Symbolism in Her First Ball by Katherine Mansfield

Instructor: Bryan Cowing

Bryan is a freelance writer who specializes in literature. He has worked as an English instructor, editor and writer for the past 10 years.

In ''Her First Ball'' by Katherine Mansfield, you'll notice that not everything is as it appears. There are deeper meanings in the story. In this lesson we will take a look at some of those deeper meanings.

The Newbie

If you can remember being ''the new person'' at a job, school, or even a group of friends, you will understand some of what Leila feels in Katherine Mansfield's Her First Ball. Let's follow along and take a look at some of the symbolism woven in the details of this tale.

The Cab

One of the earliest examples of symbolism comes as Leila is on the way to the dance. Looking back on the cab ride over, she thinks that her first partner was the cab itself. What? While this might seem a little strange, our narrator explains that the spot where Leila rests her arm ''felt like the sleeve of an unknown young man's dress suit.''

This may symbolize how much Leila wants to find a partner. She is open, receptive and ready to receive a partner. So open, in fact, that an inanimate object is a potential mate. If we take it a step further, this excessive desire to find a partner may also symbolize most young people's desires to grow up, lose their virginity, and be a part of the 'grown up' world.


Despite the suggestive symbolism about Leila's desire to grow up and explore her sexuality, we also get the impression that she is nervous about the idea. The narrator tells us that, before she went to the dance, Leila ''sat down on the bed with one shoe off and one shoe on and begged her mother to rung up her cousins and say she couldn't go after all.'' This moment may symbolize the part of Leila that wants to hold on to her childhood and innocence, and avoid growing up and all the responsibilities that come along with it.

First Time

When Leila does end up at the dance and her nerves begin to settle, she finally gets her first (non-vehicle) partner. Interestingly we are told nothing about his appearance. ''Someone bowed, smiled, and offered her his arm'' and, ''Someone's hand pressed her waist.''

While we can assume that Leila does not know the man's name, the fact that she does not offer any description of this first mate is important. If we think along the lines of blooming sexuality, this may symbolize how his identity is not nearly as important as his function: he is her first, and his identity is completely contained inside of that fact.

The Hefty Fellow

The one man who seemed to be important and to have an identity, is the ''fat man.'' He is the one who suggests that, someday, she will be sitting on a stage with the old people (the chaperones) and she will curse the slippery dance floor that she now enjoys so much. This man and his comments are full of symbolism; mainly, that the dance floor is life, or even youth, and the old chaperones are those who have passed on, or who have left their youth behind.

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