Mansfield’s story ‘‘The Doll’s House’’ is a work that relies on the careful balance of its elements in order to make its unstated points felt. Elements are juxtaposed against each other to highlight their similarities and differences. Mansfield does this tactfully and subtly, so that even a careful reader might not see it until the story’s end. It is at the end, in the second-to-last line, that Else Kelvey, known throughout as ‘‘our Else,’’ speaks, and it is then that things fall into place. In an instant, it becomes clear that Else is a kindred spirit with Kezia Burnell, which leads to other observations about similar relationships throughout the story.
The Burnells are really a mirror image of the Kelveys, a point that is not immediately apparent because there are three girls in one family and two in the other. It becomes clearer when one considers the middle Burnell, Lottie. She has no presence in the story; she never even speaks, but only serves to amplify Isabel’s positions. Ignoring Lottie, at least for a while, leaves two Burnell sisters and two Kelvey sisters. There are also two sisters of the previous Burnell generation who have speaking roles in the story. In addition, there are girls who come two-by-two to the Burnell house. The only male presence is Pat the handyman, though in the story he does not really exert any personality; as a laborer, he functions for the Burnell household as a shovel or his handy pocket knife would function for Pat himself. He is a device for the family to use, not something to be dealt with. Mr. Kelvey, according to Gillian Boddy, appeared in an earlier draft of the story, driving a fish wagon but always so drunk that he is in constant danger of falling off. In the published version he is simply absent, like the father of the Burnell household.
Reading the story in terms of its dichotomies makes it easier to see how it works. The plot can be boiled down to a basic contrast between the two oldest daughters, Isabel Burnell and Lil Kelvey, as they reach the point in their lives when their social fortunes take them in opposite directions. The crux of the story, its heart, is a different matter, but its focus is on the schoolgirls making sense of the prevailing social order. The first few pages show how Isabel stumbles across the secret of social success as she goes from bragging about the lively new doll’s house to pitting her schoolmates against each other for her affection. This all culminates in the yard at lunch one day when the other girls notice that Isabel might be amused by mocking Lil’s poverty. Told that Lil will grow up to be a servant, Isabel’s words properly express shock, but her eyes convey just the slightest hint of another meaning. Another girl picks up on the clue and goes to taunt the pathetic Lil, first with a snide question and then with outright hostility. The girls find delight in Lil’s humiliation. Mansfield’s wording about this leaves no doubt that a corner has been turned: they were, she says, ‘‘deeply, deeply excited, wild with joy.’’ It is such a transformative moment that she leaves it up to readers’ imaginations as she explains that the girls are driven to doing unspecified ‘‘daring things.’’ Sexuality is not necessarily involved, but the feel of transgression and the pretense of maturity associated with it are certainly there. The girls find themselves moved up to a new social level by taunting Lil, and at the top of them all is their leader, Isabel.
And that is not even the final humiliation of Lil. This comes at the end of the story when, having been shown some degree of awkward kindness by Kezia, she is put down again. This time, it is not a gaggle of girls who are learning that cruelty can benefit them socially, but an adult, who berates Lil simply for existing. Though she does not know it, Lil could be as refined as the enchanting doll’s house that started the social disruption and Aunt Beryl would still find herself objecting to the girl’s smell. If Lil has been silenced when she attempted to edge into the group and listen to Isabel’s description of the house and humiliated by Lena’s direct assault about her father, she ends up ultimately mortified by Aunt Beryl shooing her away like a rat. Her mortification is so complete that her little sister Else tries to comfort her, petting the feather on her beaten old hat and pointing out that some good came from this miserable adventure after all, as she has at least seen the little lamp. In this, Else offers hope.
The story can be viewed as the divergence of Isabel and Lil, who do not start as social peers but rise and sink, respectively, so that they end up far, far apart. The story’s heart, however, is clearly found in the way that their younger sisters, Kezia and Else, form an unspoken, possibly even unrecognized, bond.
Kezia is the outcast of her family. Unlike Else, she has no comfort to offer her sisters, who do not need comforting anyway. While Else stands behind Lil, holding on to the hem of her dress so that they won’t be separated, Kezia tries to wheedle her way into Isabel’s discourse to the schoolgirls about the new doll’s house, finding her effort futile. In the story’s final scene, Kezia walks off by herself as her family is inside, preparing to receive visitors. She does not feel any need to be with them, and they, apparently, find no need to go out looking for her, until Aunt Beryl, taking out her own frustrations, comes out and scolds her. There is no indication that Kezia and Else have anything in common until Else tells her sister about seeing the lamp, speaking with the same delight that warmed Kezia. Mansfield gives no indication whether interest in the lamp is passed from one to the other or just grows spontaneously in both youngest sisters; if both just happen to find the lamp enchanting, it says something about young people and their ability to be enchanted, while if Else is just repeating what she has heard, readers can be sure that, as a Kelvey, she is in for a lifetime of valuing things that are beyond her reach.
There is one more pair of sisters in this story: Aunt Beryl and the mother of the Burnell family, whose name is not given but who is identified as Linda in Mansfield’s story ‘‘Prelude.’’ Little is said about either one of them, but enough is given for readers to know that the same dynamic exists with them as well. Linda is an absolutist: she knows that she does not approve of poor people, and her disapproval is so thorough that she cannot even understand why she should have to explain it to her daughter Kezia. Beryl’s emotions are more complicated. She does not accept herself as a snob without justifications, telling herself that she actually likes ‘‘dear old Mrs. Hay’’ but that the doll’s house she sent has substandard paint, or that the Kelvey sisters just happened to have crossed her when she was having a bad afternoon. These two sisters fit the pattern, even though it is a loose fit. Linda, like Isabel and Lil, is a fatalist, understanding that things are, for better or worse, just the way they are, while Beryl is more like Else and Kezia in taking a more philosophical approach.
Like any good story, ‘‘The Doll’s House’’ is more than the sum of its parts, and taking it apart to find relationships does not explain it, but merely points readers into the direction of understanding. It might be nice for readers if all of the sisterly relationships in this story remained consistent— if all of the younger sisters stood by to offer comfort to the older sisters, for instance, or if the older children were equally social climbers or accepting of their fate. Such clarity would make the story easier by making it less challenging, and that is precisely what would take away its magic. Mansfield has created these characters as real people, not just as emblems. They do not just represent positions, they exist. The fact that they exist in clear relationships to one another is just another testament to the author’s firm controlling hand.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 29, Katherine Mansfield, Published by Gale Group, 2001.
David Kelly, Critical Essay on ‘‘The Doll’s House,’’ in Short Stories for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010