A Cup of Tea Summary and Analysis: Katherine Mansfield

Read our detailed notes below on the short story A Cup of Tea by Katherine Mansfield. Our notes cover A Cup of Tea summary, themes, characters, and analysis.

A Cup of Tea Introduction:

This 1922 story “a cup of tea” is written by Katherine Mansfield which holds class consciousness and materialism as its pivot point. Stunningly well characterized and magnificently portrayed against its plain title, this story, remarkably presents a crystal clear image of class distinction and ones mad fondness towards materialism. It’s just the same as “the doll’s house” and “the garden party” as a matter of fact that these stories also reflect upon the same issue of class distinction. Mansfield also tried to reflect upon the noble act of philanthropy and how people fancy this act to be the cause of ascension for their moral values among their social circle.

Background:

This story was written on 11th of January back in the early 1922, which was first published in the famous “Story-Teller” magazine and later appeared in Mansfield’s short story collection “The Dove’s Nest”. The story associates with the deplorable conditions of New Zealand at the time when it used to be a British Colony. The trends of class distinction were at its peak, a noticeable issue which needed to be brought forward influenced Mansfield to pen it down.

A Cup of Tea Summary:

Rosemary Fell, a very rich and well off woman, who has been married for two years to a very rich and devoted man Mr. Philips Fell, spends her day out shopping at some west corners of London in the finest of shops. She visits an ingratiating antique dealer’s shop that shows her a beautiful small blue velvet box. Rosemary is taken by the beauty of the creamy piece of art but decides not to buy it and asks the shopkeeper to save it for her.
Out she comes from the shop into the rain and as she reaches towards the car a girl approaches her asking her to pay for the price of a cup of tea. Astonished, Rosemary asks the girl to come home with her for tea, finding it an opportunity of adventure and experience, just like she read in books and stories of Dostoevsky. She wanted to show the girl that rich people do posses mercy. The girl agrees apart from her great fears to ride with Rosemary in her car.
As they reach the house, Rosemary takes the poor girl to her room and asks her to sit by the fire. She helps her take off her coat and hat and tries to sooth her. As she tries to proceed further, the girl cries out that she can’t stand it anymore fearing that she will faint out of hunger. Rosemary hurriedly orders tea.

The girl is provided with tea and sandwiches while Rosemary lights a cigarette. Keen to know the story of the girl, Rosemary starts up a conversation with her which is unintentionally interrupted by her husband. He is surprised to see the stranger in the room and asks his wife to talk to him privately.

As they enter the library, Philips begins to inquire about the matter. To this Rosemary replies that she is just helping the poor lady whom she picked p from the street. Her husband tries to tell her that she can’t have a stranger in the house. Facing a refusal Philips points out that the lady is remarkably pretty giving a rise to insecurities of Rosemary.

Rosemary leaves the library and enters the study room from where she picks up some cash. She returns to her room and hands over the money to the poor girl making her leave the house.

After the girl leaves the house Rosemary joins Philips back in the library and asks him if she could buy the velvet box which wasn’t what she wished to ask. After a pause, she whispers, “Am I pretty?”

  • Rising action can be observed when Rosemary decides to take the poor girl home with her.
  • Story reaches its climax when they reach home and the girl is served with tea and then both the ladies are interrupted by the arrival of Philips.
  • Falling action takes place s rosemary walks to the library with Philips.
  • There is a twist in the plot at the time of Philips confession about the beauty of Miss Smith resulting in the change of Rosemary’s attitude towards the girl.
  • The story ends with a doubtful question raised by Rosemary regarding her beauty.

A Cup of Tea Themes:

The main theme of the story is class distinction and materialism. This story pictures the differential behaviour of the upper class towards the lower class through the character of Rosemary. Her attitude and behavior gives quite a clear image of the mentality possessed by discriminating elites. Materialism is rigidly followed by the upper class. The more they have, the more they want and they don’t want anything ordinary, they want the best of all, the extraordinary, unaffordable by the commons. Their want for more never dies. The velvet box in the story symbolizes materialism while the cup of tea symbolizes the equal needs and requirements of the rich and the poor.

A Cup of Tea Characters:

This story is comprised of these few prominent characters.

ROSEMARY FELL:

A socially poised, rich married woman with a devoted and loving husband, who has a great lifestyle. She is well-dressed and well off with all the luxuries she desires for. Her interest is mainly of reading books, always indulged and above all greatly inspired by the characters and their adventurous lives which she comes across in the stories. Her inspirational interest can be judged from the decision she takes when she interacts with a poor soul called Miss Smith by taking her home with a mere thought of it being an adventure for her recalling the stories of Dostoevsky. Apart from this possession and insecurity can be sensed in her character.

PHILIPS FELL:

Husband of Rosemary, is in fact one of the richest persons of his society. He loves his wife devotedly and cares for her a lot. He calls Miss Smith pretty much to his wife’s chagrin, just to make her send Miss Smith away as she refuses to do so when he asks her in the first place even though making his wife feel insecure about herself and her beauty.

MISS SMITH:

She is a lean and thin poor girl of just the age of Rosemary. She can’t even afford a single cup of tea and comes to ask Rosemary to pay her the price of a cup of tea. She is an odd person, frightened and confused. She is shocked when Rosemary asks her to have a cup of tea with her at her home. In Mr. Philips’ point of view Miss Smith is very attractive and pretty.

THE SHOPKEEPER:

The owner of a very beautiful antique ornaments shop which in fact was one of Rosemary’s favorite shops. He would always be looking forward to have Rosemary at his shop and always saving a lovely piece of art for her only just like he had been saving the eye catching blue velvet box.

A Cup of Tea Analysis:

TITTLE OF THE STORY:

The plain and ordinary title of the story has the tendency to gravitate readers towards it, as one can wonder what a title so simple can hold inside it. The charm of the story exceeds the imagination of the reader as one comes across the contents of the story, finely sketched against the plain title of the story.
The title of the story is relatable to the story at the point when a poor girl from the story asks a rich woman to pay her the price of a cup of tea.

SETTING OF THE STORY:

The story setting takes place in the early 1900’s back in Britain. The story begins with the shopping scenario of Rosemary stopping at florist’s shop and afterwards visiting the antique ornament shop till darkness strikes. It’s where she meets poor Miss Smith outside the shop.

LITERARY SIGNIFICANCE OF THE STORY:

The story is mainly written in the modernist mode without a set structure. Many shifts and changes in the narratives can be observed.

  • NARRATIVE VOICE:

The literary quality drives in from the skillful manner in which the authoress has created a fluid narrative voice which combines finely by engaging with her subject.

  • NARRATIVE MODE:

The story takes a start in the third person narrative with many observable shifts afterwards, establishing a conversational style.