The Passing of Time
Katherine Mansfieldís "Miss Brill" perfectly captures the phases oneís mind goes through when faced with becoming old. Elderly people tend to be nostalgic, even sentimental about their youth. In later years, the nostalgia can develop into senility or fantasy. The ermine fur in "Miss Brill" is the catalyst of her nostalgia and symbolizes the passing of time in three stages: an expectant youth, a vital adulthood, and finally, a development into old age and fantasy.
The story opens with Miss Brillís excitement that the "season" has arrived for social engagements; perhaps it is the tourist season when the ladies debut their latest fashions. With all the expectancy of a young girl looking forward to courtship, Miss Brill unpacks her prized and most fashionable possession, the ermine fur. While unpacking the fur, the reader is aware that Miss Brill is lapsing into elderly nostalgia because she speaks to the fur in such delighted tones. Miss Brill refers to her ermine fur as her "Little Rogue"(182). We learn that the ermine fur is fragile and in disrepair; we sense that Miss Brill is, too. In any case, she places the fur around her neck and, with all the dignity in the world and pride of youth, leaves for her weekly engagement.
As an adult wraps himself in accomplishments, Miss Brill wraps herself in the fur and strolls into the park to her regular seat. Miss Brill is delighted, feeling both accomplished and satisfied. The weekly routine is a comfort to her. She looks for the same faces and is secretly pleased when she sees them. She eavesdrops on conversations, participating on some imaginary level. In the park, Miss Brill believes she has "fit in" or found her "rightful place." Her willingness to overlook the imperfections in the fur reveals a hope that her own imperfections will be ignored. She goes through all of the motions of any vibrant adult whose routine is secure; it is a reward of adulthood to know who one is and where oneís place is.
Miss Brillís preoccupation with the lives and conversations of those around her reveal to the reader that she is indulging in fantasy. This notion is secured when the weekly event becomes a play in her mind with herself as a key performer and her fur a part of her costume. She is so secure in her fantasy that she believes that if she were not present, the others would notice her absence. She is, in her mind, a vital member of this production. Of course, the reader is aware that her fantasy is harmless, common even with old age. Therefore, the thoughtless young woman whose ridicule of the fur, "Itís her fu-fu which is so funny" (186), seems unnecessarily cruel. In one off-hand remark, the young woman exposes the fur: its fragility, its disrepair, and it shabbiness.
In exposing of the fur, Miss Brillís fantasy is also exposed. What was once a fashion piece of her youth and a symbol of the security of adulthood has been transformed into a remnant of old age, and she is lost to her loneliness. At the opening of the story, Miss Brill opens the box containing the ermine fur with the anticipation of a young child opening a present. She wears the ermine fur proudly as a vital adult but ultimately returns the ermine fur to its box as a broken old woman. She sadly packs away her fur, perhaps forever. The reader is left believing that without the fur, Miss Brillís fantasy will die, and she will simply be an old, lonely, senile woman whose imagination has been shattered.
Aimee Trip, at the time of this writing a sophomore in Marketing, wrote this essay for Dr. Marsha Mathewsí ENGL 1102 class in Fall 2001. Tripp belongs to the Dalton State College literary club Creative Minds.