What is the narrative style of Katherine Mansfield in "Her First Ball"?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Interestingly, when scholars poured over Katherine Mansfield's autographed manuscripts and journals, they were struck by her poor spelling and eccentric grammar (enotes).  Perhaps, then, this idiosyncrasy is what brought Mansfield to create such "pictorial intensity," an intensity of which the great writer Virginia Woolf said she was "jealous--the only writing I have ever been jealous of."

Indeed, this pictorial intensity is the single most distinguishing element of her writing.  And, while Mansfield's story, "Her First Ball," is told in the third person, the narration is not so objective as it is indicative of the impressions and sudden mood changes of the naive adolescent main character, Leila.

The story moves as a series of vignettes, brief impressionistic scenes that focus on one moment or give a trenchant impression about a scene, the character, or an idea.  For instance, as Leila draws near the drill hall where the ball the setting is described,

The road was bright on either side with moving fan-like lights, and on the pavement gay couples seemed to float throu the air; little satin shoes chased each other like birds.

Once inside the swift music seems to dominate the narration, as the impressions of Leila are as though everything is dancing:

A great quivering jet of gas lighted the ladies' room.  It couln't wait; it was dancing already....In one minute, in one turn, her feet glided, glided. The lights, the dresses,the azaleas, the pink faces, the velvet chairs, all became one beautiful wheel.

These impressionistic vignettes continue until the abrupt interruption by the fat man into Leila's magic night.  He is the cynic who enjoys a perverse pleasure in hurting the naively innocent Leila in an intense moment that only a sensitive young woman such as Leila would sense.  Yet, although she realizes that in only a short time she will be sitting upstairs as a chaperone watching other debutantes, and she "looked through the dark windows at the stars [that] had long beams like wings," Leila allows her feeings of the moment to predominate. When a young man asks for a dance, she turns, "her feet glided, glided," and she smiles at her partner "more radiantly than ever."

While the fat man's cruelty has punctured her fantasy, Leila chooses to ignore momentarily the truth of life and experience the joy of the moment.  Mansfield's story, with vivid pictorial intensity, captures the bittersweet quality of growing up. 




Read the study guide:
The Stories of Katherine Mansfield

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