Aunt Beryl is a self-centered woman who imagines herself to be sensitive, even though she is callous about the feelings of others. When the doll’s house is delivered to the Burnell home, it is Aunt Beryl who insists that it should be kept outside because she finds the fumes of its recent paint job so powerful that they make her feel sick. At the end of the story, she is in a terrible mood because a man named Willie Brent, with whom it would shame Aunt Beryl to be associated, has written to say he wants to meet with her. Brent’s letter has threatened to confront Aunt Beryl publicly at her house if she does not comply, angering her. Her mood picks up when she sees the Kelvey children in the back yard. She races out into the yard and tells them to leave, and she yells at her niece Kezia, who invited them to look at the doll’s house. She is proud of her rage.
As the oldest of the Burnell daughters, Isabel is a reflection of the kind of social hierarchy that rules the society in which they live. Her age gives her privileges over her sisters. When their mother limits the number of schoolmates the girls can bring home to see the doll’s house, Isabel is allowed to choose which friends to invite first. Because the other girls at school are interested in seeing the doll’s house, they compete to be her friend. Their competition makes Isabel snobbish. When she hears the other children mocking the Kelvey girls, she goes along with the mockery, and this makes Lena Logan approach the Kelveys with outright cruelty, which delights Isabel and her friends.
Kezia is the youngest of the Burnell sisters, and the one who is most inclined toward empathy and fanciful imagination. It is Kezia who finds the little lamp in the doll’s house fascinating. She thinks that it makes the doll’s house look as if it is lived in, even though the dolls who come with the house do not seem as if they belong. While her older sister Isabel tells the other girls at school about the doll’s house, Kezia tries to interject her thoughts about the lamp, but she is ignored, unable to take any of the attention away from Isabel. Later, after all of the other girls from the school have come to view the doll’s house, Kezia approaches her mother and asks if she can invite the Kelvey sisters, but her mother is adamant that they cannot be invited to the house, telling Kezia that she should know why it would be wrong. Kezia does not appear to agree with her mother’s position, however. On the afternoon that the Kelvey sisters are mocked at school by Lena Logan and the rest of the girls, Kezia wanders away from the rest of the family, into the back yard. Seeing the Kelvey sisters, she invites them into the yard, through the gate, in direct defiance of her mother’s command. She even overcomes their hesitation by telling them that no one will see them. Bringing them to the doll’s house, Kezia crouches down and is about to share the things about it that she finds wonderful, but her aunt comes, chases the Kelveys away, and chastises Kezia. She never finds out, as readers do later, that Else Kelvey did in fact listen to her on the playground, because she was looking for the lamp that Kezia found so enchanting.
Lottie is the middle Burnell sister, younger than Isabel and older than Kezia. She lives in Isabel’s shadow, forced to wait before inviting friends home to look at the doll’s house until Isabel is finished inviting all of her friends over.
The mother of Isabel, Lottie, and Kezia is a very class-conscious woman. She is the one who makes the rule forbidding her daughters from bringing home more than two girls at a time and refusing to let any of the girls come into the house. Lil Kelvey knows that she is not allowed to come to the Burnell house because Mrs. Burnell talked to her mother, setting down this rule. When Kezia directly asks if she can have the Kelvey girls over to look at the doll’s house, Mrs. Burnell is adamant in her refusal, assuming that her daughter understands why she would be so horrified at such a prospect.
Emmie Cole is one of Isabel’s friends. She is one of the two girls chosen to be the first ones allowed to come to the Burnell house to look at the doll’s house.
Mrs. Hay reflects the kind of wealthy, sophisticated people with whom the Burnell family associates. She is only mentioned in the first few lines of the story. She has been a guest at the Burnell house, and the story begins just after she has left. She sends the family the doll’s house mentioned in the title, as a thank-you gift for their having hosted her.
Else is the younger Kelvey sister. She is tiny and slim, the opposite of her sister, with large eyes that are described as looking like an owl’s. She follows her older sister, Lil, everywhere she goes, holding onto the hem of Lil’s skirt so that she does not become lost. Else does not speak aloud, but instead she tugs on Lil’s skirt, and whatever is on her mind is simply understood.
Else does not react when the other girls tease the Kelveys. She seems to have no opinions until Kezia invites the sisters into the Burnell yard to look at the doll’s house; then, she is insistent about going in to look at it, even after Lil points out that Mrs. Burnell told their mother to keep Lil and Else away. At Else’s insistence, Lil leads her in, but they only manage to get a quick glimpse of the inside of the doll’s house before they are chased from the yard by Aunt Beryl. Having been chastised by a stranger, the two sisters sit dejected until Else speaks for the first time in the story, telling her sister that she saw the tiny lamp. Although she is quiet, she does pay attention, having heard Kezia talk about the little lamp while all of the other children paid no attention. Her declaration about seeing the lamp shows some small measure of triumph, even though Aunt Beryl has done her best to belittle Else and her sister.
Lil is the elder of the two Kelvey sisters, the one who is aware of the burden of being low on the social hierarchy. She is large and plain looking, and her mother dresses her conspicuously, with a dress cut from material the Burnells gave her mother and a woman’s hat that once belonged to the postmistress. Her little sister, Else, follows her everywhere, holding onto her skirt. The two sisters are shunned by the other children at the school, but they have a special bond, so that Lil understands Else’s needs and wants even when nothing is said aloud. Lil is good natured about accepting the teasing of her classmates. When Lena Logan asks if she plans to be a servant when she grows up, Lil only smiles, though she is ashamed.
When Kezia invites Lil and her sister into the Burnell yard, Lil is conflicted. She is curious about the doll’s house, but she knows that Mrs. Burnell has forbidden them from entering the yard. She goes in because her little sister urges her to do so, and almost immediately, Aunt Beryl runs from the house, chasing them away, talking to them cruelly. Later, when they are out of sight of the Burnell home, Lil sits quietly, blushing with humiliation. Her sister talks to her and is answered with silence.
Of all of the girls who compete to show Isabel that they are her friends, Lena Logan is the most aggressive. When the conversation among the popular girls turns to the awfulness of the Kelvey sisters’ lives, Isabel is shocked, which Lena takes as a cue to taunt them. Goaded by Jesse May, she becomes wrapped up in the attention given her. She starts by just asking an impolite question and, seeing that Lil Kelvey is embarrassed, shouts insults about their father directly at them. Her cruelty is rewarded when all of the girls jump rope euphorically, thrilled at the nerve that Lena has shown.
Jessie May is one of the girls who competes to be Isabel’s best friend when she talks about letting her friends see the new doll’s house. She is not brash enough to openly insult the unpopular Kelvey sisters, but she does bet Lena Logan that she is not brave enough to insult them to their faces, and her goading is enough to set Lena after them.
Pat is the family’s handyman. He helps the deliveryman carry the doll’s house into the Burnells’ yard and he pries it open when it is stuck. Later in the story, he is sent to pick up the Burnell sisters at school and bring them home.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 29, Katherine Mansfield, Published by Gale Group, 2001.