Using the stream of consciousness technique, New Zealand author Katherine Mansfield (1888—1923) became one of the early twentieth century’s most famous short story writers. Though she was born into a middle-class family, her background seemed to predict a less-than-auspicious future, because her life was filled with loneliness, isolation, and great disappointment in human behavior. She grew to be a bitter critic of human relationships.
Mansfield’s writings highlight a number of consistent themes, such as prejudice, innocence of the societal middle class, and naiveté among the economically challenged. However, it is quite clear that the author’s primary focus remained discrimination in the form of class distinction. This focus forms the central theme of "The Doll's House."
At the time of the writing of this short story, New Zealand was still controlled by Great Britain and strict class distinctions were maintained throughout the British colony. Society was clearly separated into a well-to-do upper class and an impoverished economic lower class. In “The Doll’s House,” the separation of the rich Burnells from the impoverished Kelveys is evident:
It was Aunt Beryl’s voice. They turned round. At the back door stood Aunt Beryl, staring as if she couldn’t believe what she saw.
“How dare you ask the little Kelveys into the courtyard?” said her cold, furious voice. “You know as well as I do, you’re not allowed to talk to them. Run away, children, run away at once. And don’t come back again,” said Aunt Beryl. And she stepped into the yard and shooed them out as if they were chickens.
“Off you go immediately!” she called, cold and proud.
In Mansfield’s view, class distinctions were not only cruel, but also based on false premises. She envisioned class prejudice as a result of superficial judgments made by rich and powerful people in society who failed to see the inner beauty and value of those less fortunate in the same society. The Doll’s House is an effort to demonstrate how kindness and sympathy overcome prejudice against lower-class outsiders in society. The central theme of this story is driven by characters, settings, and dialogue rather than plot. That theme is the pointless futility of class distinctions, which are always based on intolerance, ignorance, narrow-mindedness, and bigotry.