The Doll's House

The Doll's House About Free Indirect Discourse

Katherine Mansfield's "The Doll's House" is notable for its use of free indirect discourse, a style of third-person narration in which the unnamed omniscient narrator's voice takes on the attitude and diction of a character by adopting their interior monologue.

A trademark of modernist literature of the early twentieth century, free indirect discourse is distinguished from standard omniscient narration in its omission of language that frames characters' thoughts. For instance, a standard omniscient narrator using direct discourse would draw a clear line between the narrator's voice and a character's thoughts by writing "she thought" or "he thinks" to report when the narrative voice has shifted. For example: "Elizabeth passed the mirror but did not notice her glasses perched on her head. Where did I put them? she thought. She spent an hour searching to no avail." With free indirect discourse, the narrator trims away the framing devices so the narrative voice may move fluidly between objective narration and the character's subjective thoughts. For example: "Elizabeth passed the mirror but did not notice her glasses perched on her head. Where did she put them? She spent an hour searching to no avail."

The use of free indirect discourse means readers may have trouble telling the difference between when the narrator is reporting a character's opinion and delivering the narrator's opinion. In "The Doll's House," Mansfield's narrator uses free indirect discourse to adopt upper-class characters' dictions and attitudes. In doing so, Mansfield risks making the reader believe that the opinions of the characters are shared by the narrator, and, by extension, the writer. But by amplifying the perspectives of her most wealthy and cruel characters, Mansfield succeeds in exposing her privileged characters' unexamined prejudice as they judge and ostracize the impoverished Kelveys. The characters do not reflect upon their prejudiced thoughts as thoughts, but rather experience the thoughts arising spontaneously in responses to their subjective reality. By removing linguistic framing devices, Mansfield makes a subtle point about how prejudice can unconsciously proliferate among people in a society.