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.