Class prejudice (classism) is the principal theme in "The Doll's House." Through the story, Mansfield depicts a society in which people are invisibly divided into a hierarchy of social classes based on economic prosperity or lack thereof. The narrator begins by showing the perspective of the Burnell children, who live in a large house and whose family employs a servant who, despite him being an adult, the children know simply by his first name, Pat. Mansfield contrasts the Burnells' casual opulence with the desperately impoverished Kelvey sisters, who wear clothes made of cast-off fabrics from families like the Burnells. While the Burnells' mother disapproves of her children mixing with the children of people whose parents have middle-class jobs, she "draws the line" at the Kelveys and absolutely forbids her children from speaking to them. The Kelveys are scrutinized to the point where they face humiliation in school not only from other children but from their teacher, who sneers at the "common" flowers Lil generously brings to her desk. With the mass rejection of the Kelveys, Mansfield shows how the hierarchical attitude of class prejudice creates an invisible wall that dooms the Kelvey children to the same fate as their parents; the Kelveys have little hope of being seen as any other than members of society's lowest rung.
Expressed primarily through the characters Kezia and Else, innocence is another of the story's major themes. In contrast to the prejudiced attitudes the older characters in the story unreflectingly adopt, Kezia Burnell challenges her mother's rule that the Kelveys not be allowed to view the doll's house. Kezia's mother responds that Kezia knows "quite well" why the Kelveys aren't allowed to see the doll's house, but the truth is that Kezia is too innocent in her youth to comprehend the class division that predetermines the Kelveys' exclusion. While her older sister Isabel follows their mother's order not to associate with the Kelveys, and her schoolmates mimic this cruelty, Kezia takes it upon herself to invite the Kelveys into the courtyard. Lil, having taken on the idea of her own inferiority, knows she is not supposed to talk to Kezia or see the doll's house. But Lil's younger sister Else—similar to Kezia—is innocent enough not to understand the invisible class division that has determined her and her sister's social ostracism. Even after Aunt Beryl shames the girls for thinking they could get away with talking to Kezia and entering the courtyard, Else thinks of Aunt Beryl as merely "the angry lady," not understanding why she and her sister were told to go away. In her naivety, Else quickly forgets about the angry lady but remembers how she saw the little lamp—a symbol of innocence that unites her and Kezia.
As a result of the class prejudice in the microcosm of New Zealand society Mansfield depicts, people of lower social standing are made victims of persistent ostracism. This exclusion from the larger group is best illustrated in the Kelveys' staying forever banished to the edge of the circle of girls who flock around Isabel Burnell at lunch and playtime. Rather than the Kelveys occupying a completely separate area of the playground, the invisible forces of class prejudice and social ostracism keep them near enough for the popular girls to feel superior over them and ridicule them whenever the whim to exercise power strikes. By keeping the Kelveys close but unequal, the girls at the mixed-income school emulate the greater society's de facto rules of ostracism that ensure the Kelveys' parents are kept subservient and in the underclass.
The principle weapon the privileged people wield against the Kelveys is shame. To ensure the Kelveys understand their lower social standing, the popular girls differentiate themselves from the Kelveys by shaming them for their poverty, homemade recycled clothing, mother's profession, and father's presumed status as a prisoner. Mansfield illustrates how the shaming impulse operates when Lena Logan shows off the other girls by walking over to Lil and Else Kelvey to ask if Lil is going to grow up to be a servant. When Lil smiles in return, not reacting to the insult, Lena grows indignant at her inability to shame Lil. To save face, Lena shouts at Lil that her father is in prison, a statement considered by the other girls so "marvelous" in shaming potential that they become giddy with delight. Mansfield does not show Lil's reaction to the statement. Instead, Mansfield waits until the end of the story to show Lil being overcome with shame when Aunt Beryl shoos her and Else out of the Burnells' courtyard. Mansfield writes: "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." In this passage, Mansfield shows how the emotion of shame has a physical effect on Lil's body, contorting her into her mother's huddled position. Ultimately, the line suggests that the piling on of class-based shame Lil experiences will guarantee she grows up with the same lack of respect and opportunity as her mother.
The Doll’s House Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Doll’s House is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
The doll's house at the center of the story is a symbol of social privilege. Gifted by a wealthy guest at the Burnells' home, the doll's house further elevates the Burnell girls' already high social status at their mixed-income school. Isabel uses...
The Burnells are introduced, as they opened the doll house.... a gift from Mrs. Hay. They loved the gift and were excited to tell everyone about it the next day at school. Isabel is described as bossy..... her sisters simply follow her lead.