The Doll’s House, Katherine Mansfield: Summary & Analysis

Katherine Mansfield (1888–1923) was born in Wellington, New Zealand, as the third child of a wealthy merchant father and a socially-minded mother. At the age of five, her family moved to the rural town of Karori, where she showed great talent in artistic pursuits like writing and playing the cello.

Mansfield's love for country living clashed with her family's traditional values, leading her to seek independence. At the age of 19, she embarked on a journey to London, England, where she found complete creative freedom.

Despite her relatively short life, Mansfield became a master of the short tale and developed a distinct prose style. Her best works showcased experimental narrative techniques that delved deep into the minds of her characters. Although she never returned to New Zealand, she remained connected to her hometown in spirit, drawing inspiration from her childhood memories for many of her writings, including "The Doll's House."

About The Story

This story is set in late 1800s New Zealand, which was then a British colony. The British immigrants brought not only their belongings but also the societal prejudices from their homeland. The British society of that era was rigidly divided along class lines, where social status was primarily determined by birth, making upward mobility challenging. In her fiction, Mansfield challenged this elitist system.

Perspective and Narrative

In "The Doll's House," the story is narrated in the third person, which means the narrator is an observer from the outside and not a character within the story. This type of narrator is often omniscient, possessing knowledge of the characters' thoughts and emotions. In the case of this story, the omniscient narrator reveals the private wishes and desires of various characters, including the Burnell children.

Unlike stories told in the first person, narratives from an omniscient perspective provide a broader and potentially more reliable view of events. Writers often use this point of view to explore significant social issues. In the case of "The Doll's House," the omniscient perspective influences the tone of the story and allows the author to present diverse characters' ideas and perspectives, providing insights into her own sentiments about the depicted events.

The Doll's House and Social Critique

The central symbol in the story is the doll's house, which becomes a powerful metaphor for social inequality. The Burnell children's possession of a lavish doll's house sets them apart from the less fortunate Kelvey sisters, who come from a lower social class. This dichotomy highlights the deep divisions within society and the privilege and exclusivity enjoyed by some at the expense of others.

Mansfield's narrative explores the complexities of social status and its impact on individuals, emphasizing the discrimination faced by those from lower classes. The story serves as a critique of the prevailing elitist system, shedding light on the unfairness and prejudices that persisted in British colonial society in New Zealand.

Through the doll's house and the interactions between characters, Mansfield effectively conveys her message about the need for empathy, understanding, and breaking down class barriers to create a more equitable and compassionate society.

Summary of The Doll’s House

The Doll’s House is a short story written by Katherine Mansfield in 1922. It delves into themes of social class, prejudice, and the innocence of children. Set in late 1800s New Zealand, a British colony, the story follows the Burnell family, consisting of three girls, who receive a doll’s house as a gift. The Burnell children eagerly show it off to their classmates, except for the Kelvey sisters, who are intentionally left out due to their lower social status.

Impact of Adult Views on Children

The story explores how adult prejudices influence the behavior of children. The exclusion of the Kelvey sisters from viewing the doll’s house reflects society's practice of judging others solely based on appearance and class, overlooking their true character. This fosters bias and deprives children of their innocence. However, the youngest Burnell child, Kezia, defies social norms and invites the Kelvey sisters to see the doll's house, leading to a tentative friendship and symbolizing hope for a more compassionate society.

Marginalization and Prejudice

Mansfield delves into mature subjects, including class prejudice and the marginalization of the poor. The Kelvey sisters face economic and racial persecution due to their mother's occupation as a washerwoman, leading to their exclusion and ridicule at school. The story also highlights the silencing of marginalized individuals, represented by the Kelvey girls' mutism. Aunt Beryl, another marginalized character, hides her secret affair to avoid social ostracization.

Empathy and Breaking Stereotypes

The story emphasizes the importance of empathy and breaking stereotypes. Kezia's act of inviting the Kelvey sisters challenges the rigid class distinctions and reveals her innocence in wanting to share her joy with others. However, Aunt Beryl disapproves of this, representing the perpetuation of societal norms.

The Doll’s House serves as a powerful critique of the social and economic injustices prevalent in society, shedding light on the consequences of prejudice and the need for understanding and compassion. Through the poignant portrayal of the Burnell and Kelvey sisters, as well as Aunt Beryl, Mansfield delivers a thought-provoking exploration of human nature and the impact of societal expectations on individuals, especially the voiceless and marginalized.

Themes of The Doll’s House

1. Socioeconomic Distinction and Class Prejudice

Katherine Mansfield’s “The Doll’s House” explores the social divide and class prejudice that existed in the 1900s. The story depicts how wealthy families, like the Burnells, teach their children to distance themselves from others based on social position. The exclusion and mistreatment of the Kelveys, daughters of a washerwoman and an unknown father, by their peers and even the teacher highlight the unjust class distinctions prevalent in society.

2. Injustice and Marginalization

Injustice is evident in the way the other girls perceive and treat the Kelveys solely because they are poor. The Kelveys face teasing and verbal torment, reflecting the cruel treatment they endure due to their socioeconomic status. Even the teacher, who should be fair, shows bias by treating them differently. This theme sheds light on the discrimination and marginalization experienced by the less privileged members of society.

3. Money as a Tool of Power and Materialism

The story portrays money as a powerful tool that defines happiness and popularity. The girls with money enjoy special privileges, such as dining together and wearing nice clothes, while the Kelveys are relegated to eating jam sandwiches and wearing tattered clothes. This portrayal highlights how material wealth can control human interactions and social dynamics.

4. Shallowness of Human Interactions

The shallowness of human dynamics is reflected in the behavior of the girls at school. They become friends with the Burnells and treat them differently because of their doll's house, while the Kelveys are disregarded and compared to animals due to their poverty. This theme illustrates the superficiality and lack of genuine empathy in human interactions.

Overall, Katherine Mansfield's "The Doll's House" addresses the issues of class distinction, injustice, materialism, and the shallowness of human interactions. The story serves as a poignant reminder that people should be judged as individuals, not by their social status or background, and that genuine empathy and compassion should prevail over prejudice and discrimination.

Symbolism in The Doll's House

The Lamp in the Dollhouse

The lamp installed in the dollhouse's dining area holds a special significance in the story. Kezia Burnell is captivated by the lamp and considers it the nicest thing ever because it appears so real. The lamp symbolizes the common desires, dreams, wishes, and hopes shared by people, regardless of their social status. Kezia's admiration for the lamp represents her genuine empathy and compassion, which is not seen in others around her, except for Else Kelvey. Else also dreams about the lamp, emphasizing how dreams can make people feel fulfilled and human, despite societal differences.

The Dollhouse

The dollhouse itself represents the top class in society, with its wallpapered walls and carpets. However, the dolls and people inside the house appear stiff and do not seem to belong to the house. This contrast reflects the facade of perfection and material wealth that the upper class presents, but it also hides the cruelty and lack of genuine connection within this societal class.

The foul odor of paint in the dollhouse symbolizes the underlying brutality of society, reminding readers that appearances can be deceiving, and there may be hidden ugliness behind seemingly perfect exteriors.

The Lamp as a Symbol of Hope

The small lamp in the dollhouse represents hope, especially for the Kelvey daughters and other underprivileged individuals. It symbolizes the possibility of breaking societal boundaries and sharing compassion and kindness with others. Kezia's desire to share the light of the lamp with the Kelveys reflects her rebellion against societal norms and her understanding of the power of empathy and inclusion.

Overall, the symbolism in "The Doll's House" emphasizes the universal human desires and hopes that transcend societal differences. The lamp and the dollhouse serve as powerful symbols that shed light on the shallowness of materialism and the importance of empathy and compassion in fostering genuine human connections.

Characterization in The Doll's House

Among the Burnell children, it is evident that Kezia is the most well-rounded character. Unlike her siblings, who are primarily interested in flaunting the Doll's House to attain social status and humiliate the Kelvey sisters, Kezia shows depth and empathy.

Kezia's character is marked by her innocence and lack of awareness of the stark social lines that separate her society into different classes. She does not perceive the dividing line between her and the Kelveys, and this is evident when she warmly invites them to view the dollhouse.

Throughout the story, social class is a significant issue that creates obstacles in society, leading to the marginalization of individuals like the Kelveys. However, Kezia stands out because she does not conform to the norms dictated by social class. Her act of inviting the Kelveys shows her willingness to break down the walls of social division and treat others with kindness and inclusion.

Initially, the Kelvey sisters are portrayed as flat figures, distinguished by their appearance and behavior. Lil is characterized by her foolish smile, while Else always clings to her sister. However, towards the end of the story, the author reveals a deeper side to Else. Her remark about seeing the "little lamp" not only highlights the significance of the lamp as a symbol but also demonstrates that Else is not the silent and unintelligent girl that others perceive her to be. She displays the ability to think on a higher level, challenging the stereotypical assumptions made about her.

In contrast to the other children, who adhere to societal norms and prejudices, Kezia's characterization serves as a powerful representation of empathy, compassion, and the capacity to see beyond social barriers. She becomes a symbol of hope for a more inclusive and compassionate society that embraces all individuals, regardless of their social standing.

FAQs

What is the moral lesson of "The Doll's House" by Katherine Mansfield?

The moral lesson of "The Doll's House" revolves around the issue of prejudice and class distinction. The story teaches us that being prejudiced is not limited to differences in color or race but can also extend to socioeconomic differences between rich and poor individuals. It highlights the unfair practice of judging and excluding others based on their social status, urging us to embrace empathy, compassion, and inclusivity.

What is the underlying theme of the story "The Doll's House"?

The underlying theme of "The Doll's House" is the exploration of class distinction and social injustice. Set in a British colony, the story portrays the divide between the rich and poor in society, with the Burnell sisters representing the privileged class and the Kelvey sisters symbolizing the marginalized and disadvantaged. The story serves as a critique of class-based prejudice and discrimination.

Why is Else called "Our Else" in "The Doll's House"?

The author, Katherine Mansfield, refers to Else as "our Else" to emphasize a sense of connection and identification with the Kelvey sisters. By using "our," Mansfield aims to create empathy and understanding for the Kelvey girls, particularly the younger one, Else.

How does the author Katherine Mansfield show the innocence of small children and the cruelty of society in the story?

Katherine Mansfield portrays the innocence of small children, particularly the Kelvey sisters, Lil and Else, through their meek and passive behavior in the face of societal cruelty. Despite facing taunts and mistreatment, they do not protest or retaliate, highlighting their innocence and vulnerability. On the other hand, society's cruelty is demonstrated through the harsh treatment and exclusion the Kelvey sisters experience due to their lower socioeconomic status.

What is the conflict of "The Doll's House" by Katherine Mansfield?

The primary conflict in "The Doll's House" is the socioeconomic divide between the privileged Burnell sisters and the disadvantaged Kelvey sisters. The story explores the clash between the wealthy elite, who possess social power and material abundance, and the Kelveys, who are shunned and ostracized due to their impoverished background. The conflict centers on the Burnells' doll's house, which becomes a symbol of social status and exclusion.

How does Katherine Mansfield discuss the problem of class in "The Doll's House"?

Katherine Mansfield uses "The Doll's House" as a metaphor to address issues of class prejudice and warfare. The story revolves around the Burnell sisters, representing the upper-class privilege, and the Kelvey sisters, symbolizing the marginalized and underprivileged. The dollhouse itself serves as a representation of the Burnells' affluent lifestyle. Through this narrative, Mansfield critiques the unfair practice of class distinction in society and highlights the need for compassion and understanding towards those less fortunate.

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