Themes

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Last Updated on October 2, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 402

Social Class and the Evils of Discrimination 

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The majority of the characters in this story—including the Burnell daughters, their parents, their aunt, and their friends—are of the social elite and pride themselves on their superior status. The Kelvey girls, however, are from a lower class and are banned from associating with the other girls because of this. Even the schoolteacher treats the Kelvey girls differently from her other students. The Kelvey girls’ low social and economic status is reflected in the fact that they are banned from associating with the other children and seeing the dollhouse. 

While the impoverished Kelvey girls are presented as humble and innocent, the members of higher social classes are presented as excessively cold-hearted: both Aunt Beryl and the schoolgirls feel joyful after insulting the Kelveys. The Kelvey girls, especially as they reflect “dreamily” on the dollhouse at the end, demonstrate an innocence and goodness that the other characters of the story do not. By repeatedly presenting the Kelvey girls in a sympathetic light, especially by calling Else Kelvey “our Else,” Mansfield invites the reader to identify with the Kelveys and experience the evils of upper-class prejudice. 

Inherited Prejudice 

Mansfield implies that discriminatory attitudes and behaviors against lower-class people are perpetuated in society by being passed from one generation to the next. From a young age, the children in this story reflect their parents’ arrogance and discrimination against people of lower classes. 

While the Burnell parents are not the main characters in this story, their attitudes are still made clear: the narrator explicitly states that the school Isabel, Lottie, and Kezia attend “was not at all the kind of place their parents would have chosen if there had been any choice.” The parents’ dismay stems from the fact that children from all different classes attend this school and are “forced to mix together.” This prejudice is one that is passed down to their children, who are expected to walk past the Kelvey girls “with their heads in the air.” Discrimination against lower classes is not only encouraged but enforced: at the end of the story, Aunt Beryl scolds Kezia harshly for inviting the Kelveys over, calling her a “wicked, disobedient little girl!” It is ironic that in this story, Kezia’s disobedience to her parents in inviting the Kelveys to see the dollhouse is, in fact, the moral thing to do.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 355

The central theme in Katherine Mansfield’s story is the cruelty of class distinctions. Mansfield was born in New Zealand when the country was still a British colony in which class distinctions were rigidly maintained. Her best-known short story, “The Garden Party,” also deals with this subject.

The reason that the rich Burnell children attend a school along with working-class children such as the Kelveys is that they live in rural New Zealand, where there are no other nearby schools. These same characters also appear in other Mansfield stories, including “Prelude” (1917). There are biographical parallels between the Burnell family and Mansfield’s own Beauchamp family, and also between Kezia and the young Kathleen (later Katherine) Mansfield. Mansfield attended a rural New Zealand school in which she encountered class distinctions; according to Antony Alpers, in Katherine Mansfield: A Biography (1953), Mansfield modeled her fictional Kelvey girls on Lil and Else McKelvey, the real-life daughters of a washerwoman. It is possible that Mansfield—like Kezia—tried to stand up for these girls in school.

Mansfield uses this theme as a vehicle for a stinging portrait of the cruelty that was directed toward lower-class children. This portrait also contains a more sinister allusion to the pleasure that people, children and adults alike, derive from abusing those less materially fortunate. Not only are the Kelvey sisters shunned by their schoolmates, but even their teacher has a “special voice for them, and a special smile for the other children.” When the girls at school tire of the dollhouse, they look for fresh amusement by inciting Lena Logan to abuse the Kelveys verbally, taunting them about their future and their father. This makes the little rich girls “wild with joy.” After Aunt Beryl abuses the Kelvey girls, shooing “the little rats” from the dollhouse in the courtyard, she happily hums as she returns to the house, her bad mood dispersed.

“The Doll’s House” is a disturbing story of a society in which snobbery and cruelty are regarded as acceptable behavior. It is ultimately redeemed by Kezia’s attempt at kindness; however, it is uncharacteristic of Mansfield’s stories to end happily.

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