Katherine Mansfield’s The Doll’s House is primarily a tale about how class shapes life in small village. The story revolves around the daughters of two families, the wealthy Burnells and the lower-class Kelveys. As rich insiders, the Burnells do not associate with poor outsiders like the Kelveys. As such, when the young Burnell sisters receive a doll’s house, all the little girls at their school are invited to see it except for the Kelvey sisters, who know better than to expect an invitation. The narrator continually emphasizes barriers both physical and metaphorical between who is “in” and who is “out” to highlight and critique such harsh classism. Mansfield ultimately suggests that class boundaries need not be as rigid as they are and can even be overcome with empathy and kindness.
The characters in The Doll’s House are clearly divided into two groups: the popular, wealthier insiders who are free to associate with one another, and the poor outsiders who are shunned by the rest of society. The Burnells and their friends are definitely “in”: they wear the right clothes, eat the right sandwiches at lunch, and have the right parents. The richest girls in school, the Burnell sisters are at the center of its social life. Since they “set the fashion in all matters of behaviour,” the other girls copy what they do. And because the Burnells are told by their parents not to speak with the Kelveys, all the other little girls avoid them too. Even the school’s teacher follows the Burnells’ lead, using a “special voice”—implied to be condescending or patronizing—to address Lil Kelvey when she brings her “common-looking flowers.”
The impoverished Kelvey sisters, meanwhile, are clearly “out.” They dress in odd scraps and hand-me-downs from the homes of the other girls. Lil wears a dress made from an old green tablecloth from the Burnell house with “red plush sleeves” from the Logans’ curtains.” Her younger sister, Else, wears a dress that is too big for her and a pair of boys’ boots. While the other girls sit together at lunchtime with “thick mutton sandwiches and big slabs of johnny cake spread with butter,” the Kelveys sit apart and eat plain jam sandwiches wrapped in newspaper. Mansfield highlights these class indicators both to demonstrate the triviality of such differences and also to show how they nevertheless make the Kelvey sisters outsiders among their peers.
The story also grammatically separates the Burnells from the Kelveys by referring to the latter using more colloquial, intimate language. Nearly every time Mansfield describes Else, for example, she uses the pronoun “our”: “her little sister, our Else, wore a long white dress,” she writes, and also, “Where Lil went our Else followed.” This encourages the reader to empathize with the sisters and to feel some kind of claim to Else, in particular, as one of their own. Meanwhile, “them” or “their” are often used to describe the Burnells and the other girls, effectively distancing them from the reader. Through language, then, Mansfield simultaneously points out class differences and asks the reader to see past them.
The story further unravels class-based prejudice through Kezia, the youngest Burnell sister who opens the big white gates of her family’s home to allow the Kelveys inside to see the doll’s house. The gates are a symbol of the Burnell’s class superiority, physically separating them from poor outsiders. By opening them, Kezia demonstrates how a strict boundary can be easily broken with a simple act of kindness.
Kezia’s opening of the gates is made all the more powerful by the fact that even acceptable girls are only allowed to enter the courtyard in pairs to see the doll’s house, and not “to come traipsing through the house.” Kezia is the only Burnell to reject such classist thinking. She enjoys swinging on her family’s gates, physically teetering between the inside and the outside of her home—between what she wants to do and what she has been told to do. By showing empathy for the lower class Kelveys, Kezia overcomes the harshness of her peers and society.
Notably, when the Kelveys eventually do see the doll’s house, their experience of it proves no different than that of the other little girls. They gaze on it with the same wonder, and little Else even notices the small lamp that Kezia, too, admires. The story up to this point has depicted how class differences have serious consequences about who gets to experience beauty and friendship, and who does not. Through these final moments, however, Mansfield argues that class distinctions are ultimately petty, unfair, and meaningless.
Insiders, Outsiders, and Class ThemeTracker
Insiders, Outsiders, and Class Quotes in The Doll’s House
For it had been arranged that while the doll’s house stood in the courtyard they might ask the girls at school, two at a time, to come and look. Not to stay to tea, of course, or to come traipsing through the house. But just to stand quietly in the courtyard while Isabel pointed out the beauties…
Playtime came and Isabel was surrounded. The girls of her class nearly fought to put their arms round her, to walk away with her, to beam flatteringly, to be her special friend. She held quite a court under the hung pine trees...the only two who stayed outside the ring were the two who were always outside, the Kelveys. They knew better than to come anywhere near the Burnells.
For the fact was, the school the Burnell children went to was not at all the kind of place their parents would have chosen if there had been any choice. But there was none. It was the only school for miles. And the consequence was all the children in the neighborhood, the Judge’s little girls, the doctor’s daughters, the storekeeper’s children, the milkman’s, were forced to mix together.
But the line had to be drawn somewhere. It was drawn at the Kelveys. Many of the children, including the Burnells, were not allowed even to speak to them…the Kelveys were shunned by everybody.
They were the daughters of a spry, hardworking little washerwoman, who went about from house to house by the day. This was awful enough. But where was Mr. Kelvey? Nobody knew for certain. But everybody said he was in prison. So they were the daughters of a washerwoman and a gaolbird. Very nice company for other people’s children!
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.
“Is it true you’re going to be a servant when you grow up, Lil Kelvey?” shrilled Lena.
Dead silence. But instead of answering, Lil only gave her silly, shamefaced smile. She didn’t seem to mind the question at all. What a sell for Lena! The girls began to titter.
Lena couldn’t stand that. She put her hands on her hips; she shot forward. “Yah, yer father’s in prison!” she hissed, spitefully.
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.
The afternoon had been awful. A letter had come from Willie Brent, a terrifying, threatening letter, saying if she did not meet him that evening in Pulman's Bush, he'd come to the front door and ask the reason why! But now that she had frightened those little rats of Kelveys and given Kezia a good scolding, her heart felt lighter. That ghastly pressure was gone. She went back to the house humming.
Presently our Else nudged up close to her sister. But now she had forgotten the cross lady. She put out a finger and stroked her sister's quill; she smiled her rare smile.
"I seen the little lamp," she said, softly. Then both were silent once more.