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Symbols and Themes in Katherine Mansfield's "The Doll's House"

Summary:

In Katherine Mansfield's "The Doll's House," symbols such as the doll's house itself and the little lamp represent social class divisions and the innocence of childhood. Key themes include the critique of social inequality and the innocence of children contrasted with adult prejudices.

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

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:

“Kezia!”

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

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

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

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

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

"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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What do the lamp and doll's house symbolize in Katherine Mansfield's "The Doll's House"?

The doll's house of which the Burnell children are so proud, considering it "a perfect, perfect little house," is a false representation of upper-class wealth, breeding, and splendor because it is gaudy and unartistic. The little amber light with the white globe symbolizes warmth and comfort and a sense of belonging and welcoming, but only Kezia notices it.

Ironically, while the toy house meant to display upper-class charm, the doll's house is garish. Instead of being tastefully decorated,

[it is] a dark, oily, spinach green, picked out with bright yellow. Its two solid little chimneys, glued onto the roof, were painted red and white, and the door, gleaming with yellow varnish, was like a little slab of toffee. . . . There was actually a tiny porch, too, painted yellow with big lumps of congealed paint hanging along the edge.

Because the toy house belongs to an enviable upper-class family, no one comments on the garish colors and lumps of paint. Instead, the other girls are envious of it, and they wait eagerly to be selected by the Burnell girls to view this elite object. In adherence to the rules of her class, the eldest assumes the vital position of choosing the ones who are allowed to see the house. In fact, as the girls vie to be near Isabel, forming a ring around the eldest Burnell girl, their movements are compared to a royal court. Only the little Kelvey girls are on the outside. They are the daughters of the poor class: their mother is a washerwoman who must support the family because her husband is rumored to be "a jailbird."

Were they living in England, the Burnell girls would attend a school in which only upper-class children went; the commoners would be in another part of the city and attend schools there. But in New Zealand, the probable setting of this story, the school is the only one for miles, so all social classes of children attend the same school.

But the line had to be drawn somewhere. It was drawn at the Kelveys.

The other girls taunt the poor Kelvey girls. One day as these two girls are eating their dinner under the pine trees, Lena Logan approaches the isolated Kelveys. She boldly asks,

"Is it true you're going to be a servant when you grow up Lil Kelvey?"

Because Lil only responds with a humble smile, Lena is livid and calls out, "Yah, yer father's in prison!" The other girls are thrilled by Lena's insult.

Later, as the Burnell girls ride home with Pat, who brings the buggy for them, they talk excitedly. Once they reach home, the girls see that they have guests and run upstairs to change their clothes. However, warm-hearted Kezia, who has been particularly delighted by the amber lamp inside the doll's house, "thieve[s] out the back" of the house where no one is near. She watches as the Kelvey girls come toward her. Kezia swings out on her gate and invites them to come and see the doll's house. But Lil shakes her head and turns red. "Why not?" asks Kezia. Lil tells her that her mother told their mother that Kezia is not permitted to speak to the Kelvey girls. Kezia does not know how to respond. She decides to ignore this remark, telling the girls that no one is watching and they can just come and look. Then, as Kezia opens the little house for the girls, Aunt Beryl, who has caught sight of the girls outside, rushes out the back door. She scolds Kezia and quickly tells Lil and Else, "Off you go immediately!" Lil and Else scurry away, "[B]urning with shame, shrinking together." 

When they stop to rest, Lil's cheeks still burn from the insulting words of Aunt Beryl. Else scoots close to her sister, observing, "I seen the lamp." The warmth of the amber glass and its suggestion of light have been like a light of kindness extended to the Kelvey girls, as well as the warmth of being included.

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What do the lamp and doll's house symbolize in Katherine Mansfield's "The Doll's House"?

The doll house is symbolic of the upper class people in this society. The Burnell children would have attended a ritzy private school had there been one nearby, but as it is, their school is the only one for miles, so they are forced to attend a school that has a mixed group of children - both high class and low class. The Kelveys are the low class children. Note that the doll house is "perfect". All the walls are papered, there is carpet, but the dolls in the house, the people, are "stiff" -- they don't seem to belong there, and then there is that smell:

But perfect, perfect little house! Who could possibly mind the smell?

The doll house may be perfect, but what it represents "stinks". The smell is the only negative thing about the house. The smell represents the cruelty of society.

The best thing about the house is the little lamp.

But what Kezia liked more than anything, what she liked frightfully, was the lamp. It stood in the middle of the dining-room table, an exquisite little amber lamp with a white globe.

The lamp always reminds me of the the song, "This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine..." because it represents the one, tiny shred of human kindness, the kindness that is only shown by Kezia in the story when she invites the Kelveys to see the house. While her snobby family is singing, "Hide it under a bushel" Kezia answers: "NO! I'm gonna let it shine."

Read about the story here on eNotes.

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What do the lamp and doll's house symbolize in Katherine Mansfield's "The Doll's House"?

The doll's house given to the Burnell daughters is incredibly detailed, with lots of little objects that delight the girls and make the house seem even more special. Kezia, though, prefers a tiny lamp the best of all these details. It is a "little amber lamp with a white globe" that is filled with a liquid that looks like oil. The lamp is so realistic, despite its tiny size, that it even seems as though one could light it (though one cannot because it is a toy). Some of the dolls meant to go inside are stiff or too big, but the "lamp was perfect" to Kezia. When the Burnells go to school, Isabel—Kezia's oldest sister—forgets to tell the other girls about the lamp, and Kezia reminds her. To Kezia's mind, "Isabel wasn't making half enough of the lamp," because Kezia thinks it is so special and perfect.

After all the other girls in class have seen the doll house, and the lamp, Kezia invites the oft-excluded Kelvey girls to come see it. They are the only ones who have not been invited because they are poor. We learn that their mother cleans and does laundry for a living, and their father is probably in jail. Kezia's older sisters Isabel and Lottie are upstairs and not present to stop Kezia from including Lil and Else in the experience that everyone else has shared. Although the horrid Aunt Beryl banishes the Kelveys from the yard, Else soon forgets "the cross lady" and says softly, "I seen the little lamp." In the end, the lamp is what matters to her.

Therefore, I think we can interpret the lamp in a couple of ways: first, it symbolizes the innocence of childhood. Isabel and Lottie have already begun to be affected by the warped values of adults like their mother and Aunt Beryl, though Kezia and the Kelveys have not. The younger children still possess this innocence and are the only ones who truly appreciate the lamp's beauty. We might also interpret the lamp as a symbol of inclusion. Kezia is kinder than her older sisters, and she extends compassion by including the Kelveys when others seek to exclude them just to be cruel.

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What does the little lamp in the doll's house symbolize?

The oil lamp in the story "The Doll's House" by Katherine Mansfield, is the object entirely catches the attention of Kezia Burnell: A privileged young girl who receives the gift of a doll's house from a house-guest for her, and for her two other sisters, Isabel and Lottie.

Kezia is fixated with the lamp:

But what Kezia liked more than anything, what she liked frightfully, was the lamp. It stood in the middle of the dining-room table, an exquisite little amber lamp with a white globe. It was even filled all ready for lighting, though, of course, you couldn't light it. But there was something inside that looked like oil, and that moved when you shook it.....[it]was perfect. It seemed to smile to Kezia, to say, "I live here." The lamp was real.

Therefore, the symbolism of the lamp, to Kezia, is that it makes her feel welcome, as if she were part of the family that lives inside the doll's house. Like the story says:

The lamp was real.

However, on the other side of the spectrum, the very poor and underprivileged Kelvey sisters have heard about this beautiful dollhouse from the mouths of the other school children. Although the Kelveys are not allowed within the same social circle of friends as the Burnell sisters, they too develop the desire of seeing something both new, majestic, and beautiful.

Else, the elder of the Kelvey sisters, finally gets the chance to see the dollhouse only to be shooed and kicked out of the Burnell home as if they were animals. Yet, at the end of the story we see that Else feels proud  and happy for having seen the lamp. This is because seeing the same thing that Kezia sees, and being able to admire the same thing that Kezia admires put Else and Kezia in a very similar status, even though it is only for a brief moment. Yet, for once Else gets to see the same world that Kezia sees, and is able to admire something the same way that Kezia does: They are the same girls who love the same things. They have only been made different by the prejudices and classicist nature of society.

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What does the lamp symbolize in "The Doll's House"?

The rich Burnell children receive a gift of a "perfect" doll house, with papered walls, carpet, furniture, just the most amazing thing one has ever seen. The people in it, though, the dolls, are stiff and look like they do not belong. That is because the upper class society that the house represents is stiff. The snobbery of class structure "stinks" - and that is why there is a smell to the house. The people and the smell are two negative things about the house.

The best thing about the house is the little lamp.

But what Kezia liked more than anything, what she liked frightfully, was the lamp. It stood in the middle of the dining-room table, an exquisite little amber lamp with a white globe.

The lamp is tiny, because there is a "tiny" bit of human kindness showing through the ostentatious house. Nevertheless, the one person who shows kindness in this story, Kezia, notices the lamp right away and decides that it is the best part of the house. When the poor Kelvey girls are allowed to view the house, the youngest child ends the story by saying "I seen the lamp." This means that she saw the kindness, even for just a brief moment.

Read about the story here on eNotes.

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