“The Garden Party” opens with frantic preparations being made. The cloudless summer day is perfect for the garden party at the home of Sheridan family. Before breakfast ends, four workmen arrive to set up the marquee. Because Meg has just washed her hair and Jose is still in her petticoat, Mrs. Sheridan assigns the task of supervising the men to Laura. Taking a piece of buttered bread with her, Laura goes outside to begin her task.
The protagonist, Laura, is an idealistic and sensitive young girl. She is surrounded by her more conventional family: her sister, Jose, who, as the narrator tells us, “loved giving orders to servants”; her mother, Mrs. Sheridan, a shallow old woman whose world consists of having enough canna lilies; her father, a businessman; and her brother, Laurie, to whom she feels most similar in feeling and ideals.
When she suggests that the men–all smiling and quite friendly–set up the marquee on the lily lawn, a fat man asks her. “You want to put it somewhere where it’ll give you a bang slap in the eye.” Laura wonders whether it is respectful of a laborer to speak to a girl of her upbringing in the simple language of the common people.
Another man suggests placing the marquee against the karaka trees. Laura dislikes the idea of hiding the broad leaves and yellow fruit of the karakas, but the workmen are already heading toward them with the staves and rolls of canvas. She is impressed that one workman stops to smell purple. She considers that she would get along well with these simple workmen and wouldn’t let class distinctions get in the way.
After sometimes later a voice from the house calls Laura to the phone, so she goes back across the lawn, up the steps, across the veranda, and into the hallway. There she found her father and brother Laurie who are about to leave for work. Laurie asks her to press a coat for him before the party. On the phone is her friend Kitty Maitland. They chat and agree to have lunch together. After hanging up, Laura delights in the busy sounds of the house.
A man then informs everyone that a young cart driver was killed that morning when his horse reared on Hawke Street. His last name was Scott, and he had lived in a cottage just down the road from the Sheridans in a settlement of commoners. He left a wife and five children.
Hearing this Laura feels pity to the man and she thinks the atmosphere is negotiated. Struck by the inappropriateness of throwing a garden party when a neighbor has been killed, Laura immediately suggests that they cancel the party. The rest of the story is structured around Laura’s understanding of her concern for the dead laborer and her family’s reactions to his demise. Laura attempts to convince Jose of the necessity of canceling the party. Jose’s response is indicative of the family’s overall view of the impoverished laborers. She chastises Laura for her desire to cancel the party, saying, ‘‘you won’t bring a drunken workman back to life by being sentimental.’’
But her mother and all of the members of her family disagree with her. She says, “It’s not very sympathetic to spoil everybody’s enjoyment as you’re doing now,” So, Laura goes to her room. But when she glimpses “this charming girl in the mirror, in her black hat trimmed with gold daisies, and a long black velvet ribbon,” she wonders whether her mother is right. Yes, she decides, her mother is right.
…After lunch the band members arrive, all wearing green coats. When Laurie arrives and heads toward his room to dress, Laura thinks again about the accident and calls to him when he is halfway upstairs to tell him about it. He turns and looks at his sister. .A short while later; the guests begin arriving, the band starts playing, and people shake hands and kiss cheeks. Everyone who greets Laura tells her how striking she looks and how becoming her hat is.
The hired waiters serve tea and passion-fruit ices, the band plays on, and “the perfect afternoon slowly ripened, slowly faded, slowly its petals closed.” The party had gone perfectly. Everyone gathers in the marquee. While eating a sandwich, Mr. Sheridan talks about the “beastly accident,” saying that the victim “leaves a wife and half a dozen kiddies.” Seeing all the leftover food–sandwiches, cream puffs, cakes–Mrs. Sheridan suggests Laura to send it down to the family.
…….Laura walks down the road. As she enters the run-down neighborhood, children play in doorways, men lean on fences, and women in shawls hurry hither and thither. She wishes she hadn’t come. At one house, “a dark knot of people” were standing outside. Laura, nervous, asks a woman whether it is Mrs. Scott’s house. Then a woman invites her into the house. Laura just wants to leave the basket, but the woman leads her into a small kitchen. Laura observes that there lay a young man, fast asleep – sleeping so soundly, so deeply, that he was far, far away from them both. He was dreaming. Never wake him up again. His head was sunk in the pillow, his eyes were closed; they were blind under the closed eyelids. He was far from all the things. She leaves immediately. On the way, home Laurie comes toward her and says their mother was beginning to worry. But Laura, though crying, says everything went well and begins asking a question that she can’t finish: “Isn’t life– isn’t life?” Her brother understands, saying, “Isn’t it, darling?”