Michael Delahoyde, PhD

Professor of English

Mansfield, “Her First Ball”

Literature
Delahoyde

Katherine Mansfield:
“Her First Ball”

A New Critical approach works well with this short story. The main question, automatically, involves the last couple sentences. What has happened? What does this ending mean? Opinions run the gamut from very positive upbeat readings (usually the majority) to rather grim ones (often difficult to articulate). The way to sort this through is to break it down. (There’s often a rankling about dissecting literature, but unlike the science classes’ frogs, one can put the victim back together in English class and it lives again.)

  • Identify the point of view.This is odder than it seems. We’ve got third-person limited (vs. omniscient) narration here. But why wouldn’t first-person be the better choice to make the experience more immediate to readers?
  • What is the term for this technique? “[A]way they bowled, past waltzing lampposts and fences and trees” (721); “A great quivering jet of gas lighted the ladies’ room. It couldn’t wait; it was dancing already” (722).More important than identifying the correct term and getting your four points on that junior high school English test is to see the purpose of these kinds of “personifications.” The animism and enchantment of the things around her serves to capture Leila’s zeal. It’s a kind of projection of her own uncontainable excitement.
  • So personification serves characterization, but what can be further said about the character Leila? Take, for example, the following: “She would remember for ever. It even gave her a pang to see her cousin Laurie throw away the wisps of tissue paper he pulled from the fastenings of his new gloves. She would like to have kept those wisps as a keepsake, as a remembrance” (721). Or: “In her excitement Leila felt that if there had been time, if it hadn’t been impossible, she couldn’t have helped crying because she was an only child, and no brother had ever said ‘Twig?’ to her” (721).This begins to answer the first question about point of view. Obviously Leila is naive, and Mansfield wants to create different levels of awareness between Leila and us — something not very easy with first-person narration where we are apt to experience things with the narrator, not view the events from a more privileged perspective. We see, but Leila can’t, the absurdity of her over-romaticizings noted above. She is too charmed by it all to perceive, as we can, the ludicrousness of statements such as, “Aren’t there any invisible hairpins? … How most extraordinary! I can’t see a single invisible hairpin” (722).

The more crucial interpretive questions emerge from the material we encounter after the above aspects of the story are established.

  • It seems an important question to ask what the bald, fat man’s motivation is? Is he being malicious, facetious, or just mindlessly thinking out loud? Did he target Leila? And for what?
  • Whatever the case, his bitter assessment of the life and the dance (archetypally a metaphor for life already) has a deflating effect on Leila. But how are we to take the ending?Many readers determine that Leila’s youthful, upbeat spirit triumphs in the end despite the attempts of the fat man to discourage and depress her. We leave her dancing again and not even recognizing the man. But what has changed between the earlier pages and the last sentences?
  • The final perspective here involves just that: perspective. What has changed is that whereas earlier Leila had noticed every aspect of the experience in animated detail, now “all became one beautiful flying wheel” (724), a blur, one might say. And not recognizing the fat man seems slightly grim, no? Leila has gone from hyperconsciousness, however dorky, to semi-consciousness, never preferable. We catch her at the end of the story in the process of fulfilling the fat man’s prophecies: she is now unthinkingly caught up in the routine; and she is losing her personality, which means here her perspective.


    Works Consulted

    Kobler, J.F. Katherine Mansfield: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1990.

    Mansfield, Katherine. “Her First Ball.” Classic Short Fiction. Ed. Charles H. Bonner. Engelwood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1986. 721-725.

    Parkin-Gounelas, Ruth. Fictions of the Female Self: Charlotte Brontë, Olive Schreiner, Katherine Mansfield. NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1991.

    Literature