Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 518
“The Doll’s House” by Katherine Mansfield is an extended metaphor for social class discrimination and warfare. The story centers on three wealthy sisters and two poor sisters and is an analysis and criticism of upper-class privilege.
The story doesn’t mention any particular reason as to why the wealthy Burnell sisters receive the dollhouse or why they deserve it; it is sent as a gift from a guest who had stayed at their house. The dollhouse is a privilege that the impoverished Kelvey sisters—and, likely, most of their middle-class schoolmates—can’t afford.
The dollhouse itself represents the Burnells’ wealthy lifestyle. It is incredibly detailed and contains various miniature accessories, and it is treasured by the wealthy sisters—not simply because they enjoy it, but because it increases their social status at school. The Burnells’ attitudes toward the dollhouse also reflect a sort of materialism: the girls are not interested in the dolls themselves, which seem too large for the house, but in the house’s furnishings and accessories. When the Burnell girls invite friends over to see the house, they do not play with it; their guests are expected to stand and admire the house’s “beauties” as Isabel points them out.
The Burnell sisters and their circle of friends are presented as a microcosm of society as a whole. In the same way that affluent individuals perceive an actual mansion, the dollhouse becomes a symbol of wealth, power, and social capital among the schoolchildren. The impoverished Kelvey sisters are therefore not allowed to see the dollhouse, just as middle- and lower-class children from their school are not allowed to “stay to tea” or see the Burnells’ actual house. Additionally, both adults and children of the community are excessively unsympathetic: just as Aunt Beryl “felt lighter” after scolding and chasing off the Kelvey sisters, the girls at school feel more joyful and energetic than ever after insulting and shaming them.
Mansfield depicts the evils of the arrogant upper class through the harsh treatment of Lil and Else Kelvey as they are repeatedly excluded, taunted, and bullied by their peers. She further highlights this by causing the reader to empathize with the downtrodden sisters. Throughout the story, Mansfield refers to Else as “our Else,” emphasizing that she wishes the audience to identify with the sisters, especially the younger one. The Kelvey girls are portrayed as the epitome of goodness and humility: Lil brings her teacher a bouquet of flowers that she presumably picked for her, and Else wears a long white dress that is perhaps symbolic of innocence. In the end, when they are chased off by Kezia’s aunt Beryl, the sisters are presented in a praiseworthy light: their wonder from their brief glimpse of the dollhouse reflects a humility and joy that they other girls in their class don’t exhibit due to their pride and materialism. While the Burnells show off their dollhouse as a status symbol and the rest of their class competes for invitations to see it, the Kelvey girls, in their humility, feel amazed to have seen it at all.