The Singing Lesson

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  • Q1

    Critically analyse the story, ‘The Singing Lesson’, by Katherine Mansfield.


    ‘The singing lesson’ is a short story written in the third person from a female perspective. Katherine Mansfield concentrates on the woman at work and the ordeal she goes through in her mundane life. In an all-female environment, an academic setting the plot is perfect in the story.

    The title, ‘The singing lesson’ is appropriate because the songs sung by the girls in the music hall depict the mood of Miss Meadows, the protagonist. Her inner turmoil is expressed through the choice of song she makes in the class. The girls start singing ‘a lament’. Every note in the song is a sigh, a sob, a groan of awful mournfulness.

    The short story is an excellent example of the author’s unique talent for realistically capturing a moment in time. Katherine is noted for her preference for a woman’s point of view and she wonderfully expresses the feelings of the protagonist. The environment created in the story is like a mirror that reflects the emotions of the characters.

    The characters Miss Meadows, the Science Mistress and Basil are all middle class people. They tend to cause nothing but indifference. The complex personalities of the characters are brought through apt symbols. The imagery of colours, plants, flowers to depict the mood of the characters is commendable.

    Basil demonstrates that he did not have the greatness to understand love and to be selfless. He rather didn’t have the mental structure to be engaged or he was not mature enough to take a decision in his life. He is shown as a confused man. He is impulsive and selfish. He is compared to the mythological creature basilisk which was an unbelievable kind of snake. He appeared like the snake that could kill with his breath, stare or physical contact. Basil had done the same thing through his letter. He scratched the word ‘disgust’ and wrote ‘regret’ in its place. These words hurt Miss Meadows so much that she was shattered to the core.

    On the contrary, Miss Meadows being five years elder to him is calm and composed even after reading the letter that had shattered all her dreams. She tries hard to hide her feelings but the choice of song conveys her mood to the readers.

    Towards the end of the story, the telegram sent by Basil proves that he is very impulsive and a confused man. He asks her to forget about the letter. He signals that they have to plan their wedding by informing her that he had bought a hat-stand.

    After receiving the telegram, Miss Meadows is extremely elated and again her happiness is reflected in the choice of song. She asks the girls to sing a happier song. She is so overwhelmed with the news that she starts singing the song along with the girls.

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  • Q2

    ‘The Singing Lesson’, by Katherine Mansfield is well written with the use of apt symbols to describe the characters and the environment in the story. Illustrate with examples.


    The title, ‘The Singing Lesson’ is suggestive and apt. It might mean a class where pupils learn how to sing.The other perception of music is the music of life. Miss Meadows’ allows her inner turmoil to influence not only her song choices but the interpretation of the song, a lament. In the end when she receives Basil’s apology, her mood changes and she is happy and joyful. The song selected by her again reflects her mood. She selects a happier song and sings along with the other girls which symbolises her return to happiness.

    The name of the protagonist Miss Meadows means green fields which symbolises fertility, happiness and prosperity. She resembles Demeter, the Greek goddess of earth, harvest, agriculture and fertility. She is happy towards the end of the story. She is also compared to the gods of Olympus in Greek mythology. She has human attitudes and defects. She is susceptible to suffer with the changes of fortune in life and she can make use of her power indiscriminately against the weaker and more vulnerable people to overflow her pain, hate or joy.

    In the story, Basil the fiancé of Miss Meadows is associated with the mythological creature ‘basilisk’ which was an unbelievable kind of snake. He appeared like the snake that could kill with his breath, stare or physical contact. Basil had done the same in the letter. He scratched the word ‘disgust’ and wrote ‘regret’ in its place. These words hurt Miss Meadows so much that she was shattered to the core.

    Miss Meadows’ physical description is not explained in detail in the story except that she wore a cap, a gown and carried a little baton in her hand. The baton symbolises the power and authority of Miss Meadows with which she asks the girls to sing accordingly. She used the baton and gave two sharp taps for silence.

    Chrysanthemum is a symbol of longevity and immortality. It is an autumn flower that hides and seeks. Miss Meadows ignores the Chrysanthemum brought by Mary, her pupil. It was a tradition which she followed for more than a year and a half. But that day, Miss Meadows ignored the flower. Mary was full of tears. The girls sing a lament which reflected the inner turmoil of Miss Meadows. Towards the end of the story, when she returns to her class with the good news that Basil was ready to marry her, she picks up the Chrysanthemum herself and hides her smile with the flower. She blushes with the good news and wants to hide it from the students. Now, that she is happy she asks the girls to sing a happier song. She joins the girls and sings the loudest of them all.

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  • Q3

    Discuss the theme of the story, ‘The Singing Lesson’ by Katherine Mansfield.


    The short story has a very simple plot. A despairing singing teacher, Miss Meadows, has to start her class. She has just received a letter from her fiancé, Basil. Having read the letter she concludes that their relationship has come to an end. While taking the class, she is lost in her own thoughts and the girls sing a lament.

    After a while she receives a telegram in the head mistresses’ office in which Basil apologizes for the letter and asks her to forget about it. The news changes her mood and she comes back joyfully. Shereturns to the class smiling and asks the girls to sing a happy song and joins them while singing.

    The theme of dejection, grief, reliance, appearance, desperation and cheerfulness is projected in the short story. The opening line of the story ‘With Despair- cold, sharp despair- buried deep in her heart like a knife’ reveals the sad tone of the story.

    The grief and pain experienced by Miss Meadows can be felt by the readers. The selection of song by Miss Meadows also tells the reader about the poignant pain she was going through. Every note of the song was a sigh, a sob, a groan of awful mournfulness.

    The second theme of reliance and appearance can be seen when the readers come to know the age of Miss Meadows and her fiancé, Basil. She was thirty and he was twenty-five. During those times, a woman in her thirties was considered to be old to get married.

    When Basil called off their wedding, she had the thought that she might never get married. She was reliant on Basil that he would marry her. She loved him truly and so trusted him. She never expected such a letter from Basil. She felt embarrassed to face the colleagues and the students after her wedding was called off.

    Towards the end of the story, when she receives a telegram from Basil in Miss Wyatt’s office, she concludes that the telegram is about the news of Basil committing suicide. Once she reads it, she blushes and tells Miss Wyatt that it was not a bad news. Basil had apologised and asked her to forget about the letter.

    He also informs her that he had purchased a hat-stand. She returns to her singing lesson in a cheerful mood. The music serves as her inner emotional outlet without having to divulge her private thoughts. Here, the theme of cheerfulness is depicted from the sudden change in the feelings of Miss Meadows. She asks the girls to sing a cheerful song and not be doleful. She sings along with them in the loudest voice which shows her happiness.

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  • Q4

    Describe the changing moods of Miss Meadows in the story ‘The Singing Lesson’.


    Miss Meadows is the protagonist in the story, ‘The Singing Lesson’. When the story begins, Miss Meadows is in a sad mood as she passes the cold corridors to take her first singing lesson of the day. Her heart is heavy as she recently received a letter from her fiancé, Basil. There is cold, sharp despair buried deep in her heart like a wicked knife. Her sad mood reflects in the choice of song she asks the girls to sing. Instead of a lesson of joy and excitement she starts the lesson of despair and frustration. This song reflects the agony of her heart. The turmoil within her is due to Basil’s choice of word in the letter. He had struck off the word ‘disgust’ and written ‘regret’. She is totally devastated at the choice of words done by Basil in the letter.

    She behaves in a rude manner with her favourite pupil, Mary Beazley who plays accompaniments on a piano. She does not accept the chrysanthemum brought by Mary for her. The agony in her heart reflects in the lament she selects for the girls to sing. The result of that lament is a sense of lifelessness which reflected her inner turmoil. In the whole scenario, the girls are unaware of the clear cause of her mood. The song serves as the emotional outlet of Miss Meadows’ emotions.

    Towards the end of the story, Miss Meadows receives a telegram from Basil. At first she shivers thinking that it might contain the news of Basil’s suicide. But when she reads the message her joy has no bounds. Basil apologises saying “Pay no attention to letter, must have been mad, bought hat-stand today.” The message changes Miss Meadows’ mood entirely. She is joyful and returns to her class on the wings of hope. Again the song she selects reflects her mood. She asks the girls to sing another song on page thirty two. She now scolds her class for singing without any expression. Asking them not to be doleful, she starts singing with them. Her voice is the loudest of them all which shows the happiness and excitement experienced by her.

    It is significant that Miss Meadows is in many ways describing how she is feeling, now that Basil has changed his mind. Having previously felt sad (and despair), she appears to have shifted to the other end of the spectrum (happiness). She had previously appeared to transfer her mood to her class (when they sang the lament), now again she appears to be attempting to do the same with her new song choice. There is also a possibility at the end of the story that Miss Meadows’ happiness has been triggered, not by Basil resuming their engagement but rather Miss Meadows’ awareness that she will not remain single.

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