Critical Appreciation of Katherine Mansfield’s 'A Cup of Tea': Aware of the Hollowness of Existence

"You see, madam," he would explain in his low respectful tones, "I love my things. I would  rather not part with them than sell them to someone who does not appreciate them, who has not that fine feeling which is so rare...Katherine Mansfield’s A Cup of Tea

The plot of  Katherine Mansfield’s A Cup of Tea seems as straightforward as its title at first glance— Rosemary, a rich self-assured woman, takes pity on poor Miss Smith and takes her home. Read More Short Stories She decides to look after her but gives up the idea when her husband shows an interest in her. But this apparent simplicity is used to explore the complex motives and vulnerability of people, particularly those belonging to the affluent section of society.

Without making the accomplished, attractive, wealthy Rosemary into a villain, Katherine Mansfield exposes her superficiality and willfulness. She is admired in the elite circles, has a loving husband and son and charms everybody with her exquisite manners—in fact the world is at her feet. Read More Short Stories But the encounter with the antique dealer illustrates that she enjoys flattery and strives for effect. Her awareness of the striking beauty of her hand against the blue velvet suggests that her postures are often deliberately cultivated to impress people because she likes being the centre of attraction. And for all her accomplishments, her life is essentially trivial as she engages in nothing more serious than buying flowers or antiques. She does not even need to dress or undress herself as there is a maid for that purpose. 

Intelligent as she is, Rosemary is subconsciously aware of the hollowness of her existence.
Miss Smith’s arrival gives her life a sense of purpose and she is determined to look after her. Although her generosity and compassion are sincere and unpremeditated, they are not entirely altruistic. It is an unconscious act of self-justification and self-gratification. Read More Short Stories It increases her self-esteem by demonstrating her magnanimity and justifies her wealth because it is going to be put to good use. She is also fascinated by the novelty of her decision and knows it will impress her friends when she recounts her experience. In a way Miss Smith is as much an ‘object’ of interest as the enamel box—both are her finds and she, their proud discoverer. This is exemplified by her treatment of Miss Smith. She decides Miss Smith will accompany her, she forces her into a chair, she divests her of her coat and hat, she determines that she will be her confessor, she speaks for Miss Smith when Philip asks to be excused, all the time not even bothering to find out her name.
Rosemary talks of fellow feeling but the pity springs from a sense of unchallenged supremacy. Her magnanimity lasts only as long as she regards Miss Smith as infinitely inferior. Philip’s praise of the girl’s beauty presents the girl as a possible competitor and threatens her sense of superiority. Read More Short Stories The vulnerability of Rosemary is exposed as she does away with the competition by sending Miss Smith home and seeks assurance from her husband of her beauty.

Mansfield’s A Cup of Tea is structurally sophisticated. The box episode and Miss Smith episode are analogous suggesting a parallel between Rosemary’s treatment of the two. Both are objects that take her fancy. Both can be retained for a price—one for twenty-eight guineas, the other by accepting the greater beauty of the girl. But the latter will displace Rosemary from her central position so she only opts for the former. Read More Short Stories The irony is that Philip is the sanctioning authority in both cases. He gives her permission to buy the box and the story ends with Rosemary’s oblique pleading with him to declare her beautiful. Rosemary’s vulnerability is a reflection of the hollowness of the affluent class: as they do nothing of consequence, their seeming solidity is easily challenged, even by so frail and helpless a creature like Miss Smith. The title is significant in this context—Rosemary thought she had bought Miss Smith for the price of a cup of tea. Both are equally inconsequential yet manage to shake her confidence and self-assurance very deeply. Ironically speaking, it is indeed an ‘extra special’ cup of tea.

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