The narrator explains that the Kelveys are the daughters of a spry, hardworking little washerwoman who cleans in multiple houses. If this isn’t awful enough, the narrator comments, nobody knows where Mr. Kelvey is. Everyone says he is in prison.
The Kelvey children look like the daughters of a washerwoman and jailbird because they dress in “bits” given to Mrs. Kelvey by the people she works for. Lil wears a dress made from a green tablecloth once used by the Burnells. Her hat was once the postmistress’s. Else, a tiny wishbone of a child, wears a long, nightgown-like white dress. No one has ever seen her smile and she scarcely speaks. She walks around holding Lil’s skirt. She tugs the skirt when she wants something and Lil turns around. The Kelveys never fail to understand each other.
The Kelveys hover at the edge of the circle of Isabel’s audience, listening to Isabel talk about the sensational red carpets and miniature beds in her dollhouse. Kezia breaks in to remind Isabel of the amber lamp. Kezia thinks Isabel isn’t making enough of the lamp and so she provides details. No one listens, as Isabel has moved on to choosing which two of the adoring girls, each of whom try to put their arms around her waist and claim Isabel as their friend, will get to come back to see the house. She chooses Emmie Cole and Lena Logan.
Days pass. The fame of the doll’s house spreads as more girls come to see it. Girls sit under the pines at lunch eating mutton sandwiches and slabs of johnnycake spread with butter discussing the doll’s house. The Kelveys sit as near as they can get, listening while they chew their jam sandwiches wrapped in newspaper.
Kezia asks her mother if she can bring the Kelveys over just once. Her mother says certainly not. When Kezia asks why not, her mother tells her she knows quite well why not.
Eventually, everyone at school has seen the house aside from the Kelveys. The subject loses some of its power and interest. During lunch, while the children stand under the pines, the children suddenly want to be horrid to the Kelveys. Emmie Cole starts a whisper, saying Lil is going to be a servant when she grows up. Isabel says, “How awful,” and Lena gets excited by the idea of going to ask Lil.
Jessie May eggs on Lena to do it. Lena giggles and squeals and dances before the other girls as she makes her way over to where Lil and Else are sitting and eating. Lil looks up from her sandwich and wraps it away quickly. Else stops chewing. Their expressions suggest they are curious to know what is coming now.
Mansfield’s narrator uses free indirect discourse to adopt the class prejudice of the Burnell girls’ milieu while describing the impoverished Kelveys. Classicism is most evident in the narrator’s diction. Word choices such as “dreadfully common-looking flowers” make it clear how the narrator is amplifying the interior monologues of the people who judge the Kelveys.
But despite the words being used against the Kelveys, replicating the privileged characters’ opinions and attitudes has the ironic effect of creating sympathy for the Kelveys. Judged for their recycled homemade clothing, poor and absent parents, and meek demeanors, the Kelveys’ innocence shines through Mansfield’s description of them. Other than being from a poor family, they have done nothing to deserve the shunning they receive. The Kelveys are shamed and ostracized as a means of boosting the egos of everyone who wishes to see themselves as superior.
The theme of innocence continues with the juxtaposition between Kezia’s desire for Isabel to tell everyone about the little lamp and Isabel’s prioritization selecting two girls to come view the doll’s house after school. Kezia innocently believes the point of telling people about the doll’s house is to appreciate its material beauty, while Isabel is preoccupied with the social elevation the doll’s house bestows upon her.
While Isabel brings successive pairs of girls to see the house every day after school, Kezia complains to her mother about the rule against inviting the Kelveys. The Burnells’ mother holds her line about not inviting the Kelveys, and when challenged by Kezia insists that Kezia knows “quite well” why the Kelveys must not come over. The moment is revealing, as Kezia is evidently too innocent to comprehend the need to ostracize the Kelveys because of their underclass social status. By contrast, Kezia’s mother has assimilated her class prejudice so thoroughly that she assumes the invisible division social divisions to which she adheres ought to be unreflectingly understood and accepted by all.
Once everyone except the Kelvey girls has seen the doll’s house, the subject becomes less sensational. The privilege of getting to view the doll’s house is no longer much of a privilege, and so the enchantment wears off. In need of new stimulation, the girls on the playground decide to abuse the Kelveys with teasing. In this way, Mansfield traces a direct line between the doll’s house being used as a weapon of class prejudice and social ostracism to the bullying the girls engage in.