Narrated from a third-person omniscient perspective, “The Doll’s House” opens with the narrator commenting on how Mrs. Hay gives the Burnell children a doll’s house after staying at the family home. Before being brought into the home, the doll’s house—so large it needs to be carried by the carter and Pat, the Burnell’s servant—is set on wooden boxes in the courtyard. It smells strongly of fresh paint; in Aunt Beryl’s opinion, strongly enough to make one ill.
The doll’s house is painted a dark, oily, spinach-green color with bright yellow accents. It has real glass windows, white and red chimneys, and a yellow door that resembles a slab of toffee. It is a perfect little house—who, the narrator asks, could mind the smell, which is part of the doll’s house’s joy and newness.
Pat pries open the hook at the side of the house with his penknife and the house front swings open, revealing all the rooms at once and delighting the children, who wonder why all houses don’t open like this. The children make sounds indicating they are overcome by the marvelousness of the house. They have never seen anything like it. Red carpets cover the floors and every room is stocked with tiny furniture.
Kezia most likes the amber lamp with a white globe that stands in the dining room. The lamp couldn’t be lit but looks as though it is filled with oil when Kezia shakes it. The dolls—a mother, father, and two children—are too big for the doll’s house and don’t seem to belong. But the lamp does. It is real.
The children walk fast to school the next morning, burning to boast to everyone about the house before class begins. Isabel says she, as the eldest, has the right to be the first to tell people. Isabel is bossy but always right, so Lottie and Kezia brush through buttercups at the side of the road and say nothing. Isabel says she will also be the one to choose who comes over to see the house first. Their mother said the girls may bring two girls from school at a time to see the doll’s house while it is in the courtyard. The guests would not be invited to tea or allowed to traipse through the house; only to stand quietly while shown the doll’s house.
The girls arrive at the school bell rings, meaning there is no time to tell people about the house. They whip off their hats and fall into line for roll call. Isabel tries to look important and mysterious while whispering to girls near her that she has something to tell them at playtime.
Girls surround Isabel at playtime. They fight eagerly to be close to her. Under the huge pine trees at the side of the playground, Isabel holds court with the nudging, giggling girls. Only the two little Kelveys stay outside the ring, as they knew better than to come anywhere near the Burnells. The narrator comments that the school the Burnell children attend is not the kind of place their parents would have chosen if given a choice. But it is the only school for miles. The consequence is that all children in the neighborhood mix together: children of the judge, the doctor, the store-keeper, the milkman. There are also rude, rough little boys.
The narrator says the line has to be drawn somewhere, and it is drawn at the Kelveys. The Burnells are not allowed to speak to the Kelveys. They walk past the Kelveys with their heads in the air. Other children follow suit, shunning the Kelveys. Even the teacher addresses the Kelveys in a different voice. And when Lil Kelvey brings a bunch of dreadfully common-looking flowers to the teacher’s desk, the teacher has a special smile she gives to the other children.
Katherine Mansfield begins “The Doll’s House” by introducing the object around which the story’s conflict develops. With its many delicate details and the joy it induces in the Burnell girls, the elaborate doll’s house the girls receive from a wealthy friend of the family appears innocuous enough at first. However, the doll’s house reeks of fresh paint fumes—an olfactory image that contrasts with the apparent beauty of the house and foreshadows the doll’s house’s coming use as a weapon of social ostracism.
The opening of the story also establishes Kezia’s attachment to the little lamp on the dining table. Even though the house is full of similarly detailed, exquisite objects, Kezia zeroes in on the lamp because it seems most lifelike to her. The full symbolic weight of the lamp will not be clear until the end of the story, but by drawing the reader’s attention to the lamp and Kezia’s fascination, Mansfield sets up the lamp’s later resonance as a symbol of innocence.
Kezia’s material interest in the lamp contrasts with her eldest sister Isabel’s understanding of the doll’s house as a means of drawing fame and attention to herself. Mansfield’s narrator comments that the girls go to school eager to tell everyone about the doll’s house, but then interrupts the sentence with the correction that they are in fact eager to boast about the doll’s house. This correction is an example of Mansfield’s use of free indirect discourse, a style of narration wherein the narrator’s voice and characters’ thoughts become blended together. The narrative interruption aligns with Isabel’s interior monologue as she admits to her real desire, which is not just to share news of the doll’s house but specifically to induce feelings of envy in other girls.
Isabel’s desire is satisfied when all the girls on the playground swarm her at lunchtime to hear her describe the doll’s house. It is at this point that Mansfield introduces the theme of social ostracism most directly, as the only girls left outside the circle of Isabel’s adoring audience are Lil and Else Kelvey, the daughters of a washerwoman and an absent father who is rumored to be in prison.
Mansfield’s narrator digresses to explain how the Kelveys’ ostracism results from a class-based prejudice passed on from the Burnells’ parents to the Burnell girls. While the wealthy Burnells don’t approve of the way their daughters’ mixed-income school means they mix with the children of working-class professions, the parents absolutely draw the line at their daughters mixing with the Kelveys. Because of Isabel’s popularity, her ostracism of the Kelveys is mimicked by all the other girls, and the Kelveys are turned into social pariahs, forever shunned and pushed to the outside of the circle.