The town that is depicted in ‘‘The Doll’s House’’ is clearly one with a range of different social classes, as Mansfield explains in the fourteenth paragraph. This explains why people of different classes are attending the same school. For examples of the different economic levels represented here, she mentions judges and doctors, storekeepers and milkmen. Readers know that the Burnell family is very wealthy from the start because their guest, Mrs. Hay, is obviously affluent enough to send an extravagant gift like this massive doll’s house, while Aunt Beryl is so comfortable in her position that she takes a condescending attitude toward ‘‘sweet old Mrs. Hay’’ and finds fault with the handcrafted toy. When the Burnell daughters want to bring their schoolmates home to see the doll’s house, Mrs. Burnell sets down rules that show her belief that the children at the school are of a lower class than her children. She will not allow them to come to tea or even to enter the house.
At the bottom of this scale is the Kelvey family. Mrs. Kelvey does laundry for other families, which was about the lowest-paying and least prestigious position there was at the turn of the twentieth century. Mr. Kelvey’s whereabouts are unknown. He could be gone for some good reason, but the neighbors assume the worst and tell each other that he is in jail, which would be a powerful mark of shame for the Kelvey family.
The poor, lower-class Kelveys are not only looked down on by the Burnells, they are actively shunned. Mrs. Burnell explicitly tells her children that the Kelvey girls are not to be included with the children who are invited to see the doll’s house. Later, when all of the other girls have seen it, Kezia asks again, to see if her mother has changed her mind, but Mrs. Burnell responds as if the question is ridiculous. Later, when Aunt Beryl chases the Kelvey girls out of the yard, her bad mood lightens, indicating that being rude to lower-class people is actually pleasurable to those who hold higher social status.
One of the most powerful phenomena explored in this story is the way that people, especially children, find themselves swept by social trends into behaving terribly. The story starts with an act of kindness, when Mrs. Hay sends a gift to the Burnell children that she thinks they will enjoy. They are not allowed to enjoy the doll’s house indoors because their Aunt Beryl thinks that it reeks of paint, which is a sign that she finds it to be cheap or inferior. The girls decide that they would like to show the house to their friends, but their mother puts a restriction on how many friends may visit the Burnell house at once. Because the invitations are limited, they become valuable, and the girls at the school begin competing for the affection of Isabel Burnell, who, finding herself the center of attention, encourages their competition.
The competition for Isabel’s attention—to be able to become one of the first to view the doll’s house—leads to cruelty, as Lena Logan, at Jessie May’s urging, crosses the school yard to taunt the Kelvey sisters. Lena’s behavior becomes progressively worse. First, she hides her insult inside a question, as if she is actually curious about Lil Kelvey’s intentions for when she grows up. After a while, though, emboldened by the laughs from the popular girls, she shouts out an insult about the Kelveys’ father with no regard for their feelings whatsoever. Her aggression creates a bond between all of the girls in Isabel’s social group, who go about their play filled with joy. Their group finds cohesion in excluding the Kelveys, with the dangerous thrill of doing something so socially offensive giving the girls something in common.
The central character in this story is Kezia, the youngest Burnell daughter. She is presented as the sort of wide-eyed innocent who can appreciate the doll’s house as a toy. It spurs her imagination as she thinks of who might live there and what their lives might be like. To her, the imaginary world of the house is so real to Kezia that she can tell what fits in it and what does not. The lamp, she decides, is perfect for it, while the doll family that comes with the house is not at all appropriate.
Enchanted as she is with the imaginary world of the doll’s house, Kezia does not understand the complexities of class consciousness. While her sister Isabel uses the doll’s house to improve her social status, Kezia just thinks of it as a wonder to be shared. That is why she does not understand why her mother will not allow her to bring the Kelvey sisters into the yard to see it. When she asks if they can come over, her mother tells her that she knows why they cannot, but she does not. She does not understand social exclusion.
This unclear moral situation obviously affects Kezia, even if she does not say so. When the Burnell daughters come home to be presented to visitors, she wanders away from the family, into the yard. It is there that a rebellious streak develops; she sees the Kelveys walking up the street and invites them in, directly contradicting her mother’s orders. She tries to calm her divided loyalty by keeping the Kelveys’ visit a secret, but she is found out by Aunt Beryl and scolded. In the end, though, Kezia’s gesture does prove to be worthwhile, as young Else Kelvey takes some pride in having seen the lamp and is just as enchanted with it as Kezia is. There is a common bond between the youngest daughters of both families that softens the harshness of social exclusion.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 29, Katherine Mansfield, Published by Gale Group, 2001.