A major theme in Mansfield’s work is that of the young (usually female) protagonist learning about the world, becoming aware of the complexities and the darker side of life and human nature. This applies, for example to Laura in 'The Garden Party', who is confronted with the reality of death. Death unexpectedly intrudes itself on the sparkling social event of the garden party; the youthful Laura therefore learns about the deeper truths which show up the superficiality of social conventions and routines. 'Her First Ball' features another glittering social occasion, the ball, which the young Leila awaits with tremendous anticipation; she is caught up in the glamour and excitement of it all, but also awakens to the harsher realities of old age and world-weariness when she meets an unattractive, middle-aged, disillusioned man.
Another recurring theme is that of class divisions. In 'The Doll’s House', the child protagonist Kezia Burnell is abruptly confronted with social prejudice when the Kelvey girls are not allowed to come to the Burnell house to see their beautiful new dolls’ house, simply because they are poor. Kezia is told off sharply by her aunt for sneaking the Kelvey girls in to a have a look. Kezia is as yet too young to have formed any class consciousness herself, and her accepting childish innocence is contrasted with the narrow-mindedness of the adult world. Similarly, in 'The Garden Party' Laura is accepting of the lower-class Scotts while others look down on them. The hardships and injustices suffered by the poor is also evident as a theme in stories like ‘The Lady’s Maid’ which depicts the maltreatment of an orphan girl. Other themes in Mansfield’s work include that of individual loneliness and isolation which is seen to have some devastating results, for instance in ‘The Woman at the Store’ where a lonely woman is driven to murder.
Mansfield’s literary techniques are much in keeping with other modernist writers such as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, to whom she is often compared. She concentrates on creating character and mood rather than plot, and she does not provide commentary or neat conclusions; the reader is left to form his or her own judgements. Like many other modernist writers, Mansfield uses a complex narrative approach: free indirect speech or interior monologue, where the character’s thoughts and emotions are intimately interwoven into the narrative voice. These characters do not tell their own stories directly in the first person, but their thoughts and feelings generally influence the manner of the telling. This is evident at the very beginning of 'The Garden Party', which opens with a description of the weather:
And after all the weather was ideal. They could not have had a more perfect day for a garden party if they had ordered it.
The first three words here, ‘and after all’, give the sense that it is not merely an anonymous third person narrator describing the scene, but that we have been introduced into the middle of a character’s thoughts or conversation. It is a subtle technique which Mansfield makes liberal use of throughout her work.
Another notable technique used by Mansfield is that of symbolism – most effective when it is the least obtrusive. 'The Garden Party' provides a good example of this with the lilies that are ordered for the party. Although it is never overtly suggested, the lilies can be taken as a foreshadowing of later events in the story, as traditionally lilies were associated with death (among other things). In 'The Doll’s House', the little lamp in the doll’s house, which so enchants Kezia, is representative of the light of Kezia’s empathy with those less well-off than herself, like the Kelvey girls.