"The Singing Lesson" Analysis

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Life is defined by the constant roller coaster of emotions felt by human beings every day.  The short story “The Singing Lesson,” by Katherine Mansfield details a particularly significant emotional shift that occurs in a very short time period.  The story follows a school music teacher names Miss Meadows, whose woeful personal life becomes interconnected with her professional duties as a teacher.  As readers come to understand the reasons behind Miss Meadows’ behavior, such as the nature of her relationship with her fiancé Basil, they gain insight into the themes that the author explores throughout the story. Katherine Mansfield utilizes the elements of characterization and symbolism to communicate the main character’s emotional dependence on her relationship with her fiancé, which ultimately supports the main theme of reliance in the story.
The characterization of the main character Miss Meadows in “The Singing Lesson” is an essential tool used by the author in supporting the theme of reliance.  As the character’s situation with her fiancé Basil changes during the story, so does Miss Meadow’s personality and behavior towards her students and colleagues.  Her emotional status is evident to the reader in the opening lines of the piece. “With despair—cold, sharp despair— buried deep in her heart like a wicked knife, Miss Meadows, in cap and gown and carrying a little baton, trod the cold corridors that led to the music hall,” (Mansfield).  In this quote, the narrator makes it very clear to the readers that Miss Meadows feels an intense amount of despair and sadness.  This anguish taints her exchange with a fellow teacher who tries to greet her pleasantly, but only receives a grimace in return.  As the story develops, the narrator reveals the reason for her sadness, which is that he fiancé had written her a letter breaking off their engagement because he did not wish to be married to her. Her odd behavior is also apparent in her teaching methods.  During class, she pushes her students to sing a song with such intensely distraught emotions and expression that she upsets them in the process.  “The older girls were crimson; some of the younger ones began to cry,” (Mansfield).  This instance of letting her emotions leak into her teaching style because of the fact that she has lost her fiancé strongly supports the idea that her mental health is entirely dependent on her relationship status.  This is further apparent in her actions at the end of the story. “”Don’t look so doleful, girls. It ought to sound warm, joyful, eager.”… And this time Miss Meadows’ voice sounded over all the other voices- full, deep, glowing with expression,” (Mansfield).  At this point, Miss Meadows has received work from her fiancé that he did not mean to call off their engagement and wishes to continue their relationship.  This results in a huge change in the personality of Miss Meadows, as seen in the quote. She now encourages her students to sing the song with joy and happiness, rather than dread and gloom.  Her own voice is now full of the  hope and love that she feels.  Such a drastic shift in attitude due to the actions of her partner reveal her complete reliance on her relationship for happiness.
In addition to characterization, Mansfield uses symbolism in her story to highlight the main theme of reliance.  One key symbol utilized in “The Singing Lesson” is the yellow chrysanthemum that Miss Meadows receives from her student Mary every day at the start of class. This daily ritual of receiving the beautiful flower may seem like a small gesture on the surface, but it ultimately represents the act of Miss Meadows embracing her life as it is, as well as accepting happiness and positivity in her life. At the start of the plot, when Miss Meadows walks into class after reading the dreadful letter from her Basil, she is offered the flower as always. However, instead of taking the flower Miss Meadows ignores the gesture entirely. “.. said in a voice of ice, “Page fourteen, please, and mark the accents well.” Staggering moment! Mary blushed until the tears stood in her eyes, but Miss Meadows was gone back to the music stand; her voice rang through the music hall,” (Mansfield).  The refusal of this symbolic flower therefore indicates to readers that Miss Meadows no longer wishes to appreciate the joy and happiness in her life.  This becomes even more evident to readers when she ignores her student’s upset response to her rejection, proving that she has lost the will to be engaged with her students and to take an active role as the teacher of the class, instead wallowing in her own grief. However, this all changes very suddenly when she hears from her fiancé again who rebukes his initial claims that he wished to end their engagement.  Her immediate acceptance of his change in attitude, knowing that he does not truly love her, is shown to readers in her behavior after reading Basil’s telegram. “”Page thirty-two, Mary,” she said, “page thirty-two,” and, picking up the yellow chrysanthemum, she held it to her lips to hide her smile,” (Mansfield).   By finally deciding to take the flower, Miss Meadows is symbolically choosing to find the hope and delight in her life once again, because of her seemingly repaired relationship with her fiancé.  The symbolism used by the author strengthens her exploration of the theme of dependence throughout the story.
Human emotions are often so complex and multi-faceted that they are incredibly hard to understand.  The power of emotions is also a prevalent aspect of the human experience, as certain emotions can be so influential and overpowering that they can change a person’s attitude in a short period of time.  Katherine Mansfield explores the idea of such powerful emotions in her short story “The Singing Lesson”.  The author conveys the main theme of reliance with the use of story elements such as characterization and symbolism.  The presence of these elements communicates to the reader the manner in which Miss Meadows is completely dependent on her relationship with her fiancé for her positivity and contentment in life.  Ultimately, the portrayal of a character like Miss Meadows who places her happiness into the hands of another person communicates to readers the unhealthy nature of dependance on others.






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