The short stories, “Her First Ball” by Katherine Mansfield and “The Infant Prodigy” by Thomas Mann, share different scenarios in which children have similar experiences. “Her First Ball” describes the unique experience of a young girl going to her first ball. “The Infant Prodigy” depicts a young boy whose amazing piano talents are exploited by his mother and the impresario. Each story explores the coming of age of children before they are necessarily ready. While both “The Infant Prodigy” and “Her First Ball” share the common theme of loss of childhood innocence, “The Infant Prodigy” explores its theme through many points of views and character description while “Her First Ball” makes use of one point of view and vast imagery of the setting to advance the theme. In “Her First Ball” Mansfield uses the experience of a young eighteen year old girl going to her first dance to explore the theme of a child losing their innocence.
The story opens with a girl named Leila riding in a cab with her cousins on the way to the ball. Leila’s innocence is first seen when the reader is informed that she is from the country and has never been to a ball. It continues to show when she arrives at the ball and is stunned by the amount of people and all of the decorations. Leila becomes quite anxious as the music starts to play for her first dance, and her innocence is further revealed when she is asked to dance. She is described as “floating away like a flower that is tossed into a pool” (Mansfield 19). Her innocence is revealed by her fragile nature. However, when she is guided onto the dance floor, her innocence is shattered by an older man that brings her innocence into reality. He tells her to enjoy the moment because it won’t be long before she is just a parent sitting on stage gazing down at her daughter in jealousy wishing to be young again. Leila becomes overwhelmed with worry that the man might be right; she feels that her first ball might be the beginning of her last.
At this point, Leila has lost the childish innocence that she was feeling when she first arrived at the dance because she realizes that she is growing up and reaching the end of her childhood. She begins feeling very homesick for her country home where she could regain her innocence. Throughout her experiences of the night, the theme of the loss of childhood innocence is shown. Like “Her First Ball”, Mann’s short story, “The Infant Prodigy”, also displays the strong theme of loss of childhood innocence through the experience of a very young boy named Bibi and his incredible piano talent. Bibi’s innocence is first revealed in the fact that he is just nine years old. It is also displayed by the joy he shows while playing the piano. Bibi’s joy in playing is described as “that prickling delight, that secret shudder of bliss, which ran through him every time he sat at an open piano” (Mann 59). This shows that Bibi gets great pleasure out of just playing the piano.
However, due to the great amount of traveling he does for concerts, he has lost his innocence and has been forced to grow up faster than the average nine year old child. His loss of innocence is furthermore shown in his negative thoughts toward his crowd while performing. His thoughts are “Now I will play the fantasy, it is a lot better than Le Hibou, of course, especially the C-sharp passage. But you idiots dote on the Hibou, though it is the first and the silliest thing I wrote” (Mann 61). Through his thoughts, it is clear that he does not particularly enjoy performing for people; he would rather just play strictly for the enjoyment of playing and not profit. As Bibi is forced to play more concerts, the theme of loss of childhood innocence plays a stronger role in his life. While both stories explore the theme of loss of innocence, each author exploits similar literary techniques, but in different methods to express the theme. First, Mansfield uses a vast amount of imagery to describe the setting of the ball. For example, while in a cab on the way to the ball she claims that she is excited and starts listing little clothing items that are being worn by her cousins. The scene is described as “every single thing was so new and exciting…Meg’s tuberoses, Jose’s long loop of amber, Laura’s little dark head, pushing above her white fur like a flower through snow” (Mansfield 16).
This scene displays her innocence because she is so excited that she becomes thrilled by minuscule details. The reader can also notice how Leila is eager about the ball in the way in which she describes inanimate objects. On the way to the ball, she describes a lamppost as waltzing (Mansfield 16). Also, she states that a gas lamp flame could not wait for the ball to begin as it was already dancing (Mansfield 17). Declarations such as these demonstrate how joyous a young girl can be while attending her first dance. The author also uses imagery to express the feelings that Leila feels in the instance that she loses her innocence. The author states “But deep inside her a little girl threw her pinafore over her head and sobbed” (Mansfield 20). By using such language the author shows how Leila is devastated that she has lost her innocence. Mansfield primarily uses imagery that describes the setting to further express the theme. Mann, on the other hand, uses imagery in a different style by using it predominantly to focus on the characters’ appearances and personalities. For instance, Mann promotes Bibi’s innocence by frequently describing his attire and his size.
The author describes Bibi’s appearance as “dressed in entirely white silk, …The little white jacket was fancifully cut, with a sash underneath it, and even his shoes were made of white silk” (Mann 58). By stating that Bibi is dressed in all white silk, this demonstrates innocence because it is a reference to Jesus Christ when he was first born he was wrapped in white silk. Furthermore, the author uses imagery to describe audience members’ appearances which enhance the reader’s knowledge of Bibi’s innocence. For example, Bibi’s mother is described as “an extremely obese woman with a powdered double chin and a feather on her head” (Mann 60). By describing Bibi’s mother as “extremely obese” it is clear that Bibi’s mother is exploiting her son strictly for her own financial gain because in the early 1900’s only the wealthy would have been obese. This is because poorer people would not have the money to spend on large amounts of food to gorge themselves. This point shows that Bibi has lost his innocence because if it weren’t for his mother he would not be forced to travel and perform at so many concerts.
Through the imagery provided of the characters’ descriptions, Mann develops the theme of loss of childhood innocence. Furthermore, both authors employ the use of point of view to express the innocence in their respective protagonists. Mann makes use of multiple points of views of audience members to describe Bibi’s loss of innocence. For instance, Mann delves into the thoughts of a piano teacher and critic who try to criticize the nine year old prodigy. The piano teacher thinks “But not very original—I will say that afterwards, it sounds well. And his hand position is entirely amateur. One must be able to lay a coin on the back of the hand— I would use a ruler on him” (Mann 62). The critic thinks “He has in himself all the artist’s exaltation and his utter worthlessness, his charlatanry and his sacred fire, his burning contempt and his sacred raptures” (Mann 62). The opinions of the piano teacher and the critic show that Bibi is not viewed just as a child playing piano, but as strictly an artist.
This further demonstrates Bibi does not have leisure of retaining childhood innocence because he is not viewed as a child. While Mann uses many points of views, Mansfield only probes the point of view of the main character, Leila. The author uses Leila’s point of view to describe the setting; by doing this it allows the reader to understand the innocence that is inside of her because as she is experiencing her first ball she takes in every slight detail of the moment. Without the point of view of Leila, the central theme would be weak because the reader would not find the innocence in how she describes the settings. Even though each author uses a different approach for point of view, in each story it brings out the theme.
The loss of childhood innocence is a theme that many readers can relate to in their own lives. Both stories paint a clear picture of a child that has grown up faster than they may have wished. Mansfield and Mann each employ similar literary techniques, such as point of view and imagery, to express this theme in their respective short stories; however, they utilize these techniques in different ways. While reading, both “Her First Ball” and “The Infant Prodigy”, a reader cannot help but spark a memory in their own lives when they once had childhood innocence.
Mann, Thomas. “The Infant Prodigy.” Trans. Array Great Modern European Short Stories. New York: The Random House Publishing Group, 1967. 58-64. Print. Mansfield, Katherine. “Her First Ball.” Trans. Array Great Modern European Short Stories. New York: The Random House Publishing Group, 1967. 16-21. Print.