Themes of “the Singing Lesson”


The Singing Lesson : Various themes 

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Question: Discuss various themes in the story”The Singing Lesson “by Katherine Mansfield.

Answer:  In ” the Singing Lesson” by Katherine Mansfield, the author has explored the theme of  – 

Despair and dejection, sadness, Appearance versus Reality, Reliance and Appearance, Desperation and Happiness and  music.

 Theme of  Despair and Dejection –

One of the most important themes of the story is that of despair and dejection. Indeed, from the opening line of the story it becomes clear to the reader that Mansfield is exploring the theme of despair – as Mansfield opens the story with line – 

“With despair – cold, sharp despair – buried deep in her heart like a knife.”

   This line is very significant as it not only sets the tone for the story but it also makes reader to get a sense of how deeply affected Miss Meadows is after she has read Basil’s letter.

       Further Miss Meadows “trod the cold corridors” while she headed towards the music hall. The cold corridors that she trod upon reflected her cold, despaired self. Her sadness was in stark contrast to the “gleeful excitement” of the girls in the school.

Miss Meadows’ utter hopelessness :

After reading Basil’s letter which told her that he would not be able to marry her, rendered Miss Meadows completely hopeless and dejected. She felt as if she were “bleeding to death”.
     She was so troubled from inside and sad that she ignored the yellow chrysanthemum given to her by Mary Beazley.

A Lament : 

Her  despair and dejection is also noticeable by the choice of song that Miss Meadows told the girls to sing – a lament. As the girls are singing the song, which was so mournful that ” every note was a sigh, a sob, a groan of awful mournfulness”,reflected her torn inner self and low spirits.
    The directions that she gave to the girls to use their expression and imagination while singing frightened them. Her instructions to “make that Drear sound as if a cold wind were blowing through it” and “then on the word ‘Away’, they must begin to die … fade……”  reflected her inner anguish.

Theme of Appearance and Reality

Although the theme of Appearance versus Reality is not reflected at the first glance and story appears to be about a music teacher in all girls school. But Mansfield bring out another important theme – 

In work environment :

The teachers outwardly appear to be quite friendly and cordial to each other, but there are rivalries among the faculty. This is evident from the exchange between the Science Mistress and Miss Meadows.
      The Science Mistress greeted Miss Meadows in “her sweet affected drawl”. She said Miss Meadows looked frozen with ” a mocking light”in her “blue eyes”. Miss Meadows gave a  “quick grimace” in response.
       Miss Meadows was worried that she would have to disappear when the news of her broken engagement became  public. She believed “she could never face the Science Mistress”.

Her relationship with Basil –

Miss Meadows is a thirty years old spinster – past marriageable age forma lady in those times.  She was surprised when Basil, five years younger, proposed to her. When people came to know about her engagement with Basil, a man five years younger to her , they were surprised. ” The Science Mistress would not believe it at first.” Even Miss Meadows herself considered it a miracle.

The theme of Reliance and Appearance 

Mansfield also appears to be exploring the theme of reliance and appearance. The reader is aware that Miss Meadows is  older than Basil – as the author quotes –“she was thirty Basil was twenty five.”

She wanted to get married to Basil, not for love or companionship but to be accepted in society. At the time the story was written, thirty  would have been viewed upon as old , when it came to a woman getting married.

     Miss Meadows was aware that in case they could not solemnise their marriage, she might not get another opportunity to marry  and as such is reliant on him to marry her. She relied on the prospective matrimony for the appearance of normalcy since being an old spinster was frowned upon.

      Thus Basil’s letter that he would not be able to her, tore her apart. She felt hopeless and sad and felt as if she were bleeding to death. 

“……bleeding to death, pierced to the heart, to the heart by such letter -“.

She was desperate to get married to Basil for her honour and grace, not for love or affection. She was not concerned by how much ( or little) Basil loved her, as she reflected – ” I don’t mind how much it is. Love me as little as you like.”

     She was ready to settle for a man who might not love her at all. She was so terrified at the idea of not getting married that she even considered to leave the school. She also decided not to face the Science Mistress or the girls ever if the news of her being single again came out.

      The institution of marriage seems weak in the story. It was through a letter that Basil broke off his relationship with her and reestablished it through a telegram. The idea of marrying and settling down filled him with  disgust.

       On the other hand, Miss Meadows was desperate to marry him, no matter what. As soon as she received the telegram from Basil that he was not calling off their marriage, she got excited and happy.

“She couldn’t take her eyes off the telegram.”

    The fact that Basil would still be marrying her was much more important to her than the fact that he might not love her. Miss Meadows was more concerned about how would she appear to other.

The theme of Desperation –

   Mansfield has also explored the theme of desperation in “The Singing Lesson”. The relationship between Basil and Miss Meadows was not constructed on the grounds of Love, affection and companionship. Miss Meadows was well aware of this fact and still she was desperate to marry him.
       She was not concerned by how much (or little) Basil may love her, Mansfield tells the reader through Miss Meadows thoughts – ” I don’t mind how much it is. Love me as little as you like.”
       This line clearly indicates that Miss Meadows didn’t care how little Basil loves her but it also suggests that she was ready to marry such man who may not love her at all.
       This suggests that Miss Meadows was desperate to get married at any cost. As she feared how she will be perceived by others, should she remain single.
         When she got the telegram from Basil and the engagement resumed, Miss Meadows became happy. This again suggests her desperation for marriage with Basil.

The theme of Music – 

Music is the central idea of the short story”the Singing Lesson “. Music is the main theme of the story around which all the drama takes place. Miss Meadows is a music teacher. She is broken inside due to her broken relationship with her fiance. Although she did not want to express her feelings to others but music became the instrument through which her pain, despair and inner turmoil revealed to the reader.
    She allowed her inner turmoil to influence her choice of song while she was teaching. She picked up ” A lament ” as the first song. She instructed her students to “sing it” “without expression”. The song was so mournful that – ” the willow trees outside ” “lost half their leaves”. The environment responded to the sad music.
    Even her students were so connected with the music that they began to feel her agony and pain. They ” began to feel positively frightened “. 
      As the sad music went on the class, the melancholy in Miss Meadows’ mind was accelerated, she asked her students to ” take it with expression “with making the “Drear sound as if a cold wind were blowing through it.”

       The depressing mood of the teacher transmitted to the students by means of  music. The music itself became successively depressing and the students instinctively picked up the mood of their teacher as a result. Here the music served as an emotional outlet for Miss Meadows without her divulging her private thoughts. 

    After the receipt of Basil’s telegram, Miss Meadows!was overwhelmed with joy and hope then the song she chose was a happy one. The music is now “warm, joyful and eager”.
   Music sets the mood of the story. The despair increased in intensity and then began to fade with ” voices began to die, to fade, to whisper….. to vanish.”

    Music stopped ,the door opened Miss Meadows was called for a telegram. The telegram changed her mood. After a brief interval the music was played again but this time it became “warm, joyful and eager”.


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