Figurative Language, Symbolism, and Theme in "Her First Ball":
Katherine Mansfield's Carpe Diem "Poem"
Years ago -- in a course on modern British fiction -- my professor told us that Katherine Mansfield was "the John Keats of fiction." Like Keats, she wrote highly poetic stories on the great traditional themes of literature; and, also like Keats, she contracted tuberculosis and died tragically young. Had she lived to write something more than short stories she might today be considered one of the greatest of the British writers." An examination of the figurative language, the symbolism, and the theme in Mansfield's "Her First Ball" seems to support the professor's high praise. The story is far more than a Cinderella-goes-to-the-ball magazine story designed to appeal only to adolescent girls and very young women. Indeed, the story may easily be read as a poetic meditation on that most somber and traditional of themes -- the brevity of youth. "Her First Ball" is a serious treatment of the ancient and universal carpe diem theme.
It is quite clear that Manfield's frequent use of figurative language gives a poetic feeling to the story. For example, she uses personification throughout the story. "Her first real partner was the cab" and "the waltzing lampposts and houses and fences and trees" are personifications in the first paragraph of the story which project Leila's excitement onto her surroundings. So does the personification of the gaslight a little later in the story:A great quivering jet of gas lighted the ladies room. It couldn't wait; it was dancing already. when the door opened again and there came a burst of tuning from the drill hall, it leaped almost to the ceiling.Mansfield also uses similes which add to the poetic atmosphere. When Leila's hand rests on one of the cushions in the cab, it feels "like the sleeve of an unknown young man's dress suit"; and when Leila looks at couples hurrying along the sidewalk, the dancing slippers showing beneath the long skirts of the ladies are described by a simile: "Little satin shoes chased each other like birds." There is much more of this sort of figurative language all through the story.
Even more important, however, to seeing the story in poetic terms than the personifications and similes are the larger poetic elements in the story -- specifically the symbolic elements. We may be speaking of Leila or of Cinderella to both of whom the first ball means "the beginning of everything", or we may be speaking of a story like Poe's "Masque of the Red Death" in which the masked ball means "the end of everything" -- in either case the ball is a symbol of a decisive change in the life of the dancer. Change always brings danger and risk, and that is why so many characters refer to how "slippery" the dance floor is. And then there is the "fat man." Dressed in not so clean black dress clothes, fat, old, and cynical, he deliberately and cruelly picks the exactly the worst moment in Leila's life to remind her how soon it is that she will be sitting with old folks with an aching heart because "no one wants to kiss you now." Clearly he is the symbolic representative of a pretty young woman's fear of growing old. One might even say he is the symbolic link to the theme of the story. When he sarcastically calls Leila "Mademoiselle Twinkletoes," he is saying in effect "Carpe diem! Seize the day. . .because you will soon be too old to be kissed."
Mansfield, however, was a superior writer and a keen oberver of human nature; and so she gives the old carpe diem theme a very realistic twist. Of course Leila is devastated by what the old man said.Deep inside her a little girl threw her pinafore over her head and sobbed. Why had he spoiled it all?Leila wants to go home to the country and listen to the mournful sound of owls crying in rural darkness. In short she is miserable until. . .until. . .untilpresently a soft, melting, ravishing tune began, and a young man with curly hair bowed before herand in no time at all she is dancing happily, smiling radiantly. She has completely forgotten about the grim future in front of her, the growing old, the loss of youth and beauty. She has even forgotten what the old man who tried to spoil her evening looked like. In short, all it took was a handsome young man to make her do what all carpe diem poems recommend and what most sensible young beauties always do. She is gathering rosebuds while she may.
It is, then, not big a stretch to see Mansfield's story as a poem with figurative language and symbols and a traditional poetic theme. What is even better, however, is that we discover Katherine Mansfield is not a trivial writer included as a woman writer only because of some editor's ideas of political correctness. She is someone whose work is really worth reading. It is, indeed, tragic that she died so young.