New Zealander Katherine Mansfield was a prolific short story writer and remains one of the finest exponents of the genre. A number of her stories feature the Burnell family and their social pretensions, issues which are important in The Doll’s House.
The doll’s house itself is clearly an important device within the story. It is a grand and expensive plaything, large and imposing, gifted to a well-to-do family. It generates enormous excitement among the Burnell children, and then among the children at their school, amplifying its significance and status. It is important too that it is a house, representing and ideal of family solidity, wealth and a firm position within society.
The features of the house confirm this – they are so special that the ‘smell of paint, which is strong enough to make anyone seriously ill’, becomes unimportant to the family. It is an important undercurrent for the reader, though, signalling that impressive though the doll’s house is, something is amiss. There are other signs that the house is not quite so special, like the unappealing ‘dark, oily, spinach green’ paint, and ‘big lumps of congealed paint hanging along the edge’ of the porch. Other aspects of the house are more appealing, like the door which ‘was like a little slab of toffee’ and the ‘solid little chimneys’, but the real delights are inside, with ‘papered’ rooms, ‘Red carpet’, ‘plush chairs’, ‘a dresser with tiny plates’ – it is a replica of a very solid, respectable, upper middle class house. The Burnell children, of course, are eager to show off about the house at school.
One of Mansfield’s key features of her short stories is her use of a shifting narrative perspective. This story starts with a relatively detached third person narrative – note that the view of a member of the family is inserted in brackets and speech marks in the first paragraph. Yet the third paragraph, beginning ‘But perfect, perfect little house!’ expresses the view of one of the Burnell children and a similar effect is achieved with the question ‘Why don’t all houses open like that?’ While maintaining a third person perspective, Mansfield’s narrative is fluid, reflecting the consciousness of different characters at different times. Importantly, it is Kezia who gradually comes into focus more than the other children; she is the heart of the story and it is she that notices the lamp – ‘It seemed to smile at Kezia”, which only Kezia would know.
The Kelvey Sisters
It is at school the reader is introduced to the Kelveys. While numbers of children ‘put their arms round’ Isabel to hear about the doll’s house, the only children Mansfield names are the Kelveys, even though they are ‘outside the ring’. This naming places the Burnells and the Kelveys in opposition, one family with social aspirations and the other family scorned by society. But Mansfield’s description of the Kelveys, exploring their rejection by other families, draws sympathy towards them as the reader recognises they are the victims of snobbery. The Kelvey children are ‘shunned by everybody’, including the teacher who has ‘a special voice for them’. Though they are dismissed as ‘daughters of a washerwoman and a gaolbird’, it is an assumption that their father is in prison and the narrative makes clear that the mother is ‘hard-working’. Her hard work is apparent in the clothes she makes for her daughters, which are cruelly mocked by others. This is reinforced later when Mansfield uses the adverb ‘spitefully’ and the verb ‘hissed’ as the other children taunt the Kelveys with unmistakeable cruelty. On the other hand, Mansfield makes the Kelveys appear humble and resourceful. It is also important that the girls trust each other completely – ‘The Kelveys never failed to understand each other.’ It is Kezia who asks her mother if the Kelveys can come to see the doll’s house and receives ‘Certainly not’ as a response.
Having given the reader the primacy of Kezia’s consciousness earlier in the story, Mansfield uses her character to break the taboo with the Kelveys. Mansfield makes it clear that it is not a spontaneous whim: ‘she had made up her mind’. Against the Kelvey girls’ natural reluctance and knowledge of their lack of welcome, Kezia encourages them to see the doll’s house. Mansfield presents her as the spirit of generosity and humanity, reaching across the social gulf, opening the gate and leading the two girls to the house, then opening it herself ‘kindly’.
Mansfield gives only half a sentence worth of viewing the doll’s house before Aunt Beryl interrupts and sends the Kelveys packing with her ‘cold, furious voice’. They had followed Kezia like ‘two little stray cats’; now Beryl ‘shooed them out as if they were chickens’. The animal similes demonstrate not only society’s attitudes towards the Kelveys, but how far they have come to accept them as normal. Mansfield also makes the reader privy to Beryl’s own stresses which have contributed to her temper, which condemns her more for taking out her private frustrations on innocent children. But the closing of the story is key, as the endings of most short stories are. The final view of the story is not unhappy, rejected children, but the triumph of Kezia’s act of generosity. It was Kezia, who saw the lamp in the house as the most important item, perhaps a symbol in the story of enlightenment, and at the end, Else Kelvey ‘had forgotten the cross lady’, who significantly is not even known by name, be she takes immense satisfaction that ‘I seen the little lamp’.