‘‘The Doll’s House’’ begins when an elaborate doll’s house is delivered to the home of the Burnell family. It is a gift from Mrs. Hay, who has been staying with them for a while in their house out in the suburbs but has recently returned to the city. The doll’s house is massive, so big that the delivery man needs the help of the Burnells’ handyman to carry it into the yard. It is left in the yard because it is newly painted, and Aunt Beryl, who lives in the house, finds the smell of its paint offensive. She hopes that the odor will dissipate by the end of the summer.
The doll’s house is amazing to all who see it because it accurately reproduces a real house in miniature, including such fine details as chimneys, window panes, wallpaper, umbrellas, and plates on the table. Kezia, one of the Burnell daughters, finds the lamp on the dining room table to be the most interesting aspect. The dolls that are included with the house seem too big to live in a house like this, but Kezia and the other children are enchanted with the details of the doll’s house.
The three Burnell girls—Isabel, Lottie, and Kezia—are excited about their new doll’s house, and they want to bring friends from school home to see it. Their mother, however, is concerned that having too many girls come through the house might create too much trouble, so she puts limitations on the visitors; only two guests can come over at a time, and they are not allowed into the house. Isabel, as the oldest Burnell, is allowed first choice of which friends to invite. The girls are anxious, but they arrive at school just in time for classes. Later, at recess, Isabel is able to gather the girls around her and describe the house to them. All of the girls gather and are impressed. They are so enthusiastic about taking their turns to go to the Burnell house that they compete to show each other who is a better friend to Isabel. Outside of the group, off to the side, stand the Kelvey sisters.
Lil and Else Kelvey come from a poor family. In general, the families where they live are wealthy, but the school district serves a wide geographical area, and families from the poor areas on the outskirts of town send their children there as well. The Kelveys’ mother does laundry for some of the families of Lil and Else’s schoolmates, and no one even knows where their father is, although rumors abound that he is in jail. The girls dress in hand-me-down clothes and in strange garments sewn together from things the rich households gave to their mother. Most of the poor children at the school are accepted by the students and their families, but the Kelveys are not. As the Burnell girls stand at the center of attention, choosing which girls to invite to their home to see the doll’s house, the Kelvey sisters are not even considered.
Over the course of weeks, all of the girls from school except the Kelvey girls go to view the doll’s house. Kezia asks her mother if she may invite the Kelveys to see it, but her mother adamantly refuses. She will not say why she will not let them come to the house, but she assumes that Kezia understands the social rules that prohibit such a visit. At school, the other children become aware of the Kelveys’ social situation when they see them excluded from viewing the doll’s house. At first, they talk rudely about the Kelvey sisters among themselves, but in time they are emboldened to risk offending them. To show off to the other girls, Lena Logan walks over to Lil Kelvey and asks if she plans to be a servant when she grows up, which makes the other girls laugh maliciously. Their laughing makes Lena turn even meaner, and she shouts out pointedly that the Kelveys’ father is in prison. The other girls are delighted to see the Kelveys humiliated.
That afternoon, Pat, the handyman, picks up the girls in the buggy, and when they arrive home, they find that there are visitors. The older two girls run upstairs to change into their good clothes, but Kezia goes out into the yard by herself, feeling estranged from her family. When she sees the Kelvey sisters walking along the road, she climbs up on the gate and calls out to them, inviting them into the yard to take a look at the doll’s house. Lil Kelvey knows that Kezia’s mother has forbidden them from entering the yard, and so she is hesitant to enter, but Kezia tells her that no one will see them. Else tugs on Lil’s skirt to show that she would like to see it very much.
The three girls stand before the doll’s house. Kezia opens it and just as she starts to show the Kelveys the inside, her Aunt Beryl notices them from inside the house and calls out angrily, telling the Kelvey girls to leave their yard and never come back, chasing them away ‘‘as if they were chickens.’’ She yells at Kezia and slams the doll’s house shut. Scolding Kezia and shouting at the lower-class Kelvey girls makes her feel good.
The Kelvey sisters walk away from the Burnell house. Lil is humiliated by the things that Aunt Beryl has called her. After the two girls sit quietly for a brief while, Else, who has not spoken up to this point in the story, tells her sister, smiling with pride, that she did, in fact manage to catch a view of the little lamp that was the object of Kezia’s attention.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 29, Katherine Mansfield, Published by Gale Group, 2001.