The Voyage is a short story written by the modernist writer Katherine Mansfield (Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp Murry, 1888-1923) in the year of 1921. The major themes of this story are travelling (both travelling by boat and in the real life), going through changes, growing up and learning to put the past behind.
A short plot summary:
The main character of this short story is a little girl called Fenella. She and her grandmother are saying goodbye to Fenella’s father at the harbour. They are leaving with the Picton boat. Fenella’s mother has just died, and the atmosphere is very dark and sad. When they later get off the boat, Mr Penreddy is there to pick them up. They arrive at the grandparent’s house, where they meet Fenella’s lovely grandfather.
In this text I will, by referring to different symbols and imagery from the story, discuss the statement: “The Voyage is a story about the transition from dark to light, and from childhood to adulthood.”
Through the whole story, there are colours mentioned in different situations. By doing this, Katherine Mansfield makes the story more alive to the reader. She makes us use our imagination. Sometimes the reader also has to “read between the lines” to understand the complete context. By following this colour-system, we can get deeper into the actually meaning of the story. We will understand it in a different way and we will notice actions, lines and small details that we never noticed before, and most important; we will look at the story in a completely new way. Mansfield was influenced by impressionist painters, like Van Gogh. She needed a new way to express herself and her ideas, and noticed new possibilities while looking at paintings by Van Gogh. Impressionism comes from the word impression which can be an idea, feeling, or opinion about something or someone. The impressionist painters were interested in expressing the light and the colours in their paintings. They discovered that the shadows out in the nature were not colourless, but got their own shade of colour depending on the sunlight’s strength and character.
The atmosphere in the beginning of the story is dark and sad. This is mainly because of the death of Fenella’s mother, but also the fact that she has to leave her father and go with her grandmother to take the boat. There are many examples where Mansfield uses the colours to express something important. There are also places in the story where she uses the contrasts of the colours to express something: “and one tiny boy, only his little black arms and legs showing out of a white woolly shawl (…)” Maybe she uses this contrast to show that there is hope, and that there will be a change. This tiny hint is neither easy to notice nor understand, but we know for sure that white symbolizes something good – and something good is going to happen. The story starts with a description of the Old Wharf: “It was dark on the Old Wharf, very dark; the wool sheds, the cattle trucks, the cranes standing up so high, the little squat railway engine, all seemed carved out of solid darkness.” The dark wharf symbolizes Fenella’s sad past. When the Picton boat arrives, something changes: “Lying beside the dark wharf, all strung, all beaded with round golden lights, the Picton boat looked as if she was more ready to sail among stars than out into the cold sea.” The boat is the “key” to Fenella’s new life. This is a sign of hope. Earlier, everything was dark, but when the boat arrives at the harbour, there are golden lights which are described as beautiful stars.
It is not easy to understand why the atmosphere is so sad before we get a little further into the story. The information about Fenella’s mother and that she is dead, is told in very few words. The information is not told right to us by wordy explanations, it is told through imagery. Imagery means that we get information through the sensory impressions: what someone hears, feels, sees, smells or tastes: “Then she turned round and took a long, mournful look at grandma’s blackness and at Fenella’s black coat and skirt, black blouse, and hat with a crape rose.” This is how it is told that Fenella’s mother is dead. We have to know what has normally happened when people are using black clothes.
When Fenella and her grandmother are on the Picton boat, things are starting to change more and more. We can especially see this by the fact that the colours are getting brighter. Examples of this is: “the fringe of grey bobbles danced at her eyebrows as she smiled tenderly and mournfully at Fenella.”, “The hard square of brown soap would not lather, and the water in the bottle was like a kind of blue jelly.” and “It was a small grey foot.” To describe that Fenella’s new life just has started, Mansfield has written, the morning they arrive in Picton: “The lamp was still burning, but night was over (…)” Fenella and her grandmother starts to understand that things are going to change: “Oh, it had all been so sad lately. Was it going to change?”
The colours continue to get brighter and brighter when Fenella and her grandmother are harbouring Cook Strait. “And those strange silvery withered trees that are like skeletons…” is a description of the trees at the harbour. “And her white waxen cheeks were blue with cold, her chin trembled, and she had to keep wiping her eyes and her little pink nose” is a description of the grandmother when she and Fenella are standing on the deck. When they arrive at the grandparent’s house, the situations are still described with beautiful colours: “Up a little path of round white pebbles they went (…)” and “Grandma’s delicate white picotees were so heavy with dew (…)” is a description of the grandparent’s garden. When Fenella enters the grandparent’s house, she sees a cat in the dusky sitting-room: “On the table a white cat, that had been folded up like a camel, rose, stretched itself, yawned, and then sprang on to the tips of its toes.” Afterwards when she meets her grandfather, her description of him is this: “Just his head with a white tuft and his rosy face and long silver beard showed over the quilt.” These different colours through the whole story emphasises the change Fenella is going through.
The imagery of the transition from dark to light symbolizes the transition from childhood to adulthood which Fenella is going through. We can compare Fenella as a child with the darkness, and the process of her becoming an adult with the light. The journey on the Picton boat could be symbolized with the transition from being a child to becoming an adult. It is not easy to know the exact age of Fenella, but through the way she sees the world and her impressions of situations, we can understand that she is not a very old girl. An example of this is when Fenella and her grandmother are leaving the harbour: “Silently the dark wharf began to slip, to slide, to edge away from them.” Fenella does not know that it is the boat that is leaving the wharf and not the other way around. Another example of this is: “As well as her luggage strapped into a neat sausage (…)” By comparing her luggage with a sausage, we can clearly see that Fenella has a great and childlike imagination.
Another important symbol in the story is the grandmother’s umbrella. The grandmother lets Fenella take care of her umbrella. It becomes a symbol to describe that Fenella’s sense of responsibility is growing, that she is old enough to take care of something on her own. When they arrive in Picton, the grandmother does not even have to say the word ‘umbrella’, Fenella understands it: “You’ve got my--“ “Yes, grandma.”
A place in the middle of the story, Fenella and her grandmother are sitting in their small cabin. Fenella sees her grandmother undress for the first time. This is a very strange sight for her, and because of this Fenella does not have the right words to describe and express the situation: “Then she undid her bodice, and something under that, and something else underneath that.” After Fenella’s grandmother is finished undressing, Fenella takes on her flannel dressing-gown and asks her grandmother if she has to take off her boots. The grandmother first gives them a deep consideration before she says: "You'd feel a great deal more comfortable if you did, child.” The grandmother gives Fenella an advice, but lets her take the decision herself. This shows us the gradual beginning of Fenella entering the world of grown ups.
At the end of the story there are some wise words said by the American man Horace Mann, which sum up the story in a great way: “Lost! One Golden Hour Set with Sixty Diamond Minutes. No Reward Is Offered For It Is Gone For Ever!” In a deep black frame above the grandparent’s bed this quote stands with capital letters. The massage of this quote is maybe that we have to live now and make the best out of what we have, and that we will never get back the time we did not use, it is gone for ever. We can not waste our time on earth, because the time is very precious. The quote also tells us that we can not change something in the past, we have to move on. Fenella has to move on from her sad life. The hour is like golden, and the sixty minutes like diamonds. By comparing the hour with gold, and the minutes with diamonds, we understand that it is something of a great value. Maybe we should stop worrying about the past, and start enjoying this very moment? At any rate, we know that a new life just has started for Fenella.
To sum up what I have talked about in this essay, I can say that Katherine Mansfield uses the colours to express feelings, and to support her ideas. The quotations from the short story which I have used in this essay shows us that The Voyage can be described as a transition from dark to light, and from childhood to adulthood. The use of colours in literature, Mansfield learned from impressionist painters, and then especially Van Gogh.
My sources are these:
- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Katherine_Mansfield, accessed the 28th of September 2010
- http://lynleystace.wordpress.com/2009/11/04/questions-for-study/, accessed the 28th of September 2010
- The Voyage, from http://www.eastoftheweb.com/short-stories/UBooks/Voya.shtml, accessed the 28th of September 2010
- http://kunsthistorie.com/fagwiki/Impresjonisme, accessed the 13th of November 2010
- http://www.katherinemansfield.net/life/briefbio1.html, accessed the 13th of November 2010