Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Leila’s first ball is her first social triumph, even as it is her first disillusionment. She knows, even before she dances with the fat man, that time will take her beauty, that she will not always be la belle du bal; even so, these are things that she need not consider on the evening of her first formal. What bothers her is not so much the fat man’s words as his callousness in saying them. Indeed, what Leila discovers at the ball is human cruelty, that it is usually aimed at the naïvely innocent for the perverse pleasure it gives to its wicked agent. She also discovers how brief and fragile periods of absolute happiness are. Fortunately, however, youth is buoyant, and the fat man’s remarks, though noted and stored away, do not mar Leila’s perfect evening.
Because she has been reared in an isolated place and as an only child, Leila’s sensitivity is more acute than that of others her age. This gives her greater capacity for joy, even as it makes her vulnerable to greater pain. One moment, the lanterns, the azaleas, the gowns, the music make her float on air; the next, an aging cynic’s cruelty punctures all of her joy, and Leila wishes that she were at home listening to the baby owls in their nest near the veranda. In short, Katherine Mansfield’s story, for all its brevity, encapsulates the bittersweetness of growing up.