Katherine Mansfield was born in New Zealand where she lived for the first nineteen years of her life before moving to Britain. There she came under the influence of the Modernists like DH Lawrence and Virginia Woolf, both of whom she knew intimately. She schooled at Queen’s College in London along with her sisters and at the end of the schooling she moved back to New Zealand. But she was less than happy there and at the end of two years she went back to London, this time, permanently. She lived a very unconventional life, getting into relationships and marriages and out of them very quickly. She contracted tuberculosis in her early thirties and succumbed to the illness when she was 34.
The background of the story is a ball, the first one for the heroine, Leila. She looks at everything with a mixture of wonder and excitement. Nothing escapes her eye, including the wisps of tissue paper that her brother removes from his new gloves. She is at the ball with her cousins, the Sheridan girls who are experienced at this kind of thing. Balls were the highlight of the season and girls spent all the time planning for it. The story has a very feminine feel to it and the only male character that stands out to some extent is the older ‘fat man’. The balls were occasions when young women found future partners, so they were important dates in the social calendar.
‘Her First Ball’ is seen through Leila’s inexperienced eyes but as the evening wears on we see her becoming more knowledgeable and losing that feeling of wonder and excitement. Leila creates a fairyland where young women and men remain young and charming forever. She finds dark clouds blowing over the azure skies that she thinks will last forever, but resolutely believes that the fat man’s story with its touch of realism is not to be taken seriously. When the story ends, we find Leila swept away to another dance by another personable man. But this is not the Leila who arrived here couple of hours ago.
Themes (major and minor)
The main theme is the raw youth and inexperience of the heroine who is filled with unbearable excitement, who thinks that she is to have the time of her life at the ball. As the evening wears on, she grows up till she reaches the stage where she is ready to ignore the worldly wisdom of the fat man. Woven into this theme is the theme of the impermanence of youth. Mansfield has been called the “Keats of fiction” for the poetic language she uses and images of dewy beauty that does not last. Running alongside is the political theme dealing gender issues like lack of empowerment for women who are expected to just look lovely and kissable all the time. While painting the picture of middle age, the fat man says “because no one wants to kiss you now”. Leila treats this as a great tragedy and wonders whether the old man says this just to upset her.
The plot is razor thin. There are echoes of the Cinderella story here. A young girl arrives at her first ball waiting to be rushed off her feet by personable young men. She is captivated by the wonderful images that she sees around her: armloads of flowers, masses of lace and tulle, well coiffed hair and handsome men, eager to please and be pleased. Leila is at the threshold of life. Just when she begins to forget her diffidence and enjoy herself, comes the old man with his visions of middle age and drabness. For a while, Leila longs for familiar sights and sensations of her home in the country and wants the safety they signify, but that is momentary. Soon she succumbs to the attractions of youth.
Leila has just come from the country to attend her first ball. Filled with feverish excitement she can barely wait for the action to begin. The excitement is tempered by a touch of apprehension and diffidence. She is acutely aware of what is happening around and eagerly takes it all in. Sensations and images go fleeting by and snippets of conversation reach her ears. To be charming and be charmed is what everyone wants. Everything is brittle and superfluous and Leila is in danger of believing ‘this is reality’. The old man’s arrival is timed to perfection. His role is to inject a touch of realism into Leila and remove the rose tinted spectacles through which she views life. But that moment of unease passes and all is well in Leila’s world.
How the insulation around the lives of the upper middle class shuts out the harsh realities of life, then and now, is shown here by Katherine Mansfield. Life was considered one long party and a young woman’s life centered on looking desirable and marrying advantageously. All thoughts to the contrary were resolutely shut out. The voice of realism is the old man’s words, “Of course,” he said, “you can’t hope to last anything like as long as that….And your heart will ache, ache” – the fat man squeezed her closer still, as if he really was sorry for that poor heart –”because no one wants to kiss you now” and that, as though is the greatest tragedy of all.
The ball here is a symbol of decisive change in the central character; this is true of Leila as it was of Cinderella. The old man is a kind of a symbolic link to the story’s theme of the mutability of youth. He arrives at the critical moment and holds a mirror up to her of what awaits her: “Of course,” he said, “you can’t hope to last anything like as long as that. No-o,” said the fat man, “long before that you’ll be sitting up there on the stage, looking on, in your nice black velvet. And these pretty arms will have turned into little short fat ones,” See how sarcastically he refers to Leila as “Mademoiselle Twinkletoes,” enjoy the present for tomorrow may never come is what he seems to say.
Important vocabulary and Expression
We have to take the dance as a metaphor for life. When young Leila arrives at the ball, she is just an enthusiastic observer taking in large gulps of all that is happening around her. Soon she becomes an enthusiastic participant. The clarity of her observations seems to merge and the sharpness dulls,”The azaleas were separate flowers no longer; they were white and pink flags streaming together”. Life becomes a fast moving stream of images with no time to pause.
Literary devices used with examples
Katherine Mansfield frequently uses figurative language that gives a poetic feel to the story. Personifications abound: “Her first real partner was the cab”, “the waltzing lampposts and houses and fences and trees” The similes used add to the poetic feel. See how Leila talks about her ride in the cab: Resting her hand on one of the bolsters in the car, she thinks it was, “like the sleeve of an unknown young man’s dress suit”. The shoes that peep out from the long dresses are referred to thus: “Little satin shoes chased each other like birds.”