The Singing Lesson by Katherine Mansfield

The Singing Lesson by Katherine Mansfield

About the author … The author’s real name Is Kathleen Mansfield Murray. She was a New Zealander by birth who chose England as her place of living and literary pursuits. She was a prolific story writer, but didn’t live beyound 34 as a deadly lungs infection lead to her untimely death. She married John Middleton Murray, a man with similar deep interst in literature. 

Among her great works are .. The Tiredness of Rosabeel, A Truthful Adventure, The Journey to Bruges, New Dresses, The Little Girl and any more.

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The Story ..

Miss Meadows(30) .. She is a Music teacher in a school, who, unfortunately, has remained unmarried past the usual age of marriage. Young women in those days usually got married earlier. This disconcerting situation makes her somewhat irritable. Her lover, Basil (25), is five years younger than her, and is a vacillating type of man. Through his flip-flop on marrying Miss Meadows, he causes great mental distress to her.

The music room and the innocent pupils ...

The story ceneters around Miss Meadows and the setting is the music hall in a school. Miss Meadows is to conduct the class. Knowing her imperious nature, the students appear somewhat scared and timid, although they bubble with excitement to lern music. Mrs. Meadows, lovelorn and angry with her fate, walks in along the school corridor when she runs into the science teacher. The latter greets Miss Meadows only to get a cold, casual response. Miss Meadows made no effort to hide the angst and frustration raging in her mind then. The pain in her mind was gnawing at her persona all the time. She didn’t reciprocate her colleague’s pleasant smile, and walked away, virtually ignoring the latter.

The music hall was full with excited students of three classes gathered there, all eager to take part in the session. On the podium, where the piano was kept, Mary Beazley stood awaiting instructions from Misss Meadows. She was the most favourite student of her. Miss Meadows held the music conductor’s baton in hand. 

Miss Meadows looks around the class, not making eye contact with any of the students. She had an uncomfortable feeling that the children knew about her predicament  as a spinster. Such apprehension was, perhaps, not true, as the students really knew about her discomfiture. She put up a bold and defiant face, but the dismay raged inside her.

Why was Miss Meadows so depressed ...

The telegram from Basil had just arrived that had left Miss Meadows so devastated. Basil had aborted the idea of marrying Miss Meadows through a wire. Well, that was so unsettling and annoying. Miss Meadows was shattered inside, but managed to hide her anger at being virtually rejected by Basil. Dejected and very unhappy, Miss Meadows proceeded to begin her lesson. Mary Beazly customarily handed over a chrysanthemun to Miss Medows. This ritual has been there for years. Thanking Mary for the flower rather curtly, Miss Meadows proceeded to start her lessons. She went to page 32. The indifference and aloofness of her teacher baffled Mary Beazley.

The lesson starts ..

The class was on. Miss Meadows proceeded to page fourteen, asking the pupils to mark the accent well.  Page fourteen was to be a lament. She signalled the start of singing by waving her baton. The whole class was asked to sing the lines in unison with her. Mary had to lead the singing.

Fast, Ah, too Fast …………………………….. from the listening ear.

The sadness of the lines had clearly overwhelmed her. That she felt the lament deep inside her was palpable in her face and voice. Basil’s suggestion, ‘I feel more and more that our marriage would be a mistake,’ kept ringing in her ind. Quite clearly, the occasion was building up to a moment of unbearable tragedy for her. She thought about Basil’s last letter that gave no indication that he would change his mind so soon and for no reason. A few days earlier, Basil had written that he had bought a fumed-oak book case, and he had made up his mind to settle down with her soon. Now, the dream lay in ruins.

Miss Meadows prods on, regardless ..

Appearing unruffled by Basil’s telegram, Miss Meadows went ahead with her music lessons. But, Basil kept returning to her mind regularly bringing in sad reminiscences. She asked her pupils to sing the song in parts, but without any emotion. She was perhaps trying to contain the rising emotional turmoil in her own mind by asking to keep emotion out of the recitation. Basil had met her some days back, smart, well-dressed with a rose in the buttonhole, and a charming smile. Tides of sorrow flowed in, unrelentingly as she strove to cope with the sense of loss. 

To divert her mind from the angst, she talks about the dinner invite …

In between, as a distraction, she mentioned to Mary how the headmaster’s wife had invited her for dinner, and how she detests going there. Mary suggested that she could easily excuse herself. Miss Meadows told her that it wouldn’t be prudent to decline an invitation from the headmaster’s wife. The students, waiting for directions from their teacher, had fallen silent. Outside the class room, the willow trees, bereft of half of their leaves due to seasonal shedding swayed in the wind. Was Miss Meadows in similar predicament? Past her prime, was she going to be as unattractive as the willow trees? Basil’s last line, “I am not a marrying man,” kept ringing in her ears, as she tried to fight off the gloom. The sight of the willow tree shorn of its leaves was so depressing. 

Miss Meadows tries valiantly to keep her frustration under wraps

As if awakened from a trance, Miss Meadows blurted out, “Quite good.”. The girls wondered if it was a compliment or a cricicism. They became silent in fear. Miss Meadows assumed that the girls already knew that Basil had spurned her. She tried to appear unaffected and unconcerned at the turn of events. To demonstrate that she had not been impacted by the development, she asked the students to sing the song again, accentuating each line with the maximum lament and grief. This was her way of saying that the grief had not touched her even remotely.

There was, however, no respite from the way Basil’s calling off the marriage taunted Miss Meadows’s subconscious mind. She could feel how the science teacher would revel at her ignominy. Basil’s line,”The idea fills me with nothing but disgust.’ kept buzzing her incessantly.

Memory of Basil’s love overture grinds her

Basil’s words, “Somehow or other I’ve got fond of you.” reverberated in her mind. He was a handome young man of 25, and she was 30. Despite this, he had become enamoured of her. How delicately, he had held her scarf! And now, this sudden cold indiference! The feeling was so depressing for Miss Meadows. 

To shake off the gloom, she asked her pupils to sing the song louder with more and more expression. It began to rain. The willow trees swayed in the winds, as if whispering, ‘ …. not that I don’t ;ove you…’. It seems the whole world was mocking her. It ws stifling for her.

A last appeal to Basil (imagined)

Miss Meadows simply couldn’t let go of Basil. In her mind, she virtually begged him not to dump her so cruelly. She wanted him to continue to love her, although minimally. But, the wail was futile. She knew this well. Basil had so cruelly used the word ‘disgust; in his parting telegram. He had made no attempt to conceal the word, even partially.

She ponders her future ...

Miss Meadows know she stared at dark times ahead. She would have to leave the school to escape the pervasive atmosphere of humiliation and mocking. Facing the Science Teacher colleague and the students would be unbearable. When she was lost in these thoughts, Monica, the young girl came in to say that Miss Wyatt had summoned her to the mistress’s room.

A call from the headmistress …

Miss Meadows began to walk out cautioning the girls to stay quiet when she was away. Miss Meadows walked through the corridor with a very downcast face. She was preparing herself to meet the head istress Mrs. Wyatt. She took out the pink envolope and handed it to Miss Meadows. It had a telegram inside. Miss Meadows was taken aback. She wasn’t expecting any. Was it from Basil? 

A telegram and the torrent of happiness comes gushing forth ..

Miss Meadows tore the envelope and read the content. It was a cryptic line from Basil. “Pay no attention to the letter — must have been mad– bought hat-stand today”. The huge U-turn of Basil had caught Miss Meadows off-guard. Mrs. Wyatt was looking a her keenly to see if the telegram carried some bad news. Miss Meadws was fumblng for words. The telegram had let her speecless momentarily. The headmistress asked her to go  and resume her music class. Miss Meadows was ecstatic. Justwhen she began to rush toards the door, the head mistress stopped her to give her a mild reprimand. She didn’t quite approve of telegrams coming in when the casses were on.

Miss Meadows was in Cloud 9. Bubbling with joy and excitement, she hurried to her class. She asked the students to open page thirty two. The lines were

We come here today ……..To-oo Congratulate …”

She asked the students to cast off any sign f gloom or doom.  Waves and waves of joy seemed to buffet her. She asked her pupils to sing the song with enthusiasm and energy as if they are rejoicing. She was unusually loud and commanding. Romantic thrill flowed through her veins.

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Question ….Katherine Mansfield’s character explores the ‘poetry of feelings’. Discuss with reference to The Singing Lesson.

Answer … Katherine Mansfield understands the pangs of a spinster’s heart with remarkable intimacy and sympathy. She created Ms. Meadows with great aplomb, thanks to her understanding of the torment ravishing Ms. Meadow’s heart after realizing that her marriage had been botched. Miss Meadows lived in an age when girls didn’t stay single very long after their early youth. Due to some inexplicable reason, marriage had eluded her for long. The betrothal with Basil, therefore, had brought a torrent of excitement to Miss Meadows.

Katherine had a rude shock to deliver to Ms. Meadows. A letter from Basil annulling the marriage reaches Ms. Meadows. Suddenly, the world looks so dark, so cold, and so unbearable. She feels the Sun has set in her life, and she would remain a spinster all her life.

Katherine has made Ms. Meadows bemoan her fate in a rather theatrical way. It might appear silly to some, but such reaction in a woman’s mind just rejected by her fiancé is so natural and touching.

Question .. Why

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Analysis of the poem …

Strange are the ways of this world. Stanger is the swings of mind. The human mind craves for love, intimacy, and recognition, and it is the barren mind that can live without emotions and feelings. Bereft of sentiments, and emotions, a human heart becomes one of stone. These are universal truths, but such a gift of God, at times, leads to devastating consequences. Absolute equanimity is an absolute rarity.

Miss Meadows is a superb creation of Katherine Mansfield. Miss Meadows is 30. Remaining unmarried at this age is socially unacceptable. It invites hostile attention, ridicule, and wild aspersions. Miss Meadows at 30 was at the door step of this disaster. Spinsterhood stared her in her eyes. There were the colleagues who were ever ready to mock her inability to get a mate.  Katherine Mansfield has created the character of Miss Meadows to suffer all these – the advancing age, a recklessly irresponsible lover, and a few colleagues ready to poke their nose to her personal matters.

Miss Meadows takes her music class when she is blustered by a nasty telegram from her lover. Her dejection shows in the conduct of her music class. As her mood droops, the chorus of her students becomes mellowed. Miss Meadows can’t see her students jubilant when she suffers such a shock. After a while, the lover’s wire arrives affirming his desire to go ahead with the marriage. Miss Meadows walks back to her class beaming with positive emotions. The chorus rises on her instructions.

It’s easy to portray Miss Meadows as a silly, capricious woman, but we all suffer from such weaknesses of mind. We all experience the rise and ebb of our courage and confidence as things around us turn from positive to negative. Miss Meadows is as ordinary a person as any of us. She is as gullible as most of us. Katheine Mansfield’s use of music lessons as the guitar string of Miss Meadows’s state of mind is too realistic to be cast away as frail, stupid and silly. After reading the poem, the torment and elation of Miss Meadows lingers in our mind. This is the yardstick of a good poem.

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QUESTION …..The story ‘The Singing Lesson’ brings out Katherine Mansfield unique talent for realistically capturing a moment in time.

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ANSWER …Katherine Mansfield has got everything right in her efforts to create the character of Miss Meadows. As a woman nearing the age of 30, when unmarried women were treated with mockery and suspicion, Miss Meadows was already feeling herself to be vulnerable to society’s scornful eyes. By profession, she was a music teacher. Teachers are generally simple and sentimental. A music teacher, particularly, was more likely to be so. She had women colleagues who took more than usual interest in Miss Meadows’s marital matters. They made the situation  pricklier for her.

The lover, Basil was made a flippant young man with no sensibility. The way he botched the marriage, and then retracted it buffeted Mrs. Meadows immensely. Katherine Mansfield has created the music class, the students, and the walk in the corridor with remarkable sympathy, and understanding. The leafless tree in the school compound, and the poem chosen for recitation in the music class add to the turmoil in Miss Meadows’s mind. One can put oneself in Miss Meadows’s shoes and experience the convulsions of her mind. The poem grips the reader’s mind, and fills their mind with sympathy for Miss Meadows. In a nutshell, Katherine Mansfield has reached the zenith of poetic creativity through this poem.

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