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English Composition 1

Sample ENG 1001 Essay on Mansfield's "Miss Brill"

"The End of an Illusion," written by Jamie Fast for an ENG 1001 class at IVCC, is an excellent essay on Katherine Mansfield's "Miss Brill." The essay is the winner of the 2003 Richard Publow Memorial Scholarship, and Jamie has given permission to a textbook publisher that has requested to include part of the essay in a English composition textbook.   

With Jamie's permission, the essay is copied below. The essay is outstanding, with strong organization and especially effective support and development of ideas. Jamie uses a sophisticated writing voice and demonstrates a mastery of English grammar, punctuation, and word-choice.

Notice in particular the support and development of ideas in the body paragraphs and the lengths of the body paragraphs. Each body paragraph is the substantial length of about 300 words and is well focused on the development of one main idea.

Just click the numbered links to read comments concerning some of the reasons why the essay is so good.


The End of an Illusion{1}

          In the short story "Miss Brill," penned by Katherine Mansfield in 1922, a Sunday afternoon is spent with an elderly woman during her weekly ritual of visiting a seaside park. The woman, Miss Brill, enjoys her habitual outing to hear the band play and soak in the atmosphere, but most of all she relishes the chance to sit in on the lives of others by listening and watching. Mansfield's "Miss Brill" illustrates the old woman's attempt to alleviate loneliness by creating an alternate reality for herself, yet she is ultimately forced to face the self-deception for what it truly is.{2}

          Miss Brill's ritual of visiting the park every Sunday helps her to cope with loneliness.{3} It is clear how much enjoyment the old woman derives from the simple activity as the narrator states, "Oh, how fascinating it was! How she enjoyed it! How she loved sitting [t]here, watching it all!" The weekly outing provides an opportunity for Miss Brill to place herself in the company of others and to leave behind "the little dark room" in which she lives. Miss Brill employs the tactics of listening and watching to passively include herself in the activities of the park crowd. She is expert at "sitting in other people's lives for just a minute" by eavesdropping. This habit of "listening as though she didn't listen" helps her to feel included. Being an avid people watcher, Miss Brill pays rapt attention to those who surround her. By the same care she takes in noticing others, she hopes that "no doubt somebody would have noticed if she hadn't been there" in attendance. This thought allows her to feel a sense of community with the strangers at the park. Miss Brill seizes every opportunity she can to imagine herself as having some connection with the individuals she observes in attempt to garner a sense of belonging. She even likens herself to being a part of the "family" that the band plays to. In effect, the weekly outing provides a means to escape the isolation felt in her solitary existence for a period of time by engaging herself in the happenings at the park. However, as Miss Brill observes and listens, she prefers to view her world through a proverbial set of rose colored glasses to protect herself from confronting the truth of her lonely existence.{4}

          Miss Brill alters her perception of reality to avoid facing unpleasant aspects of her life.{5} The first example of this is noted as she settles in on her "special" bench at the park and touches the fur stole surrounding her neck, and she is comforted by the fur's presence. She thinks of the pelt as more of a companionable pet as she considers that "she could have taken it off and laid it on her lap and stroked it." Ignoring reality, character and personality are imagined into the lifeless fur as she affectionately refers to the accessory as the "little rogue!" Another indication that Miss Brill skews her reality is seen in her perception of others versus herself. While spectating, Miss Brill observes the other elderly bench sitters who share the same ritual in coming to the park every Sunday to watch and listen. She does not recognize herself as being in the same category when she notices that the others "were odd, silent, nearly all old, and from the way they stared they looked as though they'd just come from dark little rooms." She refuses to see her own reflection in this mirror of elderly loners. In the same way, Miss Brill twists her perception as she begins to fancy herself being an "actress." The park setting becomes a stage, the band orchestrates interactions, and the crowd becomes the cast for the scene she imagines as being "exactly like a play." In using this method, she provides herself with a sense of inclusion, importance, and connection to the strangers that surround her. The idea of playing "a part" in the park "performance" allows her to fool herself into believing she has a purpose within the crowd. Unwittingly, she has set herself up to be confronted by the reality of her situation.{6}

          A series of events leads to Miss Brill's illusion being shattered and forces her to realize the self-deception.{7} As she watches on, Miss Brill strongly identifies with an elderly lady in a fur hat who is met by a gentleman. This second woman is thrilled at the chance for company and "was so pleased to see him-delighted!" The man veritably ignores the woman's excited chattering and even goes to the point of being rude. Having lit a cigarette, he "slowly breathed a great deep puff into her face, and even while she was still talking and laughing, flicked the match away and walked on." Miss Brill deeply empathizes with this woman as she transfers the humiliation and pain vicariously felt into the band's music that plays in the background. Miss Brill watches the woman's reaction and imagines that "even the band seemed to know what she was feeling and played more softly, played tenderly." Upon witnessing this scene, Miss Brill places herself into her "actress" mode to avoid vulnerability. In doing so, she is able to delude herself into believing that she is safely distanced from suffering the same hurt as the woman in the fur hat. This coping mechanism allows her to comfortably resume watching and listening, but she has also unknowingly set herself up to be emotionally wounded by a young couple that seat beside her. The young man refers to Miss Brill as "that stupid old thing" in his conversation with his girlfriend. He continues, knowing fully well Miss Brill is listening, by questioning, "'Why does she come here at all-who wants her? Why doesn't she keep her silly old mug at home?'" In an instant, the protective fortress of self-deception{8} that Miss Brill has carefully constructed comes crashing down around her. She is forced to realize that she is not an integral or important part of the crowd that surrounds her, regardless of what she has chosen to imagine.{9}

          Disheartened{10}, Miss Brill leaves the park to return to her "room like a cupboard." She does not even feel worthy enough to treat herself to the usual slice of honeycake purchased from the baker's on her way home. Although Miss Brill's attempts to skew reality serve a purpose for her in helping her to cope with the unpleasant reality of her circumstances, her system is not infallible. Miss Brill is able to deceive herself for a time into avoiding the fact of her loneliness by reframing her thoughts into perceptions that are less overwhelming to her, but she ultimately faces the cruel consequence of this tactic as she is forced to touch base with reality as a result of the insensitive remarks of the young man.{11} {12}

Essay copyright Jamie Fast, 2003.
Page copyright Randy Rambo, 2006.