Katherine Mansfield’s ‘Life of Ma Parker’

Katherine Mansfield Beauchamp was born in Wellington, New Zealand on 14 October 1888. At school one of her teachers described her as ‘a surly sort of girl’ who was ‘imaginative to the point of untruth’.[1]

Mansfield left New Zealand aged 19 to write in England.






Mansfield is described as having ‘revolutionised the 20th Century English short story.

‘Her best work shakes itself free of plots and endings and gives the story, for the first time, the expansiveness of the interior life, the poetry of feeling, the blurred edges of personality.’ [2]

She died at the age of 34 after spending her last five years with tuberculosis.

‘Life of Ma Parker’ (1921) considers themes of death, loss, social dislocation, class barriers, the role of the female and poverty.

The story considers a few hours in the life of an older woman who works as a cleaner for a gentleman living on his own. Ma Parker has suffered a terrible loss – the death of her beloved grandson Lennie, and as her thoughts turn to Lennie the enormity of her own tragic life unfolds through a series of flashbacks and Ma Parker is overcome.





Mansfield establishes character and class division in the first few paragraphs. She does this in two ways. Firstly, the clumsy way the literary gentleman enquires after Lennie’s funeral, and while the reader might see this as an awkward social interaction Mansfield clarifies the literary gentleman’s character through his thoughts:

‘You simply dirty everything you’ve got, get a hag in once a week to clean up, and the thing’s done.’

And further when he alludes to the disappearance of a teaspoon of cocoa:

‘Very strange. I could have sworn I left a teaspoonful of cocoa in the tin… You’ll always tell me when you throw things away – won’t you, Mrs Parker?’

Ma Parker’s character is developed by her thoughts and humble approach to the literary gentleman:

‘the floor was littered with toast crusts, envelopes, cigarette ends. But Ma Parker bore him no grudge. She pitied the poor young gentleman for having no one to look after him.’

Mansfield uses metaphor and simile in her writing:

‘sad-looking sky, and whenever there were clouds they looked very worn, old clouds, frayed at the edges, with holes in them, or dark stains like tea.’

‘There was a great lump of something bubbling in his chest that he couldn’t get rid of… his eyes bulged, his hands waved, and the great lump bubbled as a potato knocks in a saucepan.’

Towards the end of ‘Life of Ma Parker’ Mansfield describes what Ma Parker sees on the street:

‘The men walked like scissors; the women trod like cats’

While the story is focussed on Ma Parker it is when Mansfield describes (with incredible insight), the men and women in the street, that the context is broadened and the rest of society is drawn into the story.

Here’s a link to the short story –





[1] Mansfield, Katherine – Biography – Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/3m42/mansfield-katherine

[2] NZEDGE Legends — Katherine Mansfield, Writer — Culture. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.nzedge.com/legends/katherine-mansfield/

Image – Unknown Mansfield stories found | Stuff.co.nz. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.stuff.co.nz/entertainment/books/7332071/Unknown-Mansfield-stories-found