Summary And Analysis of Miss Brill – Literature Essay
The protagonists of two stories constantly face the challenge of isolation. Miss Brill in Katherine Mansfield’s “Miss Brill” and Zoe in Lorrie Moore’s “You’re Ugly Too” both face a similar circumstance of isolation,
but both women deal with their isolation in very different ways.
The protagonists of “Miss Brill” and “You’re Ugly Too” share common occurrences related to their isolation. Both women are educators that are displaced from their place of origin: Miss Brill teaches English in France but is originally from New Zealand, and Zoe Hendricks is a history teacher in rural Illinois originally from the Northeast United States. Neither Miss Brill nor Zoe are able to build any kind of meaningful relationships with their students or peers. It is ambiguously illustrated in “Miss Brill” that Miss Brill does not relate to her students: “…She had a queer, shy feeling at telling her English pupils how she spent her Sunday afternoons” (137). It is more directly stated how Zoe relates to her students. “Once she had pampered her students, singing theme songs, letting them call her at home, even, and ask personal questions. Now she was losing sympathy. They were beginning to seem different” (306) It is only implied in “Miss Brill” that the protagonist does not have any close friends, as all of her activities are done alone and with great attention to self. For Zoe, however, it is made very clear that she has no meaningful relationships. She had gone out on dates with local men, but they all ended in astrangement as she “came teo realize that all men, deep down, wanted Heidi,” (308) the ideal woman. The isolation caused by displacement and the lack of connection with the locals is the basis for isolation that both characters share, but the manner in how each character copes with isolation is completely different.
Miss Brill copes with her isolation by completely deluding herself and ignoring that she is isolated. Every Sunday, Mis Brill emerges from her “room like a cupboard” (138) to involve herself in as many lives as she possibly can. Miss Brills routine involves her strolling through the Jardins Publiques, listening to the band that plays under the gazebo, watching people, eavesdropping, and returning home after buying an almond cake. Miss Brill’s primary activity on these Sunday walks is eavesdropping on people, as “she had become really quite expert, she thought, at litening as though she didn’t listen, at sitting in other people’s lives just for a minute while they talked around her” (135). The only contact Miss Brill has with people besides her pupils is through eavesdropping. Though there is no communication directly to the individuals she observes, Miss Brill convinces herself that she has a significant relationship with them. To Miss Brill, “it was exactly like a play… They were all on stage. They weren’t only the audience, not only looking on; they were acting. Even she had a part and came every Sunday. No doubt somebody would have noticed if she hadn’t been there; she was part of the performance after all” (137) . This is the essence of Miss Brill’s delusion. There is absolutely no meaningful contact with the people she is actually very detached from, but she convinces herslef that she is an important feature in their lives. Miss Brill not only ignores her isolation, but she creates an escapist fantasy to validate her life.
Zoe Hendricks copes with her isolation in a very different manner. She is keenly aware of her isolation, as she realized that she “lived for the mail, for the postman, for the handsome blue jay… She also watched television until all hours and had her set in the bedroom, a bad sign” (307) She repeated Zoe is very confrontational with her isolation and uses her sense of humor to make light of the situation. Unlike Miss Brill, she is very aware how detached she is from her surrounding world. Her classroom behavior is an important illustration of the way she uses humor to cope with her detachment. A student once asked her what perfume she was wearing, and Zoe replied “room freshener” (305) Another time, she “skipped into her lecture hall singing ‘Getting to Know You’ – both verses” (304-305). Living in Illinois “makes [her] sarcastic to be here” (305). Zoe is completely detached from her students, acting like “[her opinion is worth more than everbody else’s in the class” (306). Zoe had involved herslf in three romantic relationships since coming to Illinois. Each time, when Zoe realized that she had nothing in common with her suitors, she escaped from them by using humor to sabotage the relationship. Once, during a double date, Zoe told an absurd story about a talking dog. After that date, the man she was dating never called again. When Zoe is at her sister’s Halloween party, she has a conversation with a man that her sister arranged for her to meet. When Zoe realizes that she does not want to have anything to do with this man, she pushes him away. “Her final act of pushing Earl against the balcony railing… is little more than a physical manifestation of what she had been doing to him the entire evening through dialogue: pushing him, pushing him, and pushing him some more until he metaphorically and literally has no place left to go” (White). Zoe cannot connect with her students, and she cannot connect with men she dates. Still, she is aware of her isolation and confronts it, however unsuccessful. “In effect, Hendricks is a character who suffers from loneliness but does not have the communication or social skills to escape that state, a predicament that is, of course, self-generating: the more she fails to communicate, the lonelier she gets” (White).
Neither Mansfield’s Miss Brill nor Moore’s Zoe Hendricks can escape their isolation that is caused by similar circumstances: Both women, displaced from their place of origin, find themselves in a plae where they cannot connect to their students nor to their peers. The circumstances are the same, but the women cope with isolation in opposite ways. Miss Brill creates a delusion that she is an important part of the lives of the people she observes. She is completely unaware of how others view her until she has an epiphany at the end of the story. Zoe, on the other hand, is well aware of how she is viewed and copes with her isolation in a very confrontational way. In effect, she magnifies the cause for her isolation by using humor and sarcasm to distance her students and peers from her.
Thesis Statement: Miss Brill in Katherine Mansfield’s “Miss Brill” and Zoe in Lorrie Moore’s “You’re Ugly Too” both face a similar circumstance of isolation, but both women deal with their isolation in very different ways
I. There are similarities between the two characters.
A. Both women are displaced from their place of origin – Miss Brill lives in France and is originally from New Zealand, and Zoe Hendricks lives in Illinois but is originally from Maryland.
B. Both women are teachers and cannot connect with their students
C. Neither women form or sustain any meaningful personal relationships.
II. Miss Brill deals with isolation by deluding herself
A. She eavesdrops on people in the park and comes to believe that she has a place in their lives
B. She believes that everyone is acting on stage and that she is an integral part of the performance.
C. Miss Brill is initially unaware of her detachment from her students.
III. Zoe Hendricks deals with her isolation by using sarcasm and humor to magnify her isolation
A. Zoe is very aware that she is detached from her students and peers.
B. She does not have anything in common with her students so she takes an aloof, sarcastic attitude in the classroom.
C. She ends her romantic relationships by sabotaging them with humor.
Mansfield, Katherine. “Miss Brill” Perrine’s Story and Structure Ed. Thomas R. Arp and Greg Johnson. 10th edition. Boston: Thomson Heinle, 2002.
Moore, Lorrie. “You’re Ugly, Too” Perrine’s Story and Structure Ed. Thomas R. Arp and Greg Johnson. 10th edition. Boston: Thomson Heinle, 2002.
White, Mark. “Critical Essay On ‘You’re Ugly, Too'”. Short Stories for Students, Vol. 19, Gale, 2004. Literature Resource Center. Gale. Citrus College Lib., Glendora, CA. 8 Nov. 2003