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

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In Katherine Mansfield's "The Doll's House", the doll's house symbolizes the facade of upper-class society, characterized by ostentation yet lacking in taste and warmth. On the other hand, the little amber lamp inside the house, which only Kezia notices, symbolizes a sense of warmth, comfort, and inclusivity. Despite the social divisions and class-based prejudices prevalent in the society, it is this tiny lamp that signifies the potential for kindness and acceptance.

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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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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."

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What did the lamp symbolize in "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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