The Doll’s House by Katherine Mansfield

The Doll's House - Katherine MansfieldIn The Doll’s House by Katherine Mansfield we have the theme of class, prejudice, connection, hope, appearance and equality. Taken from her The Doves’ Nest and Other Stories collection the story is narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator and after reading the story the reader realises that Mansfield may be exploring the theme of class. The Burnell family, with the exception of Kezia, consider themselves to be above others particularly when it comes to the Kelveys. It would appear that the Burnells define themselves by their social status (or class) and due to the fact that Mrs Kelvey is a working class woman and the possible fact that Mr Kelvey is in prison the Burnells consider themselves to be above the Kelveys. There is also a sense that the Burnell’s are ostracizing the Kelvey’s simply because they may be different to them. If anything it is possible that the Burnell’s do not wish to associate themselves with the Kelvey’s because of the Kelvey’s appearance (both physical and social).

It is also noticeable that the other children (and the teacher) in the school, like the Burnells, also consider themselves to be better than the Kelveys. Again this assumption appears to be based not only on the working class status of Mrs Kelvey but also by the fact that Mrs Kelvey is so poor that she needs to dress her daughters with cloth from items that her neighbours no longer need. If anything all the characters (again with the exception of Kezia) in the story judge the Kelveys based on, not only their perceived lower class status but also by their physical appearance. Just as Lil and Else look different to those around them by the way they are dressed, the other children (and the Burnells and the teacher) view the Kelveys as being different. Each character in the story (again with the exception of Kezia) is prejudicial towards the Kelveys.

The fact that neither Lil or Else speak throughout the story (although Else does speak at the end) may also be important as by not allowing (or having) either child speak Mansfield may be suggesting that in life, neither Lil or Else have a voice (or remain unheard). It is also noticeable that Kezia too, is limited in what she can say. It is left to Isabel to tell the children in the school about the doll’s house, based purely on the fact that she is the oldest of the Burnell children. In many ways by not allowing the Kelvey girls and Kezia to speak, Mansfield is connecting each of them to each other. She is allowing them to be the same or equal, removing any class distinction that may exist.

There is also some symbolism in the story which may be significant. The doll’s house itself can be seen to symbolise the upper class Burnells. By associating the doll’s house with the Burnells, Mansfield is possibly suggesting that the Burnells, because they are the only people with a doll’s house, are likewise different to those around them (they are upper class). Something that is a little clearer to the reader when Mansfield tells the reader that Mrs Burnell only sent her children to the local school, not because she felt it would be good for them but because there was no other school available. It may also be important that there is a smell coming from the doll’s house. It is possible that by introducing the smell to the house, symbolically Mansfield is also suggesting that all is not right with the Burnells (socially prejudiced).

The gate that Kezia is sitting on, and which she swings open may also be symbolic. It is possible that Mansfield is likening the gate (at least symbolically) to the social prejudice that Mrs Burnell (and others) have towards the Kelveys. By allowing Kezia to open the gate to Lil and Else, Mansfield may be suggesting that likewise, Kezia is removing any obstruction or social prejudice towards Lil and Else, so that both can be just like the other children in the story, to be their equal. The little lamp inside the doll’s house may also be important as Mansfield may be using it to symbolise hope or connection. Of all the children only Kezia and Else seem to be impressed by the lamp. This may be important as it is possible that symbolically (through the lamp), Mansfield is not only allowing hope into Else’s (and Lil’s) life, so that they can be treated as equals to the other children in the story but Mansfield may also be directly connecting Else and Kezia, tearing down any class barriers that may exist between both girls and which may have been built by Mrs Burnell or Aunt Beryl.

The ending of the story is also interesting. Despite the continued social prejudice of Aunt Beryl (by telling Lil and Else to go home and not come back again), Else appears to be unaffected. As she is sitting beside Lil, she tells her ‘I seen the little lamp.’ This line may be important as it not only connects Else to Kezia but by seeing the lamp, Else realises that she is no different to Kezia. Through Kezia’s breaking down of any class barrier that may have existed between Lil, Else and herself, Else (and Lil) are allowed to be just like all the other children (equal) in the story.

Cite Post
McManus, Dermot. "The Doll's House by Katherine Mansfield." The Sitting Bee. The Sitting Bee, 30 Mar. 2015. Web.

74 comments

  • It is very helpful for me when preparing for my exam.

  • Thanks! This helped a lot in helping me study for my exam! Great post!

  • Can I analysis the plot from raising and climax parts? For my homework.

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Indon. Yes you can analysis the story from raising action to climax. Just leave out the introduction and pick the story up from the point where the children are in school. Take it from there to the point where Else tells Lil that she saw the lamp.

  • Thanks it was very very useful but can we say lamp was a symbol of working class people. That they do everything for others but they don’t have anything belonging to themselves as lamp has light for people…?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Maryam. I’m not sure that I follow you. Are you suggesting that the lamp because Else saw it too symbolizes working class people? Or do you suggest that the lamp is inclusive of all people?

      • Yes I mean symbolize working class people but I’m not sure.

        • Dermot (Post Author)

          It is possible for the lamp to be seen as symbolism for working class people. The fact that the lamp is overlooked by the other children (except by Else and Keiza) might mirror how working class people in general are often overlooked by those who may be of a higher social class. The lamp also connects Else and Keiza in a manner very similar to social inclusion. Keiza though middle class allows Else and Lil (both working class) see the doll’s house.

  • It’s very helpful to me.

  • Useful. Can I ask a question though. Why does the writer refer to Else as “Our Else?”

  • Awesome post. Very helpful..Thank you

  • Please add the significance of the title of The Doll’s House. Thanks

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Najma. The doll’s house may symbolically represent the Burnells. Just as everybody gravitates towards the doll’s house likewise the Burnell’s may feel due to their social status that people should gravitate towards them. The doll’s house is also the subject of the story hence Mansfield may have decided to us it as the title of the story.

  • Thank you so much this post really helped me a lot. Thank you.

  • Useful summary thank you but I still have questions

    Can I know the similarities between Else and Kezia?

    How do I notice class distinction?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Ndumiso. There would be several similarities between Else and Kezia. Both see the lamp, which connects both girls. Both are on the outside in some way. Else because she is poor and Kezia has to deal with the pressures of her sister telling others about the doll’s house (taking the spotlight away from Kezia). With regard to class distinction in the story. Else’s mother makes Else’s clothes from hand me downs (second hand clothes) from other people. She cannot afford to buy Else new clothes. Also Kezia’s aunt judges Else because she is poor and as such considers her to be not only unworthy of any attention but possibly a bad influence on Kezia.

  • In the opening paragraph, does Aunt Beryl seem to be a kind person?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Aunt Beryl doesn’t appear to be a kind person due to the fact that she is judgmental. Something that is noticeable by the fact that she comments on the smell of the paint of the doll’s house. Rather than being happy for the children she thinks only of herself.

  • Explain why the following sentence is an example of irony: “very nice company for other people’s children!”

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      The narrator is being sarcastic, knowing full well that the children are from a background that many would look down on. The mother is a washerwoman and the father is in jail.

  • How do you think Else looked, judging by the following metaphor: “she was a tiny wishbone of a child?”

  • What in the extract below is Isabel wanting to tell first, and to whom does she want to tell it:

    “I’m to tell, said Isabel, because I am the eldest. And you can join in after. But I’m to tell first’

  • Consider the incident of bullying in the story. If you were the principal of a school what would you prevent school bullying?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      There are many things that could be done. One is to talk to the children who are doing the bullying and try and explain to them that it is important to treat others as equals.

  • What does the following simile tell us about the way Aunt Beryl saw the Kelveys:”And she stepped into the yard and shooed them out as if they were chickens”

  • What does the following symbolism represent, “The doll’s house that only the Burnell children had in the area”

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      The Burnell children are different to others. Mansfield most likely bring the theme of class into the story.

  • What do the following symbols represent? “The opening of the gate by Keiza to the Kelveys”

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Keiza is including the Kelveys. She is allowing them to be the same as her. She is not discriminating against them unlike others in the story.

  • What do the following symbols represent? “The light in the doll’s house to the Kelvey children?”

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Often a writer will use light as a symbol of hope or direction. Which is very much the case in the story, particularly for Else. Only Else and Keiza see the light coming from the lamp. They are equals. Despite the perceived differences in class.

      • The light can symbolize faith and religion or even God. Both Kezia and Else could see the light – the transcendential thing left unseen and unfelt by others. Kezia is different as she saw by her heart. She was not mesmerised by other things but a lamp that seemed unseen or forgotten. Only those with faith could see the light.

  • Thanx Dermot, this is of great help to me as I am preparing for my exam.

  • Can you please help me to answer this question. What other metaphor does the author add to the one above and how does it add to the picture of Else that we have. The last metaphor says “she was a tiny wishbone of a child” so according to my understanding I quote “cropped hair and enormous solemn eyes a little white owl.” What does it mean?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Ntshuxeko. I’m not sure I follow you. I think you want me to explain the entire (two metaphor) sentence. If that is the case Mansfield may be highlighting to the reader just how skinny Else is (from malnutrition) and how pale or white she is (because she may be sickly). Similarly Else’s eyes may look solemn because again she is poorly.

  • Thanx so much it is so helpful when I’m preparing for my exam.

  • How many short stories do we have this year.. Can I please have a list of them?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Not sure I follow you Rolland. If you go to the front page of the blog (home), you’ll get a list of posts for the year.

  • What is the theme of the story and what is the tone?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Al. The primary theme of the story is class while there are also some secondary themes which include prejudice, connection, hope, appearance and equality. As for the tone of the story I would suggest that the tone is one of superiority and hypocrisy.

    • Hello can you tell me who is describing using animal images and what this represents ?

      • Dermot (Post Author)

        Thanks for the comment Gla. When the narrator describes Else as looking like a little white owl (wishbone of a child…with solemn eyes) she may be suggesting that Else is pale and malnourished. The reference to Lil and Else looking like two stray cats suggests that both are lost when it comes to Keiza’s home.

        • Thanks for your answer. And why does Mrs Hay sends a doll’s house to the Burnells.

          • Dermot (Post Author)

            Mrs Hay stayed in the Burnells for a period and she may have given the Burnell children the doll’s house as a thank you to the family for allowing her to stay in their home.

  • What colour of their nation for both families.

    Why it is important for the Kelveys children to visit the dolls house

    What impact or influence will it have in their life.

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Lungisani. Both families are white, the story is set in New Zealand. One reason it is important for the Kelvey children to visit the doll’s house is because it allows them to be included in the same activity as the other children. The impact on both Kelvey children is that they now have a sense of belonging and a realisation that they are no different to the other children.

  • Who/ what was like ….
    A queen under the tree ?
    Little dots ?
    Two little cats ?
    A chicken ?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      I can’t find the line ‘a queen under the tree.’ Little dots is Lil and Else walking down the road as viewed by Kezia as both girls make their way to Kezia’s home.. Two little stray cats is Lil and Else walking across the courtyard to Kezia’s home. A chicken (or chickens) is again Lil and Else being shooed away by Aunt Beryl.

  • What details of the doll’s house please the children ?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Both Kezia and Lil like the lamp in the doll’s house. Which is important as Mansfield is connecting both children through their liking of the lamp. If anything Mansfield is tearing down the class barrier that had existed between Kezia and Lil.

  • How does Aunt Beryl feel about the Kelvey children

  • Was Mr Kelvey really in prison? Or is just an assumption in the story.

  • Is the cruelty shown by Aunt Beryl of the same quality as that shown by the little girls, or is it another type?

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for the comment Parker. I would think that the cruelty shown by Aunt Beryl is different. She is old enough to know better whereas the girls in school are children and following each others lead.

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