Published in The Dove’s Nest, Katherine Mansfield’s last collection of short stories, “The Doll’s House” belongs with “Prelude” (1920) and “At the Bay” (1922) among the Burnell stories, a trilogy based on the re-creation of a New Zealand childhood that threads family life with social satire while exploring issues of identity and belonging. The story, divided into three sections, uses the central metaphor of the doll’s house, which also provides the linear and dramatic framework of the narrative. It begins with the arrival of a completely furnished doll’s house sent to the Burnell children by “dear old Mrs. Hay,” a friend of the family. When Pat, a servant, opens the house, Isabel, Kezia, and Lottie cannot believe their eyes: “It was too marvellous; it was too much for them.” But while her sisters admire this imitation of gaudy bourgeois comfort, Kezia, Mansfield’s recurring figure of the open-minded girl, is drawn by the perfection of an “exquisite little amber lamp” that looks “real” to her.
In the second and third sections of the story, the doll’s house becomes a source of social and psychological conflict as it is turned into an instrument of power by Isabel, the eldest Burnell sister, and the other schoolchildren invited to share her euphoric pride. Cruelly excluding the Kelvey girls from their companionship and from the pleasure of seeing the doll’s house because they are the daughters “of a washerwoman and a gaolbird,” Isabel and her friends reproduce their parents’ prejudiced views and social sense of self-gratification without questioning them. The narrative works up to an epiphanic climax when Kezia, “the potentially free subject,” to use Kate Fullbrook’s terms (113), breaks with social and family conventions by opening “the big white gates” of her home and her heart to allow Lil and Else Kelvey a hurried glimpse at the doll’s house. Over a short moment of symbolical intensity, the three children are drawn together in a shared experience of vision and beauty: “[Else] put out a finger and stroked her sister’s quill; she smiled her rare smile. ‘I seen the little lamp,’ she said.”
As are most of Katherine Mansfield’s stories, “The Doll’s House” is poised dialectically between the external world of social reality and an internalized world of subjective perceptions. Its Modernism lies in its refusal to rely on narratorial intrusions (the text is full of ironic insights but is never judgmental) and in its use of point of view and indirect free form to convey inner feelings, of symbol and metaphor as structural elements, and of epiphany as the ephemeral moment when the focal character and the reader might gain access to truths hidden to ordinary perceptions: Not only do Kezia and the Kelvey sisters know that the doll’s house is a social symbol of status and discrimination, they also see in its little lamp the metaphorical values of shared knowledge and emotion, while the whole story suggests that artistic creation may be a redeeming act of inclusion and fulfillment.
“The Doll’s House” is also typically Mansfieldian in the way the narration oscillates between ironic distance and emotional empathy, using “impersonation” as a form of speech representation that captures the subtle nuances of a character’s tone of voice and makes for immediacy but also ambiguity and ironic contrasts. However, the epiphanic accomplishment characterizing this story makes it different from most of the other short fiction by Mansfield: Far from being an experience of self-deception or self-betrayal, the expected revelation is here a “blazing” if evanescent moment of discovery and happiness.
Fullbrook, Kate. Katherine Mansfi eld. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986.
Kobler, J. F. Katherine Mansfi eld: A Study of the Short Fiction. Boston: Twayne, 1990.
Mansfi eld, Katherine. The Dove’s Nest and Other Stories. London: Constable, 1923