Tuesday, 29 September 2015

On the symbolism of weather in "The Wind Blows" (1920) by Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923)

Writers who incorporate weather into their stories often employ pathetic fallacy, whereby characters’ feelings have a direct influence on the weather. Katherine Mansfield applies the reverse logic, whereby the weather determines the feelings of her characters – and sometimes in several different ways. In what could be termed empathetic fallacy, Mansfield takes a grey and windy sky, or a sunny afternoon, and turns it into an epiphany or unattainable fantasy.
In Mansfield’s 4-page short story The Wind Blows, which is concerned with a windy day in the lives of an ordinary family in New Zealand, her talent for drawing analogies between weather and emotion is expressed more concisely and effectively than elsewhere.

Initially the main character, Matilda, feels repelled by the wind. This is evident from the opening sentence, “suddenly – dreadfully – she wakes up”: brevity and urgency of tone is immediately conveyed through both the phonological staccato achieved by the hyphens and the use of the present tense. The feeling is exacerbated by the presence of the wind, which is “shaking the house” and “making her bed tremble”. This fierce and wild force is seen as an emblem of fear for human beings, and this is echoed in Matilda’s “shaking fingers” and the anthropomorphism of “she can hear the sea sob”.
Besides being a depiction of our fear of nature, The Wind Blows is also an expression of the transience of human beings, which applies not just to Matilda, but to Bullen, Marie and the Chinamen in the street. Just as “leaves flutter past” and a “newspaper wags in the air like a lost kite”, human beings are eventually swept away by nature. When Marie tries to beat down her skirt in the wind (the tugging up of which carries a dark undertone of molestation that further reinforces the wind as fearsome) we see that humans’ best efforts to resist the wind’s strength are “no use”. Moreover, they never will be: through the epizeuxis of “the wind, the wind” running throughout the story Mansfield implies the supremacy of nature is constant, just as in her short story Bliss the light is “unearthly”, as if it stands above and beyond the scope and experience of humanity.
The futility of life is also shown through time and appointments: Matilda hurries to a music lesson at a fixed time, following “the-girl-before-her” and being followed by Marie Swainson as usual, yet even something as ordered as music becomes chaotic like “little black boys [dancing] on a fence”. Mr Bullen mentions “waiting” and “marking time” with regard to Beethoven’s minor movement, but Mansfield’s point is that whatever our superficial attempts to create order out of chaos, forces outside our control will ultimately govern our days.
However, in keeping with the erratic adolescent mind, Mansfield ensures that Matilda’s reaction toward the wind has more than one aspect, that of attraction as well as repulsion. To some degree Matilda and the wind are synonymous: both are restless and fierce. This is exemplified by the former’s rudeness to her mother over her appearance, and her subsequent anger – while Matilda storms off to her lesson, the wind whips up the dust “in big round whirls” and makes a “loud roaring sound”. With her brother Bogey “they cannot walk fast enough” and they are “eager”, further phrases which echo the wind’s blustering energy and the intensity of their budding sexuality (the latter, in Matilda’s case, is also highlighted through her infatuation with Mr Bullen the piano teacher). This similarity between human feeling and weather is reminiscent of the eponymous character in Miss Brill – who feels the weather is “brilliantly fine” (the obvious connotation with her surname) and the sky is “powdered with gold” (a reference to her own toilette).
As the story moves on, Matilda has a change of attitude. At the point where she returns to her room, Mansfield uses bathos particularly effectively – in the phrase “it’s the bed that is frightening”. Earlier the wind has made Matilda’s bed tremble (and, through synecdoche, Matilda herself), yet here it is the ordered domestic world from which she seems to shrink. She spurns the regimented household chores of childhood, and is even intimidated by their passivity, going so far as to view knotted stockings as “a coil of snakes”.
For Matilda the wind now represents a means of escape from this stifling familial enclave, and just as the wind blows incessantly (the onomatopoeia of “the wind, the wind” runs throughout the story) so she will never stop searching for liberation. Toward the end of the story, a “big black steamer” is leaving the island, and Matilda projects herself and her brother onto an embarking ship in the future through a brief but beautifully controlled shift of focus. She imagines them saying farewell to the oppressive, stiff world of New Zealand and sailing off to new, exotic, sensual lands; crucially, as the ship sails into the gale “the wind does not stop her” but lets her pass. She sees the wind, the symbol of turmoil, as aiding her departure to a more liberated life.
In this final scene Mansfield describes how “the wind carries their voices – away fly the sentences like little narrow ribbons”. This delicate simile represents not only the desire for escape, but also returns to the theme of anarchy. The choice of ‘ribbons’ is deliberate: strips of cloth keeping the hair in place would be torn away in strong wind leaving the hair free and wild, just as Matilda longs to be at this youthful stage. There is another feature of the wind here, and that is the way it dispenses with the order of words and music. Words string together to form meaning but the wind removes the need for them and carries away the words they speak. In the same way, Matilda finds the rhythmic Beethoven “terrible like little rolling drums” but is delighted with the way Bogey’s adolescent voice “rushes up and down the scale” as he speaks: when music is ordered she feels it is oppressive but when it is chaotic, “it just suits the day”.
These examples all represent the yearning in Matilda for an unexpected life, one she can live beyond the set expectations of society – like many of Mansfield’s characters (Beryl in Prelude sees moonlight as exotic and fascinating just as Matilda is preoccupied with the wind, and feels in the moonlight that she is an “exquisite creature in eau de nil satin”, also projecting herself into a world beyond the male-dominated one she inhabits).
At this point in her young life, Matilda is scared of the wider world, yet aches to be blown and tossed into experiencing it; she shrinks from the pre-eminence of nature yet spurns homely comforts; and it is Mansfield’s use of empathetic fallacy in this story which most succinctly conveys this sentiment.

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