What is the central theme in Katherine Mansfield's short story "The Doll's House"?

The central theme in Katherine Mansfield’s short story “The Doll’s House” is the unfair practice of class distinction in society. The story, written while the author’s homeland of New Zealand was still a British colony, depicts the distinction between the rich and poor based on prejudice in that society.

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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.

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The central theme in Katherine Mansfield's short story "The Doll's House" concerns the inhumanity of social class discrimination and the hope for the dawn of a new day bringing true equality.

Mansfield grew up in British colonial New Zealand, and her short story, as well as many of her other works, reflect her own experiences and observations. In colonial New Zealand, not many schools existed; therefore, the rich were forced to attend school with the poor working-class children, a truth reflected in the setting of "The Doll's House." The three Burnell girls, who are given the dollhouse, represent the rich who must attend school with the "judge's little girls, the doctor's daughters, the store-keeper's children, [and] the milkman's." But this mix of society, rather than creating equality, only serves to emphasize established social hierarchy. The Burnells especially emphasize social hierarchy because, being rich, they look down their noses at others in their school. Though they socialize with those whom they are allowed to at their school, they only deign to do so. Isabel, in particular, only socializes with other girls when she knows doing so will make them envious of her. The dollhouse they are given symbolizes their view, especially their parents' view, of ideal upper class life, and evidence that the Burnells only deign to socialize with those beneath them at their school is seen in the fact that the Burnell sisters are granted permission to invite girls from school to come see the dollhouse, two at a time, but the girls are given strict orders about what their invited guests are permitted to do:

[The invited girls were not] to stay to tea, of course, or to come traipsing through the house. But just to stand quietly in the courtyard while Isabel pointed out the beauties, and Lottie and Kezia looked please.

While the Burnells look down their noses at those they deign to socialize with at school, they, along with the rest of the school, completely snub the two Kelvey girls, who represent the poorest of the poor. They are daughters of the washerwoman, and their missing father is rumored to be imprisoned. Being the poorest of the poor, they are completely forbidden to come look at the dollhouse or even to so much as speak to the Burnells.

Yet, while the dollhouse represents the ideal upper class life, it contains one more symbol, the lamp that looks so real that Kezia, the youngest, thinks it is the best part about the dollhouse. The lamp symbolizes a ray of hope in the dark world, of hope for the elimination of socioeconomic disparities and the creation of true equality. We particularly see the symbolism of the lamp when, Kezia, against her family's wishes, invites the Kelvey girls in to see the doll house. They are soon chased away by Kezia's aunt; regardless, Else Kelvey, the youngest, speaks of seeing a glimmer of hope for a better tomorrow when, at the end of the story, she smiles and softly says, "I seen the little lamp."

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Mansfield's main theme in "The Doll's House" is the injustices and cruelty associated with class distinctions. Set in colonial New Zealand, Mansfield shows that differences set along class lines are rigidly adhered to. She also shows that those in a higher class take an almost perverse pleasure in being cruel to those of lower classes.

Along with these ideas, Mansfield does show that there is some hope because the classes are forced to deal with each other in everyday situations. This is shown through the character of Kezia and the lamp.

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