A Work of Art


Warner, Sylvia


Short Story


Sylvia Townsend Warner (1893-1978) was born in England but enjoyed tremendous popularity among American audiences by way of The New Yorker, which published over a hundred of her short stories. One of these, "A Work of Art," begins with Mrs. Bernstein, "a benefactress of immense weight." That immense weight is a problem in Mrs. Bernstein's view, since she believes giving should be done as quietly and anonymously as possible—which leads her to hire Fiona MacTavish, a local artist, to give money away for her. But Miss MacTavish has problems of her own with Mrs. Bernstein’s style of giving: the artist sees an enormous difference between "making people a trifle better off" and "making people better." Except, how in the world do you accomplish the latter? Is it by "doing something" for the beneficiaries, as Miss MacTavish suggests? A test case for the two women and their methods soon arrives in the stubbornly impoverished Mr. Herzen, and the plot thickens, raising questions with no easy answers about what people need and how best to serve them.


The Perfect Gift, ed. A. Kass (Indiana University Press, 2002)




Giving and ReceivingImpact and OutcomesMoney and WealthMotives and ValuesPoverty and Need

Big Questions

How do we know what a gift achieves?How much should I give? What, if anything, might limit my giving?What does good giving require?What makes a good gift?When I give, what do I expect in return? What do I receive?Who should we give to and why?How do we identify desired outcomes? Who decides?What impact matters most?What should our goals be? What is the best way to identify them?Is money a good gift?What do those with more owe to those with less?What is poverty, how should we respond to it?Do one’s motives for serving or giving matter? How?How do we know what someone needs?How should we respond to people and communities in need?Is ending poverty possible?Who is responsible for addressing poverty and why?

Sample Discussion Questions

  1. Why does Mrs. Bernstein only give money? Why is she opposed to ‘doing’?
  2. Why does Mrs. Bernstein hire Miss MacTavish to distribute the money she gives?
  3. What is the difference between ‘making people a trifle better off’ and ‘making people better’ that Miss MacTavish sees? Why is Mrs. Bernstein opposed to betterment?
  4. What does Mrs. Bernstein hope to accomplish by giving to Mr. Herzen? What does Miss MacTavish hope to accomplish by finding him a better place to live?
  5. How does Mr. Herzen react to the help that if offered to him? Why does he react this way?
  6. How should we respond to those who do not want our help?
  7. Should our goal in giving money ever be to improve people?
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