Life of Ma Parker By Katherine Mansfield

Outline the Story

The story ‘Life of Ma Parker‘ presents the tender and touching tale of Ma Parker who works as a domestic help and goes on weekly visit for this purpose to different house holds. She is a woman who has suffered a lot in her life. Hers has been a tale of continuous sufferings and hardships. But she has borne all her difficulties with courage. She has never complained and never broken down. Even in moments of acute pain, she has never wept. She always showed exceptional grit and courage in facing life’s challenges. But the death of her lovable grandson has been too severe a loss even for her. She sought a proper place to pour out her pain and agony through tears but the pity of it is that there is no such place for her and she has to keep her agony to herself.

She would walk unsteadily while working for a literary gentleman as a maid servant for half a crown only. Her sufferings started, first of all, as a kitchen-maid in a cellar in London where she had to bear mental torture from a cruel cook and finally as ‘help’ to a doctor.

Her marriage to a baker also proves to be burdensome. She gave birth to thirteen children. Seven of them died early, others either went wrong or went away to another country. Only her younger daughter remained with her. She couldn’t find any happiness and fulfillment in her family life. She had to struggle hard to bring up those children who survived. Her baker husband also died leaving her to struggle alone. The death of her last hope, that is, her grandson Lennie broke her completely from inside. While working, the loving memories of her grandson come to her mind again and again. But her busy life does not allow her any time or suitable place where she could open out her heart and weep. She never showed grief on her face but when in the end she wants to unburden her heart and cry, she cannot do so. Unfortunately, she could not find any suitable place where she could freely express her pent up emotions.

Summary of Life of Ma Parker

Ma Parker, an old woman, worked as a maid only for Tuesday in the house of a literary gentleman. When Ma Parker came on her weekly visit for house-cleaning, this literary gentleman asked her, after opening the door, about her grandson. She told him that he died the day before. This information shocked the literary gentleman who was in the middle of his breakfast. His dressing gown was shabby and he had a crumpled newspaper in one hand. In a superficial attempt to express his sympathy he asked her about the funeral. Ma Parker did not find it necessary to say anything in this regard and simply went to the kitchen to do her cleaning job. The gentleman recommenced his breakfast with a consoling thought that the old woman might have overcome the shock of losing her grandson and didn’t want any conversation on the subject.

Ma Parker put off her closely fitted hat, unhooked her old and overused jacket and after hanging both these things, tied her apron to get ready for the odd jobs. She started taking off her boots. Because of the stiff joints this was always a painful experience for her. But she had become so much used to pain and suffering that her face would become tense and drawn even before the painful act started. In spite of her external composure and unwillingness to discuss the subject, Ma Parker remembered her little grandson standing on her lap after his play. He would persuade her to give him a penny. She remembered how after a pretended reluctance, she would start feeling for the purse and would ask him what he would give her in return. The little child would laugh a little and pressed closer to her and say that he had nothing to give her. Ma Parker suddenly checked the flow of her memories from the past to present moment and started doing her menial job.

The literary gentleman’s kitchen was really in a mess. He used to empty the tea leaves into a jam jar and wipe over one or two forks on the roller towel when needed. He called his ‘system’ quite simple and used to wonder why people worried so much about housekeeping. He did nothing himself and left everything to be done by the maid to do the cleaning by coming once a week on Tuesdays for a fee of half a crown.

His house before being cleaned by the old woman would look like a huge dustbin with litters. Toast crusts, envelopes, cigarette ends, etc. would remain scattered on the floor. Ma Parker would feel no ill-will but pity the gentleman for not having anybody to take care of him. The window of the room was also dirty so that when any one looked outside through it the sky seemed to be shabby and the clouds appeared to be old and tattered with dark strains like tea leaves spread on them.

Ma Parker had lived a hard life. Even her neighbours admitted this. She left Stratfordon-Avon at the age of sixteen. Strangely enough she had never heard of Shakespeare until she heard the name in theatres. She started as a kitchen-maid in a cellar where the cook was very cruel. She was prohibited to go out. She was allowed to go upstairs only for prayers. The cook, a cruel woman, would not let her read letters from home and threw them away. Then she worked in a beedle which would provide her an opportunity to laugh. As her next job, she worked as a ‘help’ in a doctor’s house. After two years, she got married to a baker. This was also a very painful experience. She had thirteen children out whom seven died very early. Her husband was found to have consumption. He died and left Ma Parker to raise the remaining six children all by herself.

The old woman recalled the struggle she had in bringing up her six little children and manage everything by herself. When they started going to school, her sister-in-law came there. She, one day, fell down the steps and injured her spine. Ma Parker had to look after this new helpless woman who behaved and cried helplessly like another baby. Two of her children left her and fell into bad ways. Her two other sons went to live in another country. One joined army and left for India. Her youngest daughter, Ethel got married to a worthless waiter who soon died leaving behind a newly born son, Lennie, to be taken care of by Ma Parker.

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While remembering all her sorrowful past, she had cleaned the things. Once again, she shuts out her past memories. Her grandson Lennie was not strong and appeared like a girl. He had silver hair, blue eyes and a small, pale brown spot on one side of his nose. He was weak and Ma Parker tried her best to make his health better but she could not improve his health. Whatever the case might have been, he was the old woman’s only gift of nature that she loved and valued very much.

She heard the literary gentleman as he was ready to go for a walk. He told her that her half-crown was lying in the tray of the ink-stand. Before leaving, the man asked her if she threw cocoa last Tuesday. She replied in the negative but he said softly though firmly that he was dead sure that he left some cocoa in the tin. He asked Ma Parker to tell him before she threw anything. The literary gentleman was apparently careless but tried to make old Ma Parker feel that he knew about all the small things in the kitchen. The shallowness and obtuseness of the literary gentleman stands out in clear contrast to the inner warmth and humanity which Ma Parker has retained within her in spite of all her suffering and the difficulties she faced. After his departure, Ma Parker recommenced her job. She remembered Lennie and his sufferings. He had some disease of chest and could not get rid of it. When he coughed he was all sweat and his eyes would standout. When he did not cough, he would sit against the pillow, dumb struck. He felt pain within and this gave him a look of being offended.

Ma Parker could not bear any more the pain she felt inside her on thinking about Lennie and threw the bed-sheet over the bed in a hurry so that she could leave the room and find time to express her sorrow all by herself. She had faced odd turns of fortune throughout her life and never shed a tear. She always kept herself under perfect control. But now little Lennie’s death turned her emotional. Suddenly, she pinned on her hat, put on her jacket and walked out absent–mindedly, lost in thoughts. She was unaware of her destination. She found people passing her quickly without taking any note of her or caring for her sorrow. All at once, she felt like weeping over everything she had gone thorough.

She was unable to defer it any longer and wished to shed tears in order to gain her emotional balance. Unfortunately, she could not even weep at home or on a bench anywhere. She couldn’t weep in the gentleman’s flat or on the steps of a building because of one reason or the other. She could not find any suitable place where she could be all by herself and weep without disturbing or being disturbed by anybody. She looked up and down but without any hope of finding such a place. Her apron became a balloon because of the icy wind and then it also started raining. There was no place for Ma parker to weep and find some relief in this way. The wind and rain showed the indifferent nature of the world in which she had to live with her suffering bottled up within herself.

Short-Answer Questions

Question.1. ‘What’ll you give your gran?’ Ma Parker asked her grandson. What did he give her in return for the penny?

Answer. When she asked him what he would give her in return of the penny, the grandson of the old Ma Parker laughed shyly and embraced her more tightly. The grandmother could feel his eyelids touching and moving quickly against her cheek. He innocently replied that he had nothing to give her in return for the penny. Actually, he gave his grandmother the valuable gift of his warm and innocent love. No amount of money could match this gift.

Question.2. ‘…he could not understand why people made all this fuss about housekeeping.’ Explain the figure of speech used in this line.

Answer. There is structural irony in this line. In the line, the deluded literary gentleman’s view differs widely from the real circumstances. He was dressed shabbily and his house was littered with all kinds of garbage and looked like a huge dustbin and yet the literary gentleman said that he failed to understand why people considered housekeeping such a big problem. The actual meaning of the words is very different from what the speaker (the literary gentleman) intends to give them. The author conveys the real meaning indirectly without letting the speaker know about it. He says he has a very simple and effective solution. Actually, he has simply washed his hands of the whole problem instead of applying his mind to it.

Question.3. ‘Out of the smudgy little window you could see an immense expanse of sad-looking sky, and whenever there were clouds they looked worn, old clouds, frayed at the edges, with holes in them, or dark stains like tea.’ What light does this remark throw on the way the literary gentleman lived?

Answer. The literary gentleman lived in a shabby manner without giving any thought to cleanliness. He is indifferent to his surroundings and keeps the window-pane of his window in a very dirty condition. It seems he has never opened the window of his room in order to enjoy fresh air or see the beauty of the sky. Dirt and dust cover the window. That is why the sky looks sad and worn-out. The clouds look torn at the edges and seem to have holes because of the dirty patches on the glass of the window. The literary gentleman’s life is stuffy and stale and there is no neatness or freshness in it. Living in such a room even the natural scene looked sad and worn out. The literary gentleman was careless and did not keep the house clean and his way of life was disordered.

Question.4. Who was Ma Parker? Describe her daily routine?


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Character Sketch of Ma Parker

Answer. Ma Parker was an old woman who worked as a maid for the literary gentleman and cleaned his flat every Tuesday. She used to do odd jobs in the houses of people to make her living. She led a hard life and did not earn much. Her jacket was worn out and her joints had become stiff with old age and because of a poor diet.

Question.5. Was there any connection between Ma Parker and William Shakespeare? Did she ever learn about Shakespeare?

Answer. There was one connection between Ma Parker and William Shakespeare. Both of them were born in Stratford-on-Avon. At the age of sixteen Ma Parker left for London to earn a living for herself. Shakespeare had similarly come to London. But she had never heard about Shakespeare and did not know who he was. When anybody asked her about Shakespeare, she was unable to say anything. She had never heard his name earlier until she witnessed Shakespeare in the theatres.

Question.6. What was Ma Parker’s experience at her first workplace?

Answer. It was the job of a kitchen-maid in a cellar of a house. She was not permitted to go out of the house. She could go upstairs only for prayers. There was a cook who was a cruel woman. The cook would throw Ma Parker’s letters from home away because they made her dreamy. It was indeed a hard life where she was cut off from everybody and where nobody showed any affection for her.

Question.7. ‘It must be rather nice to be married to a baker!, said the literary gentleman. Was it really nice actually?

Answer. No, her marriage to a baker was not at all a nice or pleasant experience. She became the mother of thirteen children seven of whom died as babies. Her husband also died early because of tuberculosis. Her children left her in the lurch and her only hope, her grandson, also died in his early childhood. The reality of her marriage with a baker was very different from what the literary gentleman imagined it to be.

Question.8. ‘…And for five years Ma Parker had another baby – and such a one for crying!’ Who is referred to here and why in this manner?

Answer. Ma Parker was looking after her six children when her husband’s sister came to help her. After two months she fell down from steps and got her spine hurt. As a result, Ma Parker had to look after seven people including this invalid who was as helpless and dependent on her as her little children were. Her husband’s sister would cry of pain and had to be looked after just like a child. That is why the writer called her “another baby.”

Question.9. Did Ma Parker ever cry?

Answer. No, Ma Parker never let her tears come out of her eyes although she had had a tough and hard life. Her life had been a tale of sufferings and hardships. But these hardships couldn’t beat her power to fight against all odds. Her grit, courage and power to bear life’s challenges made her strong enough not to shed tears. But when she wanted to cry after her dear grandson’s death at an early age, she could not get an appropriate place to do so.

Question.10. List the main events in the life of Ma Parker.

Answer. Ma Parker came to London at the age of sixteen. She worked as a kitchen maid in the cellar of a big house. There were stiff restrictions on her. She could not move out and the cook was a cruel lady. She, then, worked as a ‘help’ to a doctor’s house. She had to work very hard here from early morning to late at night. Then she married a baker and had thirteen children. Seven of her children died as young babies. Her husband died leaving her to take care of her six children. She had also to look after her husband’s sister who had come to stay with her and lived as an invalid when two months after her arrival she fell down from the steps and hurt her spine. She had also to bear the pangs of being abandoned by her other children. She also had to bear the shock of the death of her grandson whom she loved very much. She had a lot of sufferings in her life.

Long-Answer Questions

Question.1. ‘She’s had a hard life, has Ma Parker.’ Describe Ma Parker’s life in the light of this comment. Or Give character Sketch of Ma Parker

Answer. “Life of Ma Parker” presents the story of Ma Parker, an old woman, who had led a “hard life.” Throughout her life, she had been a victim of adverse circumstances and odd turns of fortune. She started her job as a kitchen-maid in the cellar of a big house. Going out was strictly prohibited to her here and she could go upstairs only for her morning and evening prayers. The cook, a cruel woman used to snatch and throw away Ma Parker’s letters from home.

She worked next as a “help” in a doctor’s house where she would work from early morning to late at night. Her marriage with a baker also gave her plenty of pain. She gave birth to thirteen children. Out of them seven died as young babies. Soon, her husband also died. The rest of her children also deserted her and left her all alone. Only her younger daughter remained with her who lived with her as a young widow after her waiter husband died soon after her marriage. Her last hope was her grandson who also bade goodbye to this world at a very early age. The memories of her grandson kept on haunting her which made her life more miserable. When she wanted to cry, she could not find a suitable place to give vent to her pent up emotions. Thus, we see that Ma Parker’s life had been a poignant tale of misery and sufferings.

Question.2. What was the state of literary gentleman’s kitchen?

Answer. The literary gentleman was a careless person who would never care to keep his house properly clean and well-managed. His first appearance in a very shabby dressing gown with a crumpled newspaper in one hand is an indication of his careless and easy going nature. Except on Tuesday when Ma Parker would do all the odd jobs of cleaning up the mess in the kitchen and do his bed, he would do everything all by himself without taking care of cleanliness. He would empty the tea leaves into a jam jar and if the need arose, would wipe one or two dirty forks on the roller towel.

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That was how he used to keep his house. He claimed that his system of managing things was quite simple and he would wonder why people make so much fuss about housekeeping which was, in his opinion, a very simple and easy thing. It was simple and easy because he was careless and did not feel uneasy about the dirt and disorder in his kitchen. The floor was always littered with toast crusts, envelopes and cigarette ends. Ma Parker would never complain of anything and had no ill-will against that untidy and unmanaged house. She would perform her duties sincerely and keep everything in an apple-pie order.

Question.3. What do you know about Lennie, Ma Parker’s grandson?

Answer. Ma Parker who led a very hard and tough life had given birth to thirteen children. Seven had died when they were little babies. The rest abandoned their mother leaving her in the lurch. Only her youngest widowed daughter was with her. This girl had a small baby whose name was Lennie. Ma Parker was deeply attached to this grandson of hers. This was a lovable child and would gladden Ma Parker’s heart with his innocent and affectionate gestures. But he was of very weak health. He coughed and wheezed almost continuously because of a chest infection. Ma Parker’s youngest daughter Ethel had got married to a good-for-nothing little waitor who soon died because of ulcers. This was in the same year when little Lennie was born.

Lennie was so fair that people mistook him to be a girl. His curly hair were silvery fair. His eyes were blue and on one side of his nose, he had a small, pale brown spot. Ma Parker and Ethel had troubles in rearing the boy up. But notwithstanding what he was, he was grandmother’s loving boy. His voice was warm and affectionate. He used to demand money from his grandmother. He would coax her lovingly to get her favour. Ma Parker really felt broken-hearted when death took him away in his early childhood.

Question.4. Provide a character sketch of the literary gentleman.

Answer. The literary gentleman, at first instance, appeared in a very shabby dressing gown with a crumpled newspaper in one hand. It showed his lack of interest in personal cleanliness. He was equally careless in his house-keeping. His house was untidy and one could see toast crusts, envelopes, and cigarette ends, etc. scattered all around the floor of the kitchen. He would not clean his dirty forks and would wipe them out with towel only when he needed them. His ‘system’ was quite simple. He would tell his friends that he failed to understand why people made so much fuss about housekeeping. He was in need of a regular caretaker but appointed Ma Parker only for Tuesdays to do all these odd jobs.

He exhibited his vigilance when he asked the old woman about cocoa and said with conviction that he had left same in a tin. We also find that in his own careless way, he was kind and sympathetic. He felt shocked to hear about the death of Ma Parker’s grandson. He felt pity and sympathy for the old woman. “Life of Ma Parker” shows the careless and casual attitude of the literary gentleman combined with the other side of his personality which was that of being an easy-going, tender and kind-hearted man.

Question.5. Give reasons why Ma Parker could not cry (a) at home, (b) on a bench anywhere, (c) in the gentleman’s flat, (d) on some steps.

Answer. Ma Parker was an old woman who was strong enough and never cried in her life although she had had a lot of problems and hardships. She had been a witness to the death of seven children and the rest of her children had left her alone to suffer. When her last hope, her grandson died, she could not keep he earlier self-control and felt a strong urge to cry. But she could not cry at home because her daughter, Ethel was there and her breaking down before her might have frightened her. She could not shed tears on a bench anywhere because people would come and ask her all kinds of Questions about her crying. She could not go to the gentleman’s flat and cry there as it was a stranger’s house and she would feel uneasy about doing any such thing there. She could not sit on some steps and start weeping because some policeman might come and ask her all kinds of Questions about her being there and crying. She could not find any suitable place where she could be alone and weep without causing trouble to anybody or without feeling uneasy herself.

Question.6. How does the story end? Does this ending have any significance? What is the significance of the icy wind blowing out Ma Parker’s apron into a balloon and of the falling rain?

Answer. “Life of Ma Parker” is a poignant tale of a woman’s suffering and hardships. She was quite strong from inside and exhibited courage throughout her life. The death of her little grandson, however, finally broke her heart and she felt a strong urge to cry. Unfortunately, she could not find an appropriate place where she could weep by herself without getting noticed and disturbing others. The story ends on a note of a sufferings. Nature was indifferent and people were unconcerned. She felt that she was trapped in a harsh and inhospitable world. The expression “the icy wind blew out her apron into a balloon. And now it began to rain” is quite significant. It is symbolic of Ma Parker’s mind. The apron becoming a balloon is symbolic of the increasing pressure of her pent up emotions. She could not have cathartic relief because the circumstances became unfavourable and did not let her shed tears. Neither the icy wind nor the rain could provide her solace. This expression shows that nature was indifferent towards the suffering of Ma Parker. Apart from the pressure of grief on her heart which might make it burst like a balloon, the wind and rain also indicate indifference and apathy of the world around Ma Parker. The wind and rain also symbolize death. The apron spread out like a balloon gives us an idea of Ma Parker growing wings like an angel and flying away to the higher region after her death. Only death could provide her freedom and relief.

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