In this lesson, we will examine the settings of the impoverished cottages and the elaborate Sheridan estate gardens from the Katherine Mansfield short story, ‘The Garden Party’.

Background

What does your home say about you? In many cases, a person’s home reveals their financial situation and tastes. In The Garden Party by Katherine Mansfield, the Sheridan family lives on a huge, elaborate estate with beautiful gardens. Down the road, there is a lane of cottages where the less fortunate reside.

The setting of a story describes its location, atmosphere and time period. This short story is set in the early 1900s and is based on the author’s childhood home in Wellington, New Zealand. Let’s examine some specific locations that make up the setting of The Garden Party.

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The Sheridan Estate

On the day of the garden party at the Sheridan estate, the weather is perfect. It is warm but not windy, and there is no threat of rain. The garden is carefully manicured and decorated with daisies, roses, and lilies. A marquee, or tent, has been brought in and placed near the karaka trees, and a band will be set up on the corner of the tennis courts.

From the lawn to the house, there is a path leading to steps to the veranda and then the porch, which is lined on both sides of the door by pink canna lilies. Inside the large house, there is a staircase and open doors leading to the kitchen, the smoking room, and the dining room. The servants are in a flurry of activity to prepare the food and make sure everything, including chairs and the piano, are in the right place for the party.

It is apparent that the estate is a beautiful, well-maintained, luxurious property owned by a very wealthy family who is able to hire people to help take care of it.

The Cottages

In contrast, the cottages down the road are inhabited by very poor families. The chocolate brown homes are clustered together in a lane. The patchy gardens contain ‘nothing but cabbage stalks, sick hens and tomato cans.’ Even the bits of smoke rising from the chimneys appear ‘poverty-stricken.’ One of the houses has bird cages all over the yard. As a child, Laura Sheridan, the protagonist, is not allowed in that ‘disgusting and sordid’ neighborhood for fear that she might catch something or hear inappropriate language. Laura’s mother wonders ‘how they keep alive in those poky little holes.’

Even the road becomes darker as Laura walks from her house to the cottages. She looks completely out of place in her fancy clothes as she enters the neighborhood where children were scattered, women wear shawls, men wear tweed hats, and rooms are dimly lit. This is a neighborhood where people are scraping by to survive. The death of a man can mean devastation to his widow and their 5 children.

Lesson Summary

The setting of The Garden Party is primarily the Sheridan estate, where their elaborate gardens and tennis courts are being prepared for an expensive party complete with flowers, food, a marquee and a band. In contrast to this luxurious estate are the cottages below, where the impoverished people reside. This area has patchy gardens, dimly lit houses, and children all around.