Creating the right atmosphere has been more important than the plot in Katherine Mansfield’s short story “The Singing Lesson”. Do you agree?
Katherine Mansfield’s “The Singing Lesson” is more of a story of atmosphere than of plot. The story revolves around Miss Meadows’ changing moods during a singing lesson in her classroom. Whatever is important in terms of plot is the letter the protagonist received from her lover Basil before the story began and another letter she got in the middle of her singing lesson in school.
The concomitant effect of the letters on Miss Meadows is elaborated upon without any strict adherence to the line of plot. Whatever exists in the form of plot is nothing but slender. The story is a classic example of brevity and sparing dialogue. We feel drawn mainly to complex psychological development of Miss Meadows’ character. The gleeful atmosphere of the school and the cold dark corridors of her psyche are contrasted with each other. In fact this modernist approach to the building up of atmosphere is found conducive to subtle development of character.
Again interior monologue plays a pivotal role in pervading the atmosphere of place of action. A singing lesson class is presented as a scene of action without any external stimulation from the reality. It is tuned to the exposure of the different layers and psychological states of Miss Meadows’ character.
The first paragraph of the story presents the gleeful cheer of the school girls. Through the description and depiction of this school ambiance, the writer presents morose temper of Miss Meadows. Her style of gait is emphasized by referring to the “tremendous knock-knock-knocking”. Even though Miss Meadows never vociferously shows any sort of anguish and anger, we are made aware of the storm that is brewing in her mind:
And then there came from the staircase a tremendous knock-knock-knocking. Some one had dropped dumbbells.
“Dumbbells” is a symbolic accessory pointing out heavy burden of sorrow that Miss Meadows carries. But it was an expression of her walking gesture that is worthy of our attention as it develops a thorough atmosphere. Every word she utters that day is not what she usually utters; it was a queer aspect that is hardly explicable.
We must mention her selection of the topic of the day as a singing lesson. A Lament was chosen as a topic. “Music’s Gay Measure” was the words wailed by the girls. Simultaneously, the willow trees were waving in the wind. The second line of the lament gives stress on “Winter Drear”, drawing a parallel to the cold weather. All these are symbolic overtones designed as a part of creating the right atmosphere.
It is thus the bleak dreary atmosphere of Miss Meadows’ inner soul which found an expression in the lament as well as in the surrounding atmosphere. It is thus through the creation of sensory impression and suggestive details, and not through the sequence of plot that the narrator presents the story of Miss Meadows.
In modern literature, entering into the characters’ psyche and exploring its reflection on the surrounding atmosphere have been more and more popular than building complicated plots with rising and falling actions. And the present story “The Singing Lesson” has been a great example of that trend.