The Singing Lesson: Story Summary & Analysis

The story line / plot summary

The Singing Lesson, written by Katherine Mansfield, is all about a surprising day of a music teacher’s life. Taken from Katherine’s ‘The Garden Party and Other Stories’ collection, it’s a short story written in third person from an unknown narrator’s perspective.

Miss Meadows, a music teacher, receives a letter from her fiancé which states quite plainly that Basil, her fiancé, isn’t ready to marry her and feels that the marriage would fill him with disgust. The word “disgust” is scratched lightly and written above it is the word “regret”. Naturally she’s filled with despair, anger & sadness. And due to her bad mood she sees everyone and everything in a negative light. Her usual calm and cheery demeanor turns gloomy and angry that day and this change doesn’t go unnoticed by her students.

During the lesson she’s rather harsh with her students. She tells them that today they would be practicing a lament, without any expression at first. Each stanza, each word, each breath seems like a sob or groan and lament to her gloomy mind. Then she tells them that they must feel the despair, the pain and the sorrow in order to perform the piece perfectly. Though the way she tells them so is not that simple. They are rather frightened by the sudden change in her behavior.

During the lesson she’s informed by another colleague that Basil, her fiancé, has sent a telegram for her. Her first thought is that Basil has committed suicide! Yes, you read that right. It’s because the school has a rule; telegram can be sent to the workers during working hours only in case of death or emergency situation. But in the telegram Basil had asked her to ignore the first letter and that he had bought the hat-stand which they had been thinking of lately. In short, the marriage is happening. The content of the telegram definitely lights up her mood and she’s back with her usual cheery demeanor.

She returns and continues her class, now practicing a cheerful song, singing with expressions, more loudly and cheerfully than any other student.

The Singing Lesson: A Commentary

The Singing Lesson is a bit weak in tone as compared to its 15 counterparts from ‘The Garden Party and Other Stories’ but is still a nice example of Katherine’s talent of capturing real life moments and sentiments in the most beautiful yet simple way.

From the starting lines of the story, there’s a slight touch of mystery and lyrical content. The author’s way of making Miss Meadows see the reflection of her own gloomy mood in everything, even in the sweet greeting from her colleagues and students is quite realistic because our mood can make us behave in the most peculiar ways at the most wrong times.

In the opening scene, the interaction between the Science Mistress & Miss Meadows is quite sarcastic and from that we can conclude that Miss Meadows was rather pessimistic. Is it due to the shock she has received from her fiancé or is it just her general nature? We don’t know. But of course, towards the end her mood changes and she’s perfectly cheerful, so may be we can say that the pessimistic way is only due to her bad mood. It’s also safe to say that Miss Meadows chose to show her feelings and moods through music rather than words.

The story flow is a bit intriguing as well because at first there’s no mention of why Miss Meadows is in such a bad mood. Readers are left to wonder and assume on their own. But the answer becomes quite clear at the right time, without making the readers angry or irritated with all the guess work and questions.

There aren’t many characters but those that are there, are described quite properly and aren’t exaggerated. Though there’s no mention of the place where it all takes place, we can ascertain that it’s probably set in the United Kingdom or its provinces, judging from the terms used to describe the hierarchy of its faculty and the grade levels.

The setting, theme, descriptions, narration of the story is quite simple, lyrical and at times, comical as well. The author has definitely succeeded in making the reader feel each agitation, irritation and overwhelming happiness of Miss Meadows. It definitely makes up for a light reading.