Much of the communication in The Doll’s House is nonverbal. The Kelvey sisters, in particular, barely speak in the story, instead communicating mostly through gestures and glances. It’s clear, however, that though Lil and Else rarely talk, they easily understand each other. In contrast, the Burnells and their friends are almost constantly yapping, gossiping, or boasting about the doll’s house. Unlike the Kelveys, their chatter often proves shallow and frivolous. By exploring these very different methods of communication, Mansfield seems to suggest that silence can often reveal more truth than speech.
Mansfield explores communication and silence throughout the story by associating talking with casting judgment or spreading untruthful gossip, while linking silence with a sense of caring and attention. With Isabel Burnell at the helm, the popular girls are always chatting and gossiping with one another. Isabel tries to be in control of what is said, forbidding her younger sisters from telling the details of the doll’s house to any of the girls since she ought to be the first one to brag: “‘I’m to tell,’ said Isabel, ‘because I’m the eldest. And you two can join in after. But I’m to tell first.’” Her sisters Lottie and Kezia do not chafe at this rule, but comply, understanding that Isabel has the right to speak before them.
Speaking not only has arbitrary rules, but also the potential for dangerous consequences. That the village does not know much about the Kelvey family allows cruel speculation about them to spread. Though no one knows where the Kelveys’ father is, they suspect he is in prison. When taunting the Kelveys, Lena Logan shouts, “Yah, yer father’s in prison!” as if it’s true, and the other girls are practically beside themselves with excitement that Lena has shouted what everyone’s been thinking. The narrator never confirms or denies whether the Kelveys’ father is in prison, but it doesn’t make a difference to the villagers—that the gossip has spread is enough evidence for the Kelveys to be shunned and despised. This points to the often destructive and deceptive power of language.
While most of the village is gossiping throughout The Doll’s House, the Kelvey sisters almost never talk, not even to each another. Instead, they have a system of communication that does not need words: Else follows Lil around and communicates by holding onto the edge of her older sister’s dress and tugging at it when she wants something. From the tug alone, Lil knows what Else means. Their communication, though silent and nonverbal, is more accurate than the jabbering of the rest of the village; “The Kelveys never failed to understand each other,” Mansfield writes.
The Kelveys are not just listening to one another, but to the other girls as well. When all of the girls gather to hear what Isabel is saying about the doll’s house, the Kelveys stay away, knowing that they are not supposed to talk with the others. “Many of the children, including the Burnells, were not allowed to even speak to them,” Mansfield notes. Though Else and her sister do not gather around Isabel’s court in the schoolyard, they listen from the sidelines—so well, in fact, that little Else remembers to look for the small lamp Kezia has mentioned when she finally sees the doll’s house. “I seen the little lamp,” Else says to her sister in the only moment she talks in the story. Mansfield seems to suggest that listening and caring for one another is a more effective and true means of communication than constant talk or gossip, which only results in untruths and harsh judgments.
Talking vs. Silence ThemeTracker
Talking vs. Silence Quotes in The Doll’s House
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.
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!
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.
Where Lil went our Else followed. In the playground, on the road going to and from school, there was Lil marching in front and our Else holding on behind. Only when she wanted anything or when she was out of breath, our Else gave Lil a tug, a twitch, and Lil stopped and turned round. The Kelveys never failed to understand each other.
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.
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.
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.