Based on Mansfield’s own childhood experiences of moving from the New Zealand town of Wellington to the rural village of Karori, The Doll’s House is a critique of small-town vanity. Beyond emphasizing the arbitrary nature of class division, the story also mocks the narrow-minded provincialism of the Burnells—the most distinguished family in a tiny village, outside a small town, on a far-off island in the British Empire. The Doll’s House ultimately points to the desire to appear fashionable and sophisticated—and the pretense and conformity that desire engenders—as the root of much prejudice and cruelty.
This is represented most clearly in the descriptions of the doll’s house itself, which mirrors the Burnell’s country home and social position in their village. The Burnell sisters gain much prestige when they are given the house. All the other little girls cannot stop talking about it and are dying to see it. The doll’s house itself, however, isn’t actually all that impressive. It is “a dark, oily, spinach green” and has “a tiny porch, too, painted yellow, with big lumps of congealed paint hanging along the edge.” While the house does have some extravagant features, it also smells, according to Aunt Beryl, so strongly of paint that it could make someone sick. It is put in the courtyard, “propped up on two wooden boxes beside the feed-room”—not exactly demanding a place of honor in the family’s home. It might be the most wonderful doll’s house in the small village, but, Mansfield implies, to the rest of the world it is an average toy at best.
Similarly, the Burnells may be the richest family around, yet they are ultimately just big fish in a relatively small pond. That the Burnells are not as fashionable and rich as they might like to believe is indicated by the fact that the Burnell sisters must attend school with all the other children in the village, “not at all the kind of place their parents would have chosen.” The narrator describes how “the Judge’s little girls, the doctor’s daughters, the storekeeper’s children, the milkman’s, were forced to mix together” at school, even if the Burnells would rather their daughters have a more elite education.
These other children, in turn, try to seem as much like the Burnells as possible by emphasizing the otherness of the Kelveys. Indeed, the popular girls appear closest and most alike when they are being cruel to Else and Lil. When one of these girls, Lena Logan, insults the Kelveys by screaming “Yah, yer father’s in prison!” at them, the others are so united by this act of meanness that they lose any sense of individuality: “the little girls rushed away in a body, deeply, deeply excited, wild with joy,” Mansfield writes. The need to feel superior engenders an unthinking mob mentality at odds with genuine sophistication. The girls are, in fact, simply conforming to a backwards, decidedly unfashionable mode of thinking.
Mansfield is strongest in her critique of vanity at the end of the story, when Aunt Beryl cruelly shoos the Kelveys away from the doll’s house, treating them “as if they were chickens.” Aunt Beryl yells at them with a voice that is “cold and proud,” yet this action is, in part, to relieve her own stress and anxiety about her relations with a lower-class man called Willie Brent. The narrator does not say much about Willie Brent, or what, in particular, his relation to Aunt Beryl is, though it is likely that he is her lover. Willie writes Aunt Beryl a note that she finds “terrifying,” threatening to come knock on the door if she doesn’t meet him in Pullman’s Bush later that night. That Aunt Beryl finds this notion terrifying suggests her shame in being associated with Willie. She takes out her anger on the Kelveys, which makes “her heart [feel] lighter. The ghastly pressure was gone.” Like the little girls of the town, Aunt Beryl uses her prejudice against the Kelveys to make herself feel better. Through her vain hypocrisy, Mansfield argues that those allegedly more sophisticated or worldly citizens are no better than the lower-classes they define themselves against. On the contrary, the desire to prove one’s social clout is a mark of small-minded vanity.
Provincialism and Pretense ThemeTracker
Provincialism and Pretense 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.
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.
"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.