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Irony in Her First Ball by Katherine Mansfield

Instructor: Kevin Watson

Kevin has taught college English and has master's degrees in Applied Linguistics and Creative Writing.

''Her First Ball'', Katherine Mansfield explores naivety and growing up. In this lesson, we will take a look at Leila's first experience at a dance with men and see how her expectations play into situational and verbal irony.

Great Expectations

In Katherine Mansfield's short story Her First Ball, Leila is a country girl on her way to her first real dance with boys. She gets to go with her experienced cousins from the city who find her odd but are encouraging. The experience builds so much in her mind but does it all turn out to be worth it?

Leila has learned to dance with other girls at her boarding school but has never been to a real dance or even danced with a boy. Her cousins pick her up in a car and off they go. The four girls--Meg, Laura, Laurie, and Jose--are all excited as they know what's coming, but Leila is a little on the outskirts of things. They have been to many dances but Leila has not. They find her innocent and odd for her rural upbringing. Leila herself is self-conscious, not wanting to smile too much but she is so impressed by the simplest things that she cannot help it. Meg introduces her as ''my little country cousin'', which is precisely what makes her excitement exaggerate everything making it bigger, shinier, and more beautiful.

And Getting Greater

Packed into the ladies room, girls primp and chatter and one makes a comment of verbal irony when she calls out, ''Aren't there any invisible hair-pins. How most extraordinary! I can't see a single invisible hair-pin.'' Once in the dance hall, she cannot believe the ambiance and flowers and the magic of the slick floor and band. Ironically, when she was home she had begged her mother to call up her cousins and cancel. She had wanted to stay home on her veranda with the quiet country night and the baby owls hooting. But all that home really is for her is security and sameness, not moving up or maturing. And part of her wants just that: to grow up. And yet, when she is with them she begins to want to absorb it all. So much is new to her that she is even fascinated enough by the wrapping paper for Jose's new gloves that she wishes she could keep it.

Small Disappointments

Here the situational irony is that things will not happen as she imagines. When the dance begins, men lead all her cousins out onto the dance floor. Leila briefly worries that she'll have no dance partner and she'll just die missing out on this great thing. And then her first two dance partners are nondescript. They make the same comments, ask nearly identical questions, seem to be going through the motions, and are utterly unmemorable.

Another point of irony is her perception that she is doing something new and special and others should certainly see this. However, the girls she meets do greet her but sort of look past her after that. ''Strange faces smiled at Leila...but Leila felt the girls didn't really see her.'' The boys don't seem interested in a conversation nor are they at all impressed that this is her first dance and this wonderful experience is happening to her. ''Perhaps it was a little strange that her partners were not more interested.'' It may be that the town's people simply didn't perceive the country girl as cool.

A Flicker of Hope

But after her first dance, she sits with her partner and the cousins come around. All this time she's been ''younger'' than her cousins as far as experience. Much of her excitement to absorb everything around her is to mature through experience, to grow up. And then as she is sitting with her dance partner, ''Laura passed and gave her the faintest little wink. What seems a wink of encouragement for dancing with this young man makes Leila wonder for a moment whether she was quite grown up after all.'' But soon her sharp mood swings reveal her lack of maturity.

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