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...

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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. Thedollhouse 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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What are the themes in "The Doll's House" by Katherine Mansfield?

One of the themes in this short story centers around the idea that every person ultimately craves inclusion.

The Kelvey girls are excluded from the social circles at school because of their poverty. They are "always by themselves," and the other girls ridicule them about their prospects of becoming servants when they grow up. They endure the mocking jeers of Lena, who drags one foot behind her, giggling behind her hand, as she attempts to engage Lil Kelvey in demeaning conversation. And every other girl gets invited to see the glorious doll house except the Kelvey girls.

They don't beg for an invitation like the other girls because they are used to rejection and exclusion. Yet when a chance opportunity presents itself, they follow Kezia "like two little stray cats" to share in the same experience that the other girls have enjoyed.

Even after being chased off the property by Aunt Beryl, the Kelvey girls look "dreamily" across the land in front of them, still focused on the "little lamp" in the doll's house which they had temporarily been granted access to. Else "smiled her rare smile" at the memory of the house. For just a moment, the sisters were included in a society which only treats them with scorn, and the memory of that inclusion is enough to allow hope to creep into their souls, however fleeting. The doll's house symbolizes the access to inclusion inherent in any society and therefore the exclusion that some constantly face.

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What are the themes in "The Doll's House" by Katherine Mansfield?

Certainly, the story seems to convey the theme that hate and prejudice are learned rather than inherent. Kezia Burnell, for example, seems not to have inherited or imbibed the proud and scornful attitude of the adults in her family and even her oldest sister. Her mother flatly refuses her compassionate request to invite the Kelveys over after all the other children have seen the doll's house, and her Aunt Beryl cruelly runs them off as though they were somehow dangerous. Even the other girls at school seem to enjoy picking on them and belittling them; however, Kezia's refusal to join in this cruel exclusion proves that these behaviors are not fundamental parts of our nature but, rather, something we adopt in order to fit in or make ourselves feel better about our own lives.

The story also seems to convey a theme regarding the innocence of children and their uncanny ability to see beauty rather than ugliness. The Burnell girls seem not to notice the terrible paint smell of the doll's house or even the yellow paint "congealed" around the porch or the latch painted shut; they only see its beauty and magic. The Kelvey girls also quickly forget Kezia's aunt's terribly proud and mean words to them and recall only "Dreamily" their experience of seeing the doll's house. Little Else is just glad to have seen the tiny, perfect oil lamp that so enraptured Kezia as well.

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What are the themes in "The Doll's House" by Katherine Mansfield?

"The Doll's House", by Katherine Mansfield, is a story that treats the topics of social inequality, injustice, money as a tool of power, the shallowness of human dynamics.

Social inequality, although not in itself a rarity, is treated from the perspective of adults and the way that they teach their children to distance themselves from others based on social status. The wealthy Burnell girls receive a very unique and expensive gift: the rare scale-model doll house that other little girls would only dream to have. However, it is the adults (the Burnell's mother) who teaches the girls that there is such a thing as being different; in her case, she instills in the girls the feeling that, just by social ranking, they are superior.

"Mother," said Kezia, "can't I ask the Kelveys just once?" "Certainly not, Kezia." "But why not?" "Run away, Kezia; you know quite well why not."

Injustice comes in the form of how the other girls view and treat the Kelveys just for being poor. The Kelveys are teased and verbally abused because they are the daughters of a washerwoman and an unknown father.

"Is it true you're going to be a servant when you grow up, Lil Kelvey?" shrilled Lena. Dead silence. But instead of answering, Lil only gave her silly, shame-faced smile.

In the story, money is the powerful tool that defines happiness and popularity. The girls with money ate together at school enjoying mutton sandwiches and jelly cakes. The Kelvey's on the other hand, sat together and ate their blobbed jam sandwiches.  The Kelveys also lacked the means to wear nice clothes and all that they wore were ill-fitting hand-me-downs. This is how money differentiates a good life from a miserable one. 

Finally, the shallowness of human dynamics is treated from the perspective of the girls at school. They all befriended the Burnells for the sake of the doll's house. The Burnell's aunt Beryl kicked the Kelveys out of the house simply because of the reputation that the people have unfairly bestowed upon them. Still it is interesting that it is Kezia Burnell who invites the Kelveys to see the doll's house regardless of all the negative things that she has been told.

Your ma told our ma you wasn't to speak to us." "Oh, well," said Kezia. She didn't know what to reply. "It doesn't matter. You can come and see our doll's house all the same. Come on. Nobody's looking."

Therefore, the topics in the story include money as it affects human dynamics and in the way that it diffentiates one another.

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