Katherine Mansfield and Conceptualisations of the Self

  • Louise Edensor

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


The thesis aims to show how Katherine Mansfield’s desire to discover aspects of the self shaped her strengths and distinctiveness as a writer, particularly in the development of her own modernist aesthetic. Mansfield’s letters and notebooks often betray a preoccupation with issues of the self. In one notebook entry she exclaims, ‘if one was true to oneself . . . True to oneself! Which self? Which of my many – well, really, that’s what it looks like coming to – hundreds of selves’ (CW4, 349). By examining this and many other scattered references to the self throughout Mansfield’s letters and notebooks, this thesis aims to uncover the relationship between Mansfield’s personal comments and questions on the self and the development of her literary techniques.

The beginning of the twentieth century, when Mansfield was writing, saw many advancements in science and technology as well as new psychological theories popularised by William James and Sigmund Freud. These theories added to a discourse on the psychological make-up of the individual as modernity caused a crisis in understanding the construction of the self, calling identity into question. By examining these theories, this thesis provides a framework for the analysis of Mansfield’s writing, integrating current critical commentary on her fiction, Mansfield’s private thoughts and her experimental fiction.

Whilst there have in the past been studies of Mansfield’s writing addressing aspects of the narrative techniques of her stories that construct multifarious representations of the self, particularly those by Clare Hanson (1981), Kate Fullbrook (1986) and Sydney Janet Kaplan (1991), to date no full-length study exists which coordinates notebook entries, letters and Mansfield’s fiction across her writing career. Using a chronological analysis this thesis demonstrates how her preoccupation with the self underlies the energy and liveliness of her stories and is a key influencing factor in her creation of a unique aesthetic. Using narratological theory as a guide, close textual analysis of stories from across Mansfield’s entire oeuvre informs this study, revealing how she learns to exploit literary techniques such as focalisation and free indirect discourse in order to represent the ‘hundreds of selves’ experienced by her characters.

The thesis will illustrate from a selection of stories, how the spirit and uniqueness of Mansfield’s experimental fiction comes from observations about the contradictions of the self, its multiplicity, its division and its obliqueness, achieved by placing her characters in situations that cause them to misapprehend the self or discover it anew. It will focus on Mansfield’s depictions of the frustrations, dreams and passions of her female characters as they seek escape from or transgress the boundaries forced upon them, whether these are self-imposed or result from patriarchal strictures and will aim to reveal how Mansfield’s experimental fiction captures the nuances of the female self.
Date of AwardMay 2019
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Northampton
SupervisorJanet Wilson (Supervisor), Gerri Kimber (Supervisor) & Richard Canning (Supervisor)


  • Katherine Mansfield
  • modernism
  • psychology
  • self

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