Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Mansfield aspired to write the perfect short story and her writing was influenced by the Russian writer Anton Chekhov. Like jewels, her stories exhibit many facets and are complex and luminous. She is skillful in deft character portrayal, creating powerful impressions with metaphor, and manipulating reader responses with a few apt words. Her description of Else Kelvey is an example. By frequently calling the girl “Our Else,” she enlists the reader’s sympathies: “She was a tiny wishbone of a child, with cropped hair and enormous solemn eyes—a little white owl.” In her white “nightgown” of a dress, Else is a spectral image, perhaps a sad angel. She seems to be not quite of this world, and nobody has ever seen her smile. It is primarily through Else that readers experience the cruelty of the other children and adults.

Mansfield uses the doll’s house itself as a metaphor for the world of the rich upper class and creates a symbolic language surrounding it. The dollhouse opens by swinging its entire front back to reveal a cross section: “Perhaps it is the way God opens houses at dead of night when He is taking a quiet turn with an angel.” It is through Else’s eyes that the reader sees into this world that normally would remain brutally closed to a poor child. The little amber lamp that Kezia loves comes to represent what is real, or of real value, in an otherwise desolate emotional world. It is apparently the description of the lamp that Else overhears that emboldens her to ask Lil to go see the dollhouse against Lil’s better judgment.

The final view of the Kelveys after seeing the dollhouse, resting together on their way home, picks up on the spiritual overtone in the story. Beryl’s cruelty is forgotten. The “little lamp” that Else has seen, a symbol for Kezia’s kindness and human warmth that defies the inhumane tyranny of class distinction, is a light that shines in the darkness of the life of this child. Something “real” is redeemed as Else smiles her “rare smile” at the end of the story.