A doll’s house arrives at the Burnell’s home, sent from town by a family friend as a thank you for her recent visit. The family’s handyman, Pat, carries the doll’s house into the courtyard, and places it next to the feed-room to let it air out. It smells strongly of paint, so much so that Aunt Beryl thinks it could make someone sick.
The fact that the doll’s house has been sent from town emphasizes that the Burnells live out in the country. The Burnells might be the wealthiest family in their village, but they are not living among more fashionable society. That the house is left it in the courtyard next to the feed-room—hardly a place of honor—suggests it is not terribly valuable.
The “sacking” covering the doll’s house is taken off to reveal the exterior of the house. It is painted a “dark, oily, spinach green,” with two chimneys and a door that looks “like a little slab of toffee.” There are also four real windows and a front porch, “painted yellow, with big lumps of congealed paint hanging along the edge.” The newness of the house is so exciting that no one else seems to mind the smell.
Mansfield’s initial descriptions of the house do not make it seem very attractive, but the Burnell sisters think it is wonderful nevertheless. While Aunt Beryl finds the smell of paint sickening, the younger, more innocent girls are too thrilled by the novelty of the house to care. Their fascination with the relatively modest toy reflects the provinciality of the setting.
The hook on the side of the doll’s house is stuck, so Pat pries it open with his penknife. When the front of the house swings open, all of the rooms are on display at once. When knocking on the door of a real house, one can only peer in and see the front hallway, but the doll’s house opens entirely—allowing one to see everything, “the way God opens houses at the dead of night.”
The narrator emphasizes the human impulse to peer inside of things. In this way, Mansfield begins to compare the doll’s house with the Burnell’s family home, which is not opened to outsiders, but closed off by big white gates. Furthermore, after Isabel Burnell later brags about the doll’s house, all of the little girls at school long to see inside of it—a reflection of their longing to be invited into the Burnells’ home and to catch a glimpse of their privileged lifestyle.
The Burnell girls have never seen anything so wonderful before and take in all of the details of the house—from the pictures painted on the walls, to the red carpet, plush pillows, beds with actual bedspreads, and kitchen fit with a small stove. Kezia, the youngest, notices a small lamp in particular, which sits on the dining room table and is filled with a liquid that looks like oil. She thinks the lamp is the best part of the house because it fits so perfectly, whereas the father and mother dolls look a little too big for the house and do not seem to belong inside it.
Kezia notices a small lamp and prizes it above all the other features of the house because it seems to fit so well. This suggests her innocence as the youngest Burnell sister, and her willingness to see the value in small, seemingly insignificant things. This also reflects the importance that “fitting in” will have in the story. It will soon be revealed that the poor Kelveys, with their mismatched clothing and simple lunches, do not fit in with the other girls, yet Kezia wants to invite them to see the doll’s house anyway.
The next morning, the Burnell sisters rush to school, excited to tell everyone about the doll’s house. Isabel warns her sisters Lottie and Kezia that she, as the oldest, ought to be first to tell the other girls about the doll’s house and that they cannot say anything until she does so. She also insists that she choose the first girls who are to come and see the house.
Isabel’s bossiness in forbidding her sisters to brag about the doll’s house suggests certain rules about communication in the village. Just as Isabel must speak first because she is the oldest, many of the little girls in the town are not allowed to speak to the Kelveys because they are considered too common.
The Burnell sisters are allowed to invite girls from school two at a time into their family’s courtyard to see the doll’s house. These visiting girls are not invited to stay for tea or to go play in the house, but simply to enter the courtyard and see the house.
The Burnell sisters have learned from their parents which girls are acceptable to be friends with which are not. What’s more, there are boundaries regarding where even their friends can go within the house. Just as Isabel makes herself more mysterious by waiting until playtime to tell the others about the doll’s house, the Burnell family makes itself more powerful by limiting which parts of their home visitors can view.
The Burnells don’t make it to school in time to brag about the doll’s house before the bell rings, and instead Isabel tries to make herself seem mysterious and whispers that she has something to tell the other girls at playtime. When playtime comes around, all of the girls at the school gather around to hear what Isabel has to share. All, that is, except for the Kelvey sisters, Lil and Else. As the poorest girls at the school, they are always excluded, and know they must stay on the outskirts of the circle.
Isabel demonstrates how powerful it can be to stay tight-lipped about a secret. She builds suspense by suggesting that she has something to tell everyone, and at playtime all the girls surround her, desperate to hear what it is. The Kelveys are first marked as outsiders when they do not join the circle surrounding Isabel.
The Burnell family would not send their daughters to the school if it weren’t the only school around for miles. It is only a village school, and the family laments that all kinds of children must mix together—“the Judge’s little girls, the doctor’s daughters, the storekeeper’s children and the milkman’s.” The Kelveys, in particular, are the family everyone tries to avoid. Lil and Else’s mother is a washerwoman, and their father is out of the picture, leaving everyone to speculate that he is in prison. Many of the children at school are not allowed to talk to them, and the schoolteacher even uses a “special voice” to address Lil when she brings her “common-looking” flowers.
Though the Burnell’s would rather not send their daughters to a school with lower-class children, they have no choice, as they live in a small village. They might feel superior to the others, but they, too, must deal with the inconveniences of country life. Though not everyone in the village is as wealthy as the Burnells, the Kelveys are the scapegoats—everyone shuns them in particular because of gossip that their father is in prison.
Lil and Else dress in unattractive clothing that makes their poverty all the more noticeable. Lil wears a dress made from hand-me-down scraps that her mother collects from the homes she cleans; her skirt is made from the Burnells’ old tablecloth and her sleeves from the Logan family’s curtains. Meanwhile, Else wears a white dress that is much too big for her and a pair of old boy’s boots. To top it off, Lil’s hat used to belong to the postmistress and looks ridiculous on a little girl.
The Kelveys are conspicuously poor and their clothing marks them as outsiders among their peers at school. That Lil’s clothing is made of materials from the homes of the other girls only makes her humiliation worse.
Else is particularly strange, never smiling and rarely speaking. She has short hair, a tiny frame, and big, expressive eyes like “a little white owl.” She walks around behind Lil, holding on to the hem of her sister’s skirt, tugging it when she wants something. Though they rarely speak, the Kelveys always understand each another.
Mansfield seems to be particularly interested in Else, giving her a detailed description. That she and Lil do not speak much mark them as unique from their peers who constantly gossip. Mansfield seems to suggest that though the Kelveys rarely talk, their communication is truer than frivolous chatter, as they always understand one another.
The Kelveys sit apart and listen in as the other girl’s chat at school. Sometimes a girl will turn and sneer at them, but Lil only smiles back. Isabel, meanwhile, spills all the juicy details of the doll’s house, and Kezia has to remind her to mention the lamp. No one pays the lamp any attention, however, too excited to find out who Isabel will choose to see the house first. She picks Lena Logan and Emmie Cole.
While everyone seems to ignore the lamp, the end of the story reveals that Else, at least, was listening to Kezia. Though the Kelveys are ostracized and forced to sit apart, they still listen to the other girls’ gossip and long to see the doll’s house like everyone else. They are not so different after all.
Over the next few days, the doll’s house is all anyone can talk about, and the girls at school kiss up to Isabel in hopes of being invited to see it. At lunch, the girls sit together and eat “thick mutton sandwiches and big slabs of johnny cake spread with butter” while the Lil and Else sit apart eating plain jam sandwiches “out of a newspaper soaked with large red blobs.”
Just as their clothing marked the Kelveys as outsiders, their humble sandwiches further indicate their poverty.
In a flashback, Kezia asks her mother if she may invite the Kelvey’s to see the doll’s house but Mrs. Burnell refuses. When asked why, she brushes Kezia off and tells her that Kezia knows exactly why the Kelveys are not to come.
Despite Mrs. Burnell’s assertion, Kezia is too young to fully understand the classist rules of society and sees no reason why the Kelveys cannot come. This suggests the innocence of children in comparison to adults.
A few days pass, and now every girl at school except the Kelveys has seen the doll’s house. Bored of talking about the house, the girls begin gossiping about the Kelveys instead. Emmie Cole starts it, whispering to Isabel that Lil will grow up to be a washerwoman just like her mother. As she talks, she moves her head in a way she has seen her mother do, imitating the sort of gossip that the adults spread regularly. Suddenly, Lena Logan gets an idea. She suggests going up to the Kelveys and asking them if they’ll grow up to be servants. Jessie May eggs Lena on, and Lena tells the other girls to watch her as she runs over, giggling, to where the Kelvey sisters sit.
The girls have learned their cruelty from their parents, as Emmie turns her head in a way that she has watched her mother do when her mother gossips. Mansfield suggests that classism is not inherent, then, but learned. The girls build momentum, each trying to outdo the other in their insults to the Kelveys. They are performing for one another, trying to get the most laughs by being the most cruel and outrageous.
When approached by Lena, Lil and Else stop eating and hide their sandwiches. Lena asks Lil, “Is it true you’re going to be a servant when you grow up, Lil Kelvey?” When Lil does not respond except with a shamefaced smile, the other girls snicker, and Lena, upset that her first insult didn’t work, hisses, “Yah, yer father’s in prison!” and runs off.
When the other girls hear Lena’s insult, they are so excited by the cruelty of it that they run off hopping, screaming, and playing like a wild mob. They begin playing with a jump rope with more excitement than ever before.
The cruelty of Lena’s remark is so exciting to the girls that they skip and dance as a wild mob. They have lost all sense of individuality. Acting alone, it’s likely none of the girls would have insulted the Kelveys so harshly, but in a group they have the boldness to be particularly mean.
That afternoon, Pat picks the Burnell girls up from school and drives them home to greet visitors who have arrived at the house. Isabel and Lottie go to change into fresh pinafores, but Kezia sneaks out to the courtyard to swing on its big white gates.
Kezia is uninterested in getting ready for the guests and would rather play on her own. This again marks her innocence and independence. She swings on the white gates, physically moving in and out of her family’s property, seeming to dance on the edge of belonging and being an outsider.
While swinging, Kezia notices two small dots along the road in the distance. As they get closer, she realizes it’s Lil and Else. She jumps off the white gates and considers running off, but changes her mind, jumping back on the gate and swinging it open to greet the Kelveys.
Kezia almost runs away, but instead decides to follow her gut and invite the Kelveys to see the doll’s house, even though she knows she is not supposed to. She does this mostly because no one else is around to judge her or influence her. Mansfield suggests not only that classism can be overcome, but that the youngest, more innocent children are the ones likely to break the status quo and have compassion for outsiders.
Kezia says hello and asks the Kelveys if they want to come inside and see the doll’s house. Lil and Else are stunned, and Lil quickly shakes her head no. When Kezia asks why not, she gasps and tells Kezia that her mother told their mother that they weren’t supposed to talk to Kezia. Kezia brushes it off, saying that it doesn’t matter and that no one is looking. When Lil again refuses to enter the courtyard, she feels a little tug on her dress. When she turns, she sees Else looking at her imploringly. Else twitches Lil’s skirt again, indicating that she wants to see the house.
Else and Lil follow Kezia inside, and Kezia opens the doll’s house for them. When Kezia begins to give them a tour of the small house, Aunt Beryl suddenly yells at Kezia from the back door for letting the Kelveys inside. Aunt Beryl comes into the courtyard and furiously shoos the Kelveys away and slams the dollhouse shut. The Kelveys slip through the white gates and run down the road.
Though for a moment the Kelveys were welcomed inside, social order is quickly and harshly reinforced by Aunt Beryl. When the Kelveys slip through the white gates, they pass back into their role as outsiders. By slamming the doll’s house and closing it, Aunt Beryl also symbolically puts an end to the kindness Kezia had been showing the Kelveys.
Aunt Beryl, it is revealed, had had a terrible afternoon due to a letter she received from Willie Brent. In the letter, Willie threatened to come to the front door if she didn’t meet him in Pullman’s Bush later that night. She feels better now that she has scolded Kezia and scared off Lil and Else.
Though Mansfield does not reveal who, exactly, Willie Brent is, it is obvious that Aunt Beryl would be mortified if anyone knew she was in any way associated with him. It is likely that he is her lover, and her embarrassment of him further indicates that he is too poor or common for her. By mentioning Willie Brent, Mansfield exposes Aunt Beryl’s hypocrisy in scolding Kezia when she, too, has had relations with someone who is an outsider.
Meanwhile, Lil and Else run off, stopping to rest by a “big red drain-pipe” on the roadside. They sit silently and look over the fields to the Logan’s cows. Else nudges closer to her sister and smiles. She speaks for the first time in the story, saying, “I seen the little lamp.”
Mansfield suggests that despite their class differences, Kezia and Else are not all that different after all. They each notice the small lamp—it connects the two girls and reveals the ultimate triviality of classism. The Kelveys took as much pleasure in seeing the doll’s house as any of the other girls in the village, though only Kezia, merely a child, was willing to share it with them.