Is the title of the short story “The Singing Lesson” by Katherine Mansfield appropriate? Justify it.
Katherine Mansfield’s “The Singing Lesson” is a story of Miss Meadows, a spinster music teacher, who experiences harrowing gloom and unspoken mental anguish owing to a split in her relationship with her lover. This particular slice of life is chosen to capture our gripping attention. It mainly centres round a particular singing lesson class held at a girls’ school. And the protagonist’s activity in the class is used to show the changes in human behaviour brought by particular events in life.
The writer presents a profound psychological study of human psyche as is evident in the character of Miss Meadows who got a letter from her fiancé offhandedly informing her the break-up of their marriage. This is certainly a drastic and shocking incident in her life. It does have but a pervasive after-effect on her feminine sensibility. Life is a bundle of moments – sometimes a moment of pleasure or sometimes a moment of utter hopelessness and failure. The effect of the troubled relationship is abruptly noticeable in her behaviour even though she tries desperately not to disclose it to her colleagues at her school.
The high-strung emotional personality of a music teacher and her subsequent behaviour are studied as minutely as a studious observer would do. This is what is the bare essential of the plot of the story. The unwelcome appearance of emotional outburst, no doubt, unsettles the integrity of her character. The action of the story is confined to a particular class of singing lesson. The authorial statement strikes our attention to the overtly pessimistic attitude of Miss Meadows:
With despair – cold, sharp despair – buried deep in her heart…
This is the first authorial comment on Miss Meadows. The story is told from the perspective of all-knowing narrator. The protagonist’s inner turmoil is laid bare to the readers.
The most important motif of the story is music. In fact, music is used as an outlet of expression through which both Miss Meadows and her students communicate with the surrounding reality. Over here, life and music are integrated artistically with each other. A class of singing lesson reflects the inner consciousness of Miss Meadows as if it were a monologue expressing the mental anguish and utter torment of her soul. Her innermost agony and heavy-hearted state of mind peep through her interaction with her colleagues and students. Thus, the beginning of the singing lesson is a just prelude to her pang of anguish that dramatically changes into a happy climax.
That day Miss Meadows enters the classroom sorrowful and utterly hopeless. She is every inch opposite to her usual self. Basil, her fiancé, informs her that he is not able to marry her. A plethora of changes are noticeable in her conversation with the science teacher. That day she is in an irritable temper and sulky humour. Her obsessive gloom makes her hardly capable to communicate cordially with the science teacher. When the science teacher asks her “Isn’t it cold? It might be winter’’, she answers peevishly “It is rather sharp”. Such simple piece of conversation registers an impression that Miss Meadows is devoid of warmth of relationship. It is highly suggestive of her gruff tone and temper. She appears to be engrossed in self-pity. This is how we can easily feel her self-obsessed pessimism.
Even she appears to be rather cold when her favourite student Mary Beasley dares not accost her with the chrysanthemum that she usually does. Basil’s letter thus precipitates a steady onrush of changes intensifying her inner storm of mind. She expresses her thanks in an offhand manner. It is well-nigh comprehensible to what extent Miss Meadows is distraught and to what extent her professional life gets entangled with her emotional turmoil.
Thus, a single moment of utter personal turmoil in a character is shown through the stream-of-consciousness technique, a modern device to peep through one’s psyche. Whether knowingly or not she selects “A Lament” that day as a piece of lesson and she is also emphatic about expressionless singing style of her students.
Such staggering emotional state runs parallel to the theme of music selected as the lesson of the particular class. It is really a classroom interaction through which the plot of “The Singing Lesson” is developed. Human life is but a weathercock. What really awaits we hardly know.
While the class was in progress, Miss Meadows got a telegram from Basil informing her that the letter was a mistake; now he was able to marry her. On getting the good news over the telegram she gets carried away by rosy hopes of life. Now she is no longer melancholic and hopeless. She changes her mood within a second. She returns to her classroom and changes the topic of the lesson. Picking up chrysanthemum she holds it to her lips to hide her smile. A spurt of excitement comes over her. Now she urges the girls to put in emotion in full-throated ease in her characteristic manner. It is actually the return of her former usual self. She persuades them not to become ‘doleful’.
Such is the backdrop of a singing lesson that is fraught with significance and the psychological revelation of her character. Music goes hand-in-hand with the theme as an accelerator determining the plot mechanism and the step-by-step revelation of the central character. The singing lesson itself is both a dramatic device and a thematic content of the story. This is why, I feel and opine forthrightly that the title “The Singing Lesson” is indicative and an apt one.