While The Doll’s House mostly focuses on the interactions between young girls with one another, it is not simply a story about how children behave. These girls are, in many ways, simply representations of the society in which they are being raised, and their behavior reflects what their parents and elders have taught them. Tellingly, the older characters prove more rigid in their upholding of society’s rules. In contrast, the youngest characters are the only ones willing to disregard harsh dictates of social etiquette. Mansfield suggests, then, that class-consciousness and prejudice are not innate but rather passed down from one generation to the next.
When the popular girls do their worst to mock the Kelveys, they are often simply imitating parents who gossip about the lower-class family. For example, at lunch one day the popular Emmie Cole whispers to Isabel Burnell and looks sideways at the Kelveys in a way directly copied from her mother. Emmie whispers, “Lil Kelvey’s going to be a servant when she grows up” before “swallow[ing] in a very meaning way and nod[ing] to Isabel as she’d seen her mother do on those occasions.” Of course, the negative influence of prejudiced parents is most evident in the fact that the Burnells are forbidden from speaking to the Kelveys. This suggests that the hatred the popular girls express toward the Kelveys is not a mark of inherent cruelty, but rather a posturing toward the cold, judgmental adulthood surrounding them.
The Kelveys similarly have inherited a learned sense of submission and shamefulness from their own mother, the “spry washerwoman” of the village. As a washerwoman, the Kelveys’ mother likely needs to do her job as inconspicuously a possible, careful not to disturb the families living in the homes she cleans. The Kelvey girls are similarly quiet, and do not try to join in when the other girls are talking. Later, when the Burnell sisters’ Aunt Beryl catches the Kelveys in the courtyard and shoos them away, they scamper off, “burning with shame, shrinking together, Lil huddling along like her mother.”
Mansfield further highlights how quickly such lessons in classism and prejudice can be absorbed, and, it follows, how easily the accepting nature of innocence can be corrupted. The older girls have already fully conformed to the rules set by society. As the eldest Burnell sister, Isabel gets to choose which of the local girls will be allowed to view the doll’s house first. The Kelveys know they do not stand a chance at being chosen by Isabel, who rigidly refuses to speak to them. Likewise, Lil, as the elder Kelvey sister, does not wish to shake the status quo. Lil never interrupts the other girls or talks to them out of place, instead offering only her “silly, shamefaced smile” when they scoff at her and Else. When Kezia offers to let the Kelvey sisters see the doll’s house, it is Lil who refuses, knowing it is a breach of social etiquette. “Lil turned red and shook her head quickly,” Mansfield writes, continuing, “Lil gasped, then she said, ‘Your ma told our ma you wasn’t to speak to us.’”
The younger girls, however, display less class-consciousness as well as more consideration and kindness. Kezia, the youngest Burnell, does not yet have a fully-formed sense of what is acceptable behavior according to her elders. She wants to invite the Kelveys to see the doll’s house but is discouraged by her mother, Mrs. Burnell, and told that she ought to know better. Similarly, the young Else Kelvey does not hesitate when Kezia invites her and her sister to see the doll’s house. She wants to take Kezia up on the offer and urges her older sister to do the same by tugging at Lil’s skirt and looking at her with “big, imploring eyes.”
Kezia is not only less aware of class prejudice, but also proves more sympathetic than her sisters. From the beginning of the story, her love of the small, seemingly insignificant lamp in the doll’s house indicates her sensitive nature. When Isabel is relating the details of the house to the other girls at school, Kezia has to remind her to mention the lamp, but the others don’t pay any attention to this detail. After the Kelveys see the doll’s house, however, the narrator reveals that at least one of the little girls was listening when Kezia gushed about the lamp: Else. In the only line she speaks, and the final line of dialogue in the story, Else smiles and says, “I seen the little lamp,” clearly caring about it as much as Kezia did.
That both of the youngest characters take care to notice the small lamp connects them in their innocence and thoughtfulness. The lamp, like the rest of the doll’s house, however, is not real. Though it may be a symbol of hope, it is one that cannot actually be lit. Mansfield might be suggesting, then, that it is only a matter of time before even Kezia and Else conform to the strict and cruel class distinctions by which the village abides.
Innocence and Cruelty ThemeTracker
Innocence and Cruelty Quotes in The Doll’s House
For, really, the smell of paint coming from that doll's house…was quite enough to make any one seriously ill, in Aunt Beryl's opinion. Even before the sacking was taken off. And when it was….
There stood the doll’s house, a dark, oily, spinach green, picked out with bright yellow. Its two solid little chimneys, glued on to the roof, were painted red and white, and the door, gleaming with yellow varnish, was like a little slab of toffee. Four windows, real windows, were divided into panes by a broad streak of green. There was actually a tiny porch, too, painted yellow, with big lumps of congealed paint hanging along the edge.
But perfect, perfect little house! Who could possibly mind the smell? It was part of the joy, part of the newness.
That is the way for a house to open! Why don’t all houses open like that? How much more exciting than peering through the slit of a door into a mean little hall with a hatstand and two umbrellas! That is—isn’t it?—what you long to know about a house when you put your hand on the knocker. Perhaps it is the way God opens houses at dead of night when He is taking a quiet turn with an angel…
“O-oh!” The Burnell children sounded as though they were in despair. It was too marvelous; it was too much for them. They had never seen anything like it in their lives.
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 moved when you shook it.
The father and mother dolls…were really too big for the doll's house. They didn't look as though they belonged. But the lamp was perfect. It seemed to smile at Kezia, to say, “I live here.”
But whatever our Else wore she would have looked strange. She was a tiny wishbone of a child, with cropped hair and enormous solemn eyes—a little white owl. Nobody had ever seen her smile; she scarcely ever spoke.
Emmie Cole started the whisper.
“Lil Kelvey’s going to be a servant when she grows up.”
“O-oh, how awful!” said Isabel Burnell, and she made eyes at Emmie.
Emmie swallowed in a very meaning way and nodded to Isabel as she’d seen her mother do on those occasions.
“It’s true—it’s true—it’s true,” she said.
Isabel and Lottie, who liked visitors, went upstairs to change their pinafores. But Kezia thieved out back. Nobody was about; she began to swing on the big white gates of the courtyard. Presently, looking along the road, she saw two little dots. They grew bigger, they were coming towards her…Now she could see that they were the Kelveys. Kezia stopped swinging. She slipped off the gate as if she was going to run away. Then she hesitated. The Kelveys came nearer, and beside them walked their shadows, very long, stretching right across the road with their heads in the buttercups. Kezia clambered back on the gate; she had made up her mind; she swung out.
Suddenly there was a twitch, a tug at Lil's skirt. She turned round. Our Else was looking at her with big, imploring eyes; she was frowning; she wanted to go. For a moment Lil looked at our Else very doubtfully. But then our Else twitched her skirt again. She started forward. Kezia led the way. Like two little stray cats they followed across the courtyard to where the doll's house stood.
"Off you go immediately!" she called, cold and proud.
They did not need telling twice. Burning with shame, shrinking together, Lil huddling along like her mother, our Else dazed, somehow they crossed the big courtyard and squeezed through the white gate.