In the short stories ‘The Garden Party’ and ‘Her First Ball’, both written by the well-known New Zealand author Katherine Mansfield, the importance of detail lies in several fields. As Mansfield herself states, “there is an indefinite value and delight in detail” and this is shown constantly as she uses it much effectively to portray themes, provide us with a contrast between the two different settings and also paint us a clear picture of the protagonists’ fantasy worlds.
Mansfield shows and doesn’t tell. In both the short stories, she plunges you straight into the imaginative and personified worlds of the protagonists and then the plot follows. The detailed description of the “perfect day for a garden-party” depicts Laura’s imaginations and excitement for this whole wonderful occasion. Every little detail such as the “green bushes bowed down as though they had been visited by the archangels” and the fact that the roses understood they “are the only flowers that impress people at garden-parties” adds to the angelic aura that Laura seems to have put forward so that we as the readers understand better her excitement and great anticipation. She is untainted by the worldly matters such as class distinctions at this point as she is still in her own imaginative world of “archangels.”
Similarly for Leila in Her First Ball, everything is so magical, exactly the way it is in a fairyland. Everything around her is so strikingly new and enthralling. It is Leila’s first ball, and her first exposition to society. Mansfield describes the young girl’s emotions and excitement in so much detail that it incarcerates us in the quaint fantasy world of Leila. Just like Laura, we also sense Leila’s innocence, because “her first real partner was the cab.” Leila’s emotions are more like Cinderella’s when she first goes to the ball. Thrill is felt when she is “waltzing past lamp-posts” (italics my own) and we can almost feel her heartbeat rising as “she tried not to smile too much, she tried not to care”, but she just couldn’t not care. Simple common details including “Meg’s tuberoses, Jose’s long loop of amber, Laura’s little dark head…” are seen by her as most charming and extraordinary. Unmistakably, Mansfield is constructing a ‘fairy land’ and she does it extraordinarily well as we see it through Leila’s childish eyes.
As well as in the description of the protagonists’ joyous anticipation and childish fantasies, detail is used to illustrate two different settings in each story. The contrast is between upper class and lower class in The Garden Party and is achieved by describing both the Sheridans’ house and the Carters’ in detail. The Sheridans are portrayed as living in a grand, luxurious residence with the air that blows past being “windless and warm”, while the Carters’ live down a “gloomy passage” in a lane that is “smoky and dark.” “Great plumes of silvery smoke uncurled the Sheridans’ chimney”, while “the very smoke coming out of their (Carters’)...