Her First Ball by Katherine Mansfield
In Her First Ball by Katherine Mansfield we have the theme of experience, youth, independence, reliance and gender. Taken from her The Garden Party and Other Stories collection the story is narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator and from the beginning of the story Mansfield appears to be exploring the theme of experience (or rather the lack of it). While Leila is sitting in the cab the reader discovers that she has never been to a ball before. How inexperienced Leila actually is (when it comes to the ball) is also noticeable when Leila arrives at the ball and Laura tells her ‘hold on to me, Leila; you’ll get lost.’ Mansfield also appears to be further exploring the theme of experience (or again the lack of it) while Leila is in the ladies’ room. She is unsure of whether she is to take a programme or not. Mansfield telling the reader that she (Leila) wanted to ask someone ‘Am I meant to have one too?’ By highlighting Leila’s inexperience Mansfield may be suggesting that Leila is reliant on others, particularly her older cousins.
Mansfield also appears to be exploring gender roles in the story. Through the introduction of the older man and what he tells Leila, Mansfield may be suggesting that (at the time of writing) there were perceptions about what the role of the female may have been. It appears that the older man is suggesting to Leila that as she gets older, no longer will she be dancing at balls rather she will become a chaperone. It may also be significant that the older man’s opinion is based on what Leila may look like when she is older. He tells Leila that her ‘pretty arms will have turned into little short fat ones.’ It is possible that Mansfield is suggesting that the older man (representing the male) is driven by image, particularly the image of a female and that as Leila grows older no longer will she have the beauty that is usually associated with youth and as such no one will wish to dance with her.
It is also interesting that the older man, despite his age, continues to dance. If anything this appears to be somewhat hypocritical which may be the point that Mansfield is trying to make. Again at the time of writing Mansfield may have been suggesting the lack of equality that existed between men and women. It is also possible that Mansfield is highlighting the heavy reliance (and lack of independence) that existed for women at the time the story was written. Throughout the story Leila is reliant on being asked to dance. There appears to be a set rule at the ball in whereby it is up to the male to ask the female to dance, which would place an emphasis on the roles that each gender played (again at the time of writing).
There is also some symbolism in the story which is worth noting. Mansfield appears to be using bright colours to symbolise youth. There is Jose’s long loop of amber hair, Laura’s white fur and pink velvet coat, Laurie’s tissue paper (white), the marble-white gloves worn by the girls at the ball and Leila’s pink satin feet, highlighted when she is sitting down. By using bright colours, particularly pink, which is a warm colour, Mansfield may also be placing an emphasis on the excitement that Leila and the other girls at the ball feel. Mansfield also appears to be using darker colours to symbolise or highlight the idea of experience. The chaperones, who would be older than the girls at the ball, are described as being darkly dressed. The older man also tells Leila that in time (as she gets older and more experienced) she will be, like the chaperones, standing on stage dressed in black velvet and holding a black bony fan. Mansfield also appears to be using imagery (waltzing lamp-posts) at the beginning of the story to highlight to the reader the excitement that Leila feels about attending her first ball.
The ending of the story is also interesting as it is ambiguous. Despite having previously been upset by the older man’s remarks about what may eventually happen her, at the end of the story Leila appears to be unaffected. Mansfield telling the reader that Leila, when the older man bumps into her and her dancing partner ‘smiled at him more radiantly than ever. She didn’t even recognize him again.’ This line may be important as it can suggest several things. It is possible that Leila, through her youth and inexperience remains excited about her first ball, regardless of what the older man has said to her. It is also possible, as some critics might argue, that Mansfield may be suggesting that Leila lacks the maturity to fully understand the world around her. However it is also possible that Mansfield may be suggesting that Leila, regardless of what the older man has said to her, possesses an inner strength to overcome the older man’s negative comments. Due to her young age, Leila is free from the cynicism (about life) that is usually associated with those who are older.