Her First Ball: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Ginna Wilkerson

Ginna earned M.Ed. degrees in Curriculum and Development and Mental Health Counseling, followed by a Ph.D. in English. She has over 30 years of teaching experience.

''Her First Ball'' is another of Katherine Mansfield's charming short stories about common experiences. This narrative about a country cousin's first dance was written in 1921 as part of a collection called ''The Garden Party, and Other Stories.''

The Story

Everyone usually has a strong memory of their first formal dance. Even though customs have changed greatly when it comes to dance styles and who dances with whom, the general excitement and sense of open possibilities remain largely the same. For the protagonist of ''Her First Ball,'' the change from her former quiet country life to the adventure of her first formal ball is a heady experience.

Young Leila used to live an isolated country life; in fact, she is labeled the ''country cousin'' by her city friends accompanying her to the dance. For Leila, the excitement is so overwhelming that she shares with the reader that her first dance partner might well be the upholstered armrest on the cab ride! On the way, Leila is already romanticizing the entire ball and the possibilities contained therein.

Romantic Dreams of the Ball
dance fantasy

Once at the dance, she follows her more experienced acquaintances, along with a throng of strangers, into the room where they are given their dance cards. This particular part of the dance procedure in Mansfield's time may be something new to the modern reader. Girls were given a little booklet listing the dances in order, and were expected to fill in their lists with the names of each dance partner. Often, a particular dance would be reserved for a special sweetheart, or a ''safe'' choice like a brother or cousin.

Leila finds her card filled fairly easily, including by one older, fat man who takes her by surprise. Her card sorted, Leila turns to the project of meeting each strange partner in turn. She alternates between finding the process ''heavenly'' and wishing she were back in the country listening to the owls call in the quiet night.

A More Down to Earth View of the Ball
realistic view of the ball

Soon, however, Leila is caught up in the fun and dancing itself, and all thoughts of going back to the quiet country are forgotten. Leila goes from partner to partner, uncomfortably enduring the interval between each dance with the equally shy young men.

When the turn comes for the older man to dance with Leila, she finds him much more talkative than the young men. She is astounded to hear that he has been attending this sort of gala for thirty years.

Her Older Dance Partner
older dance partner

As they dance around the floor, which Leila finds ''most beautifully slippery,'' the older fat man begins to talk about how quickly Leila's time as a young girl will pass. Just as she had thought he should be up on the stage with the adult chaperones, he suggests that, all too soon, that will be her fate. And then her heart will ache.

Suddenly, the music begins to have a sad tone for Leila, and the entire ball has lost its shining charm. She is angry with the older man for spoiling the experience.

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