What is the lesson in the short story "The Doll's House"?

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M.P. Ossa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In the short story "The Doll's House," Katherine Mansfield gives the reader a glimpse into the unfair treatment of the different social classes in her native New Zealand from the perspective of little girls interacting around a newly-acquired doll's house.

In this story, a combination of remoteness, isolation, and circumstances, bring together children from different social backgrounds into one, same school.

....the school the Burnell children went to was not at all the kind of place their parents would have chosen .... But there was none. It was the only school for miles. [...]all the children in the neighborhood, the judge's little girls, the doctor's daughters, the store-keeper's children, the milkman's, were forced to mix together

The Burnell sisters, well-to-do and privileged, were the fortunate recipients of a gift from a family friend: a scale-model doll's house with dolls inside and miniature furnishings. While all the girls at school were crazy about the Burnell's doll's house, the privilege of actually seeing it was reserved only for the upper class girls from the class. The Burnell girls' aunt, Beryl, would have never accepted the likes of the Kelvey girls inside their household.

Still, Kezia, one of the Burnells, felt compassion toward the Kelvey girls. She even ventured to let them in her house to see the doll's house, particularly, the lamp that looked so realistic, and which both she and Else Kelvey admired. Aunt Beryl caught them, ran them off the house like vermin, and scolded Kezia not to ever let them in again.

Even though they were treated like substandard citizens, the Kelvey girls, in their innocence, were pleased to have seen the house. These are the lessons to be learned:

1. No matter what your background is, everyone has the same ability to find beauty and refinement in things, if you are born with that quality, the way Else and Kezia both found beauty in the same object.

2. Money does not buy class. Even though Beryl lived with the girls in an upper-class environment, she was clearly acting as a governess to them, and she was probably the unmarried aunt that someone had to take mercifully take care of. Moreover, Beryl had a secret dealing with a mysterious man who left a letter. All of these are clear indicators that she, herself, was not in the highest social standing. And yet, she was snobbish enough to run off the Kelveys as if they were lesser than herself.

3. Kindness goes a long way. Notice that the mere glimpse of the doll's house made the day of two girls who were clearly neglected and mistreated by everyone. Kezia may have not known it, but she made a difference in the life of the Kelveys by engaging in a simple, human act of kindness.

sullymonster eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The theme of this story revolves around class distinctions and discrimination.  Society is obsessed with appearance, and this plays into class separations.  The rich are respected not because the are "better" people, but because the appear "better" - nicer clothes, fancier housing, etc.  This focus on appearance is symbolized in the doll's house the girls receive.  It is a perfect imitation of a rich home, and earns the girls the respect of their classmates, as if they actually did own a rich home. 

However, this appearance of respectability is often false.  Two girls are consistently withheld from visiting the doll house.  The Kelvey girls come from a poor household.  Add to this that their father is in prison.  The appearance is that they are "less" than everyone else, and so they are prevented from visiting the doll house.  However, Kezia realizes how unfair this is, and tries to obtain permission for the Kelvey's to come to the house.  Unfortunately, her "respected" family refuses to allow such "dangerous" little girls to come to the home.  The discrimination first shown by the older Burnells and then by the classmates of the Kelveys demonstrates the unfairness in social class structure.