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.)
"Her First Ball"
The more crucial interpretive questions emerge from the material we
encounter after the above aspects of the story are established.
- 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"
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
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).
- 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.
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