In "The Doll's House," what does the author disapprove of?

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accessteacher's profile pic

accessteacher | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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It is clear that this story is written in response to social and class divisions that leave some people shunned and excluded from the rest of their community. This is clearly shown in this story through the presentation of the Kelvey sisters. Let us note how the author describes them and the way that they are treated by the other girls in the story:

But the line had to be drawn somewhere. It was drawn at the Kelveys. Many of the children, including the Burnells, were not allowed even to speak to them. They walked past the Kelveys with their heads in the air, and as they set the fashion in all matters of behaviour, the Kelveys were shunned by everybody. Even the teacher had a special voice for them, and a special smile for the other children when Lil Kelvey came up to her desk with a bunch of dreadfully common-looking flowers.

This short story therefore presents us with the sharply demarcated lines of society and the way in which they result in some characters experiencing isolation, hardship and exclusion as a result. The doll's house, with its little lamp, and in particular the way that Keziah is so drawn to it, indicates that the lamp is a symbol of the warmth of human kindness, which makes us think of what the world would look like if there was not a "line" that had to be "drawn somewhere."

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mwestwood's profile pic

mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The author disapproves of snobbery and exclusion of others simply because of their social class. Like many other short stories by Katherine Mansfield, "The Doll's House" has a narrative in which the author downplays character and action and focuses, instead, upon an illuminating moment of significance. This moment of kindness breaks precedent and reaches across class distinctions.

Because there is only one school in the area, the upper-class children attend with all the other classes of children, whereas in England they would attend schools according to their social positions. Nevertheless, the wealthy Burnells are not permitted to associate at school with anyone but those of their own social class. Their poor classmates, the Kelvey sisters, are shunned by the Burnells and others because their mother is a mere washerwoman, and their absent father is rumored to be "a jailbird." The smaller of the two sisters, Else, "a tiny wishbone of a child...with enormous solemn eyes" always clings to her older sister, Lil.

These girls are excluded from viewing the marvelous doll house sent to the Burnell girls. When Isabel Burnell, the eldest of the sisters, puts this marvel on display for her classmates at the school's playground, the Kelsey sisters "hovered at the edge," listening while the others are allowed to view it. Then, as Isabel Burnell finishes her description of the inside of the house, her sister Kezia interrupts, "You've forgotten the lamp, Isabel." Isabel then describes a tiny lamp made of yellow glass with a white globe that rests upon the little dining room table. Kezia declares, "The lamp's best of all," but no one pays attention. Instead, they are concerned about putting their arms around Isabel and walking off with her in a false glow of social acceptance. 

Only the little Kelveys moved away forgotten; there was nothing more for them to hear.

This little doll house becomes the talk of all the children. Finally, everyone has viewed this marvel except the Kelveys. When Kezia Burnell asks her mother if she may show the Kelvey girls the house "just once," she is told, "Certainly not, Kezia," and her class-conscious mother reminds Kezia that she knows "quite well why not."

At school the other girls, who feel they are now in Isabel's favor, belittle Lil and Else Kelvey. But, later on, while guests are at the Burnell house, Kezia "thieved out the back" and goes to the gate where she speaks to the Kelvey girls. The girls are taken aback by her disobedience of her social rules. 

"You can come and see our doll's house if you want to," says Kezia.
Lil gasped, then she said, "Your ma told our ma you wasn't to speak to us."

But Kezia offers again to show the house to them, explaining that they may come because no one is watching. After Else looks up at her sister with large, imploring eyes, Lil lets Kezia lead the way, and the two girls follow "like two stray cats." Theirs is only a brief look because Aunt Beryl soon calls to Kezia as she stands staring in disbelief. "How dare you ask the little Kelveys into the courtyard!" she scolds Kezia. Then she hastily turns the Kelveys out.

Once the Kelvey girls are well out of sight of the Burnell residence, "our Else" moves near her sister and "smiled her rare smile" as she reflects, "I seen the little lamp." This small lamp symbolizes for Else the light and warmth of kindness that has emanated from the heart of Kezia, who has offered them social inclusion.

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