The Canary

tutorial, critical commentary, plot, and study resources

The Canary was written on 7 July, 1922 at the Hotel Chateau Bellevue in Sierre, Switzerland as a gift for Dorothy Brett with whom Katherine Mansfield had lived briefly in Bloomsbury. It was her last completed story and was only published after her death in 1923. The original inspiration for the story came from her stay at the Victoria Palace Hotel in Paris, where she used to watch a woman across the street tending canaries in a cage.


The Canary


The Canary – critical commentary

This is one of Mansfield’s essentially static and non-dramatic stories with very little sense of narrative development and a complete absence of dramatic events. It is more like a very light character sketch combined with an evocation of an emotional state of being – the sort of modernist experiment with the short story as a literary genre that Mansfield had been pursuing at the same time as her great contemporary (and friend) Virginia Woolf.

Like most of her best work, it relies on understatement and a delicate symbolism for its effect. An elderly woman finding comfort in a pet creature is a common enough phenomenon, and Mansfield creates a credible account of the pleasure and reassurance she gains from the bird’s song. But at the same time we are reminded of her half-formed yearnings which were previously attached to her waiting for the evening star – Venus.

Venus was the Roman goddess whose functions encompassed love, beauty, sex, fertility, prosperity and desire – none of which seem to have featured largely in the woman’s life. This small piece of domestic sadness is reinforced by the fact that she is aware that the three male lodgers call her ‘the Scarecrow’, but reassures herself that ‘It doesn’t matter. Not in the least.’ Nevertheless, without the bird in its cage, she now feels an inchoate sense of loneliness and sadness which she can neither articulate nor explain to herself.

The old woman’s hesitancy and point of view are neatly reflected in Mansfield’s presentation of the first person narrative. Every paragraph begins with an ellipsis (…); the woman addresses an imaginary interlocutor – ‘You see that big nail on the right of the front door?’ – and she feels she must not ‘giv[e] way to — to memories and so on’.


The Canary – study resources

Katherine Mansfield Katherine Mansfield’s Collected Works
Three published collections of stories – Kindle edition – Amazon UK

Katherine Mansfield The Collected Short Stories of Katherine Mansfield
Wordsworth Classics paperback edition – Amazon UK

Katherine Mansfield The Collected Stories of Katherine Mansfield
Penguin Classics paperback edition – Amazon UK

Katherine Mansfield Katherine Mansfield Megapack
The complete stories and poems in Kindle edition – Amazon UK

Katherine Mansfield Katherine Mansfield’s Collected Works
Three published collections of stories – Kindle edition – Amazon US

Katherine Mansfield The Collected Short Stories of Katherine Mansfield
Wordsworth Classics paperback edition – Amazon US

Katherine Mansfield The Collected Stories of Katherine Mansfield
Penguin Classics paperback edition – Amazon US

Katherine Mansfield Katherine Mansfield Megapack
The complete stories and poems in Kindle edition – Amazon US


The Canary – plot summary

An elderly woman is recalling the pleasure she has derived from her pet canary, which is now dead. The bird had a particularly beautiful song.

In the past she had focused her spiritual yearnings on the nightly appearance of a star (Venus) but she has transferred these feelings onto the bird as soon as it was acquired.

She looks after three men as lodgers, and views the bird as a male companion. She is aware that the lodgers view her with disdain, but finds comfort in the presence of the bird.

Even when she feels existentially threatened by a bad dream and a dark night, she feels the bird’s chirping as a comforting presence.

Now that the bird has died she knows that she ought to get over the loss, but feels an emptiness and sadness in life that she cannot explain.


Katherine Mansfield


Katherine Mansfield – web links

Katherine Mansfield - web links Katherine Mansfield at Mantex
Life and works, biography, a close reading, and critical essays

Katherine Mansfield - web links Katherine Mansfield at Wikipedia
Biography, legacy, works, biographies, films and adaptations
0415402395

Katherine Mansfield - web links Katherine Mansfield at Online Books
Collections of her short stories available at a variety of online sources

Katherine Mansfield - web links Not Under Forty
A charming collection of literary essays by Willa Cather, which includes a discussion of Katherine Mansfield.

Katherine Mansfield - web links Katherine Mansfield at Gutenberg
Free downloadable versions of her stories in a variety of digital formats

Katherine Mansfield - web links Hogarth Press first editions
Annotated gallery of original first edition book jacket covers from the Hogarth Press, including Mansfield’s ‘Prelude’

Katherine Mansfield - web links Katherine Mansfield’s Modernist Aesthetic
An academic essay by Annie Pfeifer at Yale University’s Modernism Lab

Katherine Mansfield - web links The Katherine Mansfield Society
Newsletter, events, essay prize, resources, yearbook

Katherine Mansfield - web links Katherine Mansfield Birthplace
Biography, birthplace, links to essays, exhibitions

Katherine Mansfield - web links Katherine Mansfield Website
New biography, relationships, photographs, uncollected stories

© Roy Johnson 2014


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Bloomsbury Group – web links

Bloomsbury Group - web links Hogarth Press first editions
Annotated gallery of original first edition book jacket covers from the Hogarth Press, featuring designs by Vanessa Bell, Roger Fry, and others.

Bloomsbury Group - web links The Omega Workshops
A brief history of Roger Fry’s experimental Omega Workshops, which had a lasting influence on interior design in post First World War Britain.

Bloomsbury Group - web links The Bloomsbury Group and War
An essay on the largely pacifist and internationalist stance taken by Bloomsbury Group members towards the First World War.

Bloomsbury Group web links Tate Gallery Archive Journeys: Bloomsbury
Mini web site featuring photos, paintings, a timeline, sub-sections on the Omega Workshops, Roger Fry, and Duncan Grant, and biographical notes.

Bloomsbury Group - web links Bloomsbury: Books, Art and Design
Exhibition of paintings, designs, and ceramics at Toronto University featuring Hogarth Press, Vanessa Bell, Dora Carrington, Quentin Bell, and Stephen Tomlin.

Bloomsbury Group - web links Blogging Woolf
A rich enthusiast site featuring news of events, exhibitions, new book reviews, relevant links, study resources, and anything related to Bloomsbury and Virginia Woolf

Bloomsbury Group - web links Hyper-Concordance to Virginia Woolf
Search the texts of all Woolf’s major works, and track down phrases, quotes, and even individual words in their original context.

Bloomsbury Group - web links A Mrs Dalloway Walk in London
An annotated description of Clarissa Dalloway’s walk from Westminster to Regent’s Park, with historical updates and a bibliography.

Bloomsbury Group - web links Women’s History Walk in Bloomsbury
Annotated tour of literary and political homes in Bloomsbury, including Gordon Square, University College, Bedford Square, Doughty Street, and Tavistock Square.

Bloomsbury Group - web links Virginia Woolf Society of Great Britain
News of events, regular bulletins, study materials, publications, and related links. Largely the work of Virginia Woolf specialist Stuart N. Clarke.

Bloomsbury Group - web links BBC Audio Essay – A Eulogy to Words
A charming sound recording of a BBC radio talk broadcast in 1937 – accompanied by a slideshow of photographs of Virginia Woolf.

Bloomsbury Group - web links A Family Photograph Albumn
Leslie Stephens’ collection of family photographs which became known as the Mausoleum Book, collected at Smith College – Massachusetts.

Bloomsbury Group - web links Bloomsbury at Duke University
A collection of book jacket covers, Fry’s Twelve Woodcuts, Strachey’s ‘Elizabeth and Essex’.

© Roy Johnson 2000-2014


  • Study Skills 2.0 (html)Study Skills 2.0

    Study Skills covers every aspect of study skills – reading, writing, research, revision, exams, and even presentations. Learn how to absorb information quickly. Study effectively by using good time management skills. How to digest books and summarise their contents. Suitable for all students in further and higher education. Runs in any Web browser. Latest version […]

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