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Katherine Mansfield's "Her First Ball" presents an ingenue from the outback who is completely thrilled to be attending her first formal dance. As she "floated away like a flower tossed into a pool," as she dances with a handsome young man. Indeed, the newness and excitement surrounding this event is absolutely "thrilling" to Leila. In fact, Leila perceives it as
the beginning of everything. It seemed to her that she had never known what the night was like before. Up till now it had been dark, silent, beautiful often--oh, yes--but mournful somehow. Solemn. And, now it would never be like that again--it had opened dazzling bright.
Innocently sensing her growing adulthood and her youthful beauty, Leila is particularly vulnerable to the words of the cynical man who then cuts in to dance with her.
It gave her quite a shock again to see how old he was; he ought to have been on the stage with the fathers and mothers. And when Leila compared him with her other partners he looked shabby. His waistcoat was creased, there was a button off his glove, his coat looked as if it was dusty with French chalk.
This cynical agent of harsh reality recognizes that is Leila's first ball, and depletes her elation by pointing to the old ladies on the stage who sit and watch the young people. He tells Leila,
"...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, and you'll beat time with such a different kind of fan–a black bony one."
Further, he tells Leila that she will then point to her daughter and "your heart will ache, ache....because no one wants to kiss you now." His cruel words alter Leila's perception; she worries,
Was this first ball only the beginning of her last ball, after all? At that the music seemed to change; it sounded sad, sad; it rose upon a great sigh. Oh, how quickly things changed! Why didn't happiness last for ever? For ever wasn't a bit too long.
Leila then tells him that she wishes to stop and rest. Going over to the wall, she leans against it, pulls up her gloves, and tries to smile as she yet keeps time to the music. However, internally she is chagrined,
But deep inside her a little girl threw her pinafore over her head and sobbed. Why had he spoiled it all?
However, when the old, fat man comes over and says, "...you mustn't take me seriously," Leila responds defiantly, "As if I should!" Soon a "ravishing" tune begins and a handsome young man asks her to dance. And, when her next partner accidentally bumps them into the old man and he says "Pardon," Leila refuses to acknowledge his presence.
Through dialogue and internal monologue, Katherine Manfield conveys her theme of loss of innocence. However, it is the determined spirit of Leila who rejects the old man's observations, choosing instead carpe diem; for, tenaciously she seizes the moment and delights solely in its magic.
Leila is impressionable. She is as innocent as is a white lily.
She is dancing at her first ball. The night is magical. The evening dancing leaves her breathless. Leila is naive. She is refreshingly young and beautiful. She hasn't a care in the world. She is having a delightful time.
The ladies' slippers are as elegant their gowns. Nothing is boring. Everything is so fashionably inspiring. Being young and beautiful is exhilerating.
Then a fat, bald, old man tries to ruin Leila's evening. He reminds her that she too will be old and less desiring and no one will want to dance with her. Leila learns how cruel, even wicked, someone can be. The old, fat man is obviously miserable and he wants to make Leila's night just a s miserable.
Leila loses her innocence when she learns how obnoxious an old man can be. She even panics for a moment. She was nice enough to dance with the old, fat man, and then he tries to ruin her evening.
Then youth and charm steps in for a dance in the shape and form of a handsome, curly haired young gentleman. He and Leila begin gliding across the dance floor. When he accidentally bumps Leila into the old, fat man, Leila finds herself smiling. She gets even with the fat, old man for the terrible trick he had played on her at her very first ball.
No one stays young forever, but Leila did not have to be informed of such at her very first ball. Needless to say, time will take its toll on everyone, but youth is something to be cherished, even if only for the moment.
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