Katherine Mansfield’s ‘At the Bay’ is a day in the life of a family. Work, life, childhood, loneliness and death weave their way through the vignettes. In this lesson, you’ll learn more about the story and its meaning.
The Story About Nothing
Years ago, there was a show on television that fans affectionately dubbed, ”The Show About Nothing.” The program followed the day-to-day trappings of four friends in New York City as they struggled with dating, worked jobs, and kept up with each others’ antics. Watching it was like having an inside view of people’s daily lives.While author Katherine Mansfield’s work preceded this show (by something like 70 years), the context is virtually the same: It’s about nothing and everything, all at once.
Her short story, At the Bay, widely considered to be one of her greatest tales, is a collection of vignettes, or short stories within a story, that chronicle the lives of different members of the same Burrell family.The story takes place in the course of a single day, opening with a misty and foggy morning in Crescent Bay and concluding with the stillness of the sea in darkness. In this lesson, we’ll break down the various chapters of the story and look at each one individually.
Summary of At the Bay
The story opens with a vivid description of Crescent Bay shrouded in early-morning mist: ”The sun was not yet risen, and the whole of Crescent Bay was hidden under a white sea-mist. The big bush-covered hills at the back were smothered. You could not see where they ended and the paddocks and bungalows began.
” In the distance, a flock of sheep are moving. Behind them, a sheepdog and the shepherd follow the herd. He passes the houses of people he knows and spies Florrie the cat.
Despite the early morning hour, Stanley Burnell has gone out for a swim, only to be beaten to the water by a character named Jonathan Trout, which aggravates Stanley. Stanley feels as though his swim has been ruined: ”Stanley struck out to sea again, and then as quickly swam in again, and away he rushed up the beach. He felt cheated.” Stanley is in a hurry because he has to prepare for work. Jonathan, once Stanley has gone inside, reflects on how he feels sorry for Stanley: ”There was something pathetic in his determination to make a job of everything.
Now, Stanley is inside and dressed for work. He joins the rest of the family in the kitchen, and you can sense Stanley’s aggravation and concern about being late leaving the house, twice referring to the time before the coach will be there to pick him up: ”I’ve just got twenty-five minutes, he said,” and ”I’ve only twelve and a half minutes before the coach passes. Has anyone given my shoes to the servant girl?”The children are fussing with one another and playing with their food.
Stanley has misplaced his stick. Finally, he heads out the door to go to work, too busy to even say goodbye to his wife. The women in the house are relieved to see Stanley leave.
The little children have gone outside to play, but not with the Samuel Josephs who are described as ”leaping like savages on their lawn.” Near the water, the children are digging in the sand, discovering treasures like a boot and a nemeral (an emerald).
This bit turns to the family’s Aunt Beryl, who is hanging out at the beach with Mrs.
Harry Kember, whom others disapproved of for her smoking, being ”very, very fast,” and the way she tried too hard to be one of the guys. Beryl is shy, but she undresses for the beach in front of Mrs. Kember.
Linda Burnell is sitting outside a bungalow alone, away from the beach, with only her young son asleep in the grass near her. She remembers events from her past, her dreams of being married to Stanley. Now, she is sitting alone thinking about how she feels indifferent toward the boy: ”..
.what was left of her time was spent in the dread of having children.”
Kezia and her grandmother are napping together and discussing life. The grandmother recalls memories of her deceased son, William.
Kezia is troubled by the notion of death and tries to make her grandmother promise she will never die.
The Burrells’ servant girl, Alice, has gone to town for the day, where she has tea with Mrs. Stubbs. Mrs. Stubbs shares photos with the girl and discusses the death of her husband, describing how ”freedom’s best” since his departure.
The children are playing a game together when Uncle Jonathan comes to collect the boys.
Jonathan laments about his job to his sister-in-law Linda, saying, ”To spend all the best years of one’s life sitting on a stool from nine to five, scratching in somebody’s ledger!” He feels like a prisoner but can’t muster up the courage to do anything about it.
Stanley returns from his day at work and asks for Linda to forgive him for not saying goodbye that morning.
He shows off a pair of gloves he purchased earlier.
It’s late at night and Beryl is dreaming of the day she will have a lover of her own. Later, she rejects Harry Kember’s request to take a walk.
The night concludes and the bay is troubled, but then still.
Analyzing At the Bay
In addition to being a story that chronicles an average day in the life of the Burnell family, we can see themes in the stories that mirror everyday life. Children play; parents work; women fit the traditional roles life has handed them .
.. or not.
Frankly, one of the most interesting themes woven throughout the stories is the idea of feminism: a shy Beryl undresses in front of a friend, Linda lacks maternal feelings toward her son. Written in the early 1920s, this concept, more than any other, would have been ”controversial.”The idea of the sea, which is at times hidden, calm and troubled seems a fitting analogy for the lives of the characters within the story.
At the Bay is a collection of vignettes about the life of the Burnell family, from the work of a shepherd, to children playing and finding a nemeral, to concerns about loneliness and death. The stories are told inside of one day, which begins and ends with descriptions of the sea.
The sea, a mix of hidden, calm and troubled throughout, mirrors many of the sentiments of the family in the story. The concept of feminism, in particular, is seen in the female characters.