New Zealand History
This story takes place in Karori, which is on the outskirts of Wellington, the capital of New Zealand. At the time the action takes place, New Zealand was in its postcolonial phase. The country colonized relatively late. The first Europeans to arrive were the Dutch, in 1642, but the country remained open to sailors from around the globe, who settled there and traded freely with the indigenous Maori tribesmen. In 1840, the British signed a treaty that made the country a protectorate of the United Kingdom. A constitution granting self-government rule was ratified by the United Kingdom in 1854 and came into effect in 1856. Though independently ruled, the country maintained a strong relationship with Great Britain and relied almost entirely on it for economic trade. During the Boer War (1899–1902) and World War I (1914–1918), New Zealand fought on the side of the United Kingdom. It also has a strong relationship with Australia, which is its closest neighboring country and another member of the Commonwealth of Nations.
The unbalanced social situation presented in ‘‘The Doll’s House’’ mirrors one of the greatest conflicts in New Zealand at the turn of the twentieth century, an issue that Mansfield wrote passionately about throughout her lifetime: the treatment of the indigenous Maoris by the Europeans who settled on their shores and laid claim to their land. New laws that were passed in the early 1890s made it easier to build on land that had been ceded to the Maori, leading to claims of ownership or of the right to purchase the land. Banks refused to lend money to Maori citizens to develop their land, giving the Europeans a financial advantage. The Maori began a unity movement, Kotahitanga, comprised of indigenous tribes that supported candidates for Parliament, giving support to several Maori political parties. Despite the struggle, the native people of New Zealand suffered under distinct social and political disadvantages, and the political system was arranged to encourage more Europeans to come to the country, which only served to further the disadvantages of the Maori. Many of European descent were aware that their fortunes were built upon the repression of the Maori, and they supported them in their struggles for social equality.
Although Mansfield is not one of the first names to come up when the subject is discussed, her writing is considered to be a clear example of modernism, an artistic movement that began in the early decades of the twentieth century. Modernism is a complex generalization that critics use to describe a great change that occurred in the arts at that time. As with most literary movements, there is no clear consensus about when it began or ended. It is generally viewed in terms of what it is not and is defined as a rebellion against the artistic traditions of the nineteenth century. As the new century dawned, artists responded to the changes in the world around them, from industrialization to widespread electrification to the advent of the automobile to innovations in architecture that gave builders the ability to turn cities into series of tunnels, blocking out the sky. One common theme that progress brought was a sense of alienation that made artists look at people as separated from nature and, in a sense, separated from reality.
In poetry, modernism manifested itself most clearly with free verse. Writers like Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and T. S. Eliot created poems that trained their readers’ focus on the words rather than on the form. In fiction, writers like James Joyce and Virginia Woolf ignored traditional expectations about plot and character and tried to convey for readers a heightened sensory experience. To its detractors, modernist writing often seemed pointless as well as formless, but the new styles brought into literature through modernism affected mainstream writers from Ernest Hemingway to Hart Crane. By the 1920s, modernism was no longer a reaction against the mainstream: instead, it was the mainstream in art, eventually to be supplanted sometime around the 1950s by the even more theoretically abstract postmodernist movement
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 29, Katherine Mansfield, Published by Gale Group, 2001.