks are her students, the old invalid man and the baker. These interactions are obligatory, rare and transactional.

The most overt example of her alienation is seen in how the young couple reacts to her. At the moment she feels most connected to everyone, their harshness shatters her epiphany. Their tactless rudeness makes it clear that she’s on her own.

Theme: Delusion

Miss Brill is deluded throughout the story. She doesn’t accept her alienation or how she appears to others.

She denies her loner status early in the story. It starts with her noting that the band is playing better because out of season it’s like they’re “playing with only the family to listen”, that is, they’re not trying to impress anyone. As one of the regulars who attends out of season, Miss Brill has a sense that she’s part of the family. This is before this idea fully forms in her mind near the end.

She’s disappointed that the old couple who first sit next to her don’t speak, and hopes they’ll leave. She doesn’t realize she’s in a similar position; she’s not talking to anyone, and people might hope she leaves.

She’s uninterested in “The old people [who sit] on the bench, still as statues.” Ironically, she would look much like this to others.

She sees the other Sunday regulars as “odd, silent, nearly all old,” and imagines them being from “dark little rooms or even—even cupboard!” Again, there’s strong irony here as Miss Brill sounds like she’s describing herself. At the end, her room is described exactly this way.

She notices the woman in the ermine toque looks older and shabby, without any awareness that she’s the same.

Miss Brill’s delusion builds as she thinks of everyone there, including herself, as being actors in a play, each with a part that would be missed if it were absent. She has a short fantasy about identifying herself as an actress. The denial of her alienation continues as she feels everyone could break into song, sharing a beautiful moment. Her delusion culminates as she’s moved to tears, believing they all share some vague understanding.

Her denial of reality also makes her assume the young couple who arrive are “the hero and heroine of the story”—ironically, they turn out to be the villains.

1. Is there any foreshadowing?

The climax of the story is when the young couple bluntly destroy Miss Brill’s perception of herself as connected to those around her. This moment is foreshadowed.

The first instance is understated. When she arrives at the park, there’s a faint chill in the air. She feels it again right before her epiphany. We get the sense that something will leave her “cold”; the mood isn’t as “warm” as she believes.

The second instance is more obvious. The woman in the ermine toque, who is similar to the protagonist, is unceremoniously rejected by the dignified looking man in gray. This parallels Miss Brill’s rejection by the attractive young couple.

2. What’s happening in the incident with the woman in the ermine toque and the dignified gentleman?

This is an example of something I didn’t pay much attention to on the first reading. I thought the guy was a jerk but, otherwise, glided over it.

On a superficial reading, it seems like a friendly, older woman makes some dull conversation with an aloof man who then rudely leaves. To be honest, I’m not totally sure that isn’t what’s happening.

However, there could be more. The hint is in the last thing the woman says: “And wouldn’t he, perhaps? . . .” She doesn’t finish her request. The woman is talkative, so if she wanted him to walk with her or go for coffee, she probably would have said it. It seems she’s asking something that is both indelicate and that is understood. It’s possible they have an intimate history and she’s attempting to restart it. They might have had a rendezvous in the past, when she looked younger. Now she’s older and shabby, so he rebuffs her.

Regardless of what’s happening here, there’s a parallel between this woman and Miss Brill. They’re both poor, aging and looking for connections, and they both get their isolation thrown in their faces.

3. What does Miss Brill’s fur necklet symbolize?

The necklet represents the protagonist. Here are some of the parallels between them:

  • They both come out of their “boxes”—a literal one and Miss Brill’s small, dark room.
  • The necklet’s nose looks like its taken a hit; Miss Brill is figuratively hit in the face by the young couple.
  • The necklet literally keeps the chill away, while she figuratively keeps the “chill” of her isolation away.
  • The young man insults Miss Brill’s looks, while the young woman insults the necklet’s.
  • The protagonist identifies with the necklet when she thinks she hears it crying.