Textual Analysis of Symbolism and Social Strata in “The Doll’s House”

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Updated: Aug 30, 2023
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Unveiling Symbolism: A Modernist Examination

The Doll’s House is a short story by Katherine Mansfield. It’s a modernist tale that discusses social issues such as class differences and prejudice but has themes of childhood innocence and kindness as well, told by a third-person omniscient narrator. The setting of the story is the school or the courtyard at the Burnell house, where the dollhouse is present. Mansfield was fond of symbolism as a writing style, and as such, quite a lot of it is present in The Doll’s House to represent the characters and their personalities.

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Social Strata and the Dollhouse: A Reflection of Society

In The Doll’s House, the Burnell sisters receive a dollhouse as a gift from Mrs. Hay. The sisters are thrilled and eager to tell their playmates at school. Everyone is allowed to come to see the dollhouse except for two sisters – Lil and Else Kelvey. They are considered outsiders and inferior by everyone, including the teachers, and are not allowed to interact with the other girls due to their social status. The other girls make fun of the Kelveys, and it is implied that Lil is used to it and accepts it, while Else simply doesn’t respond. One day, after all the other girls have seen the dollhouse, Kezia sees the Kelvey sisters passing by and invites them to see it as well. Lil initially refuses, but Else desires to see it, so they accept. Kezia has barely begun showing the dollhouse to the sisters when her Aunt Beryl comes out and chases the Kelveys away. The Kelveys run away, but as they sit and reflect, they are pleased because they have seen the lamp in the dollhouse.

The characters in The Doll’s House are mostly children, with the most prominent characters being Lil and Else Kelvey, Kezia Burnell, and, to a smaller extent, Isabel Burnell. The conflict of the story is brought about by the class differences and the reactions of these characters to it since they are on polar opposite ends of the spectrum. Isabel and Kezia are privileged and part of the wealthiest family in town, but while Isabel follows her parent’s footsteps in discriminating against the less fortunate, Kezia chooses to be kind to them. Meanwhile, Lil and Else are on the other side of the spectrum. As the daughter of a washerwoman and a jailbird, they are used to being treated differently and have internalized it; thus, it is a shock to them when Kezia shows them kindness.

Isabel Burnell is the eldest Burnell sister and is shown to be bossy and arrogant, deciding who gets to see the doll’s house each day. As such, the other girls readily try to win her over and behave flatteringly with her. She overlooks the lamp in the dollhouse despite explaining each and every other aspect of it to her playmates and needs to be reminded of it by Kezia. She is dismissive of the Kelvey sisters regarding the dollhouse, showing it to everyone but them, and does not stop her playmates when they are mean to the Kelveys, either.

Prejudice and Outsiders: The Kelvey Sisters’ Plight

The theme of prejudice is clear in the adults; however, it is shown that the children copy their parent’s behavior as well, and Isabel is the prime example. The children are instructed to treat the Kelveys as outsiders, and so they readily do so, going so far as to be mean to them for no reason. Instead of feeling any guilt or remorse, it excites them instead, indicating how deeply the prejudice is ingrained from such a young age – “[After insulting the Kelveys] the little girls rushed away in a body, deeply, deeply excited, wild with joy.” The lack of understanding and empathy brought about by the girls’ arrogance is plain to see, and Isabel is a part of that.

On the other hand, the Kelvey sisters are said to “never [fail] to understand each other.” Lil is the older of the two. She is indicated to be stout, and her clothes are sewn together from bits and pieces, making her look more like a boy. She understands Else despite the fact that Else uses little words. Lil, being older, is subject to the other girls’ mean words and always has a “silly, shamefaced smile” in response. She is well aware of her status and believes in it as well. She does nothing to counter the cruel remarks. Only accepts them and does not attempt to stop them either. She initially declines Kezia’s invitation to see the dollhouse, citing, ‘Your ma told our ma you weren’t to speak to us.’ She is aware of how the people around her view her and is not at all hopeful; neither does she expect good treatment. Lil only agrees to Kezia’s offer once Else tugs on her skirt, asking to see it, showing she is protective of Else and gives in to her younger sister’s desire to make her happy.

In comparison to Lil, Else is said to be a “frail wishbone of a child,” always following Lil around. It is said she “scarcely speaks” and “rarely smiles,” which shows she is not entirely unaffected by the society around her despite not being directly on the receiving end like Lil. Thus, compared to Lil, she retains some innocence as she asks Lil to see the Burnell’s dollhouse despite Lil adamantly refusing due to their class differences. Unlike Lil, she seems to not be fully aware of the consequences and gives in to her heart’s desire to see the dollhouse rather than be affected by logic reminding her of the difference in social status between her and the Burnells.

Kezia Burnell is the most prominent character in this story, aside from the Kelveys. She is the youngest of the Burnell sisters and seems to be least affected by the adult’s prejudice and distinction between social classes. The main conflict arises because of her desire to be kind to the Kelveys rather than be cruel to them like her peers. She is compassionate and asks to show the Kelveys the doll’s house but is refused, but in the end, she defies orders and shows them anyway. She is also the only one enchanted by the “little lamp” despite everyone else overlooking it for the much flashier aspects of the doll’s house. One can argue that the lamp is a symbol of Kezia herself.

There is blatant symbolism used in The Doll’s House, and the titular object (the dollhouse) seems to be a symbol of the Burnells and their prejudiced beliefs. It is large and beautiful; however, it has a nasty “smell of paint [that is] enough to make anyone seriously ill.” This may be a representation that the Burnells, despite their wealth making them appear outwardly beautiful and intimidating, are still horrible due to their treatment of the people below their status. They’re arrogant and exclusive, and most of their wealth is for boast and show. This is shown by the sisters getting permission to show their playmates the dollhouse but none to invite any of the girls to tea. Just like the dollhouse, the Burnells are a family to be viewed as powerful, respected, and admirable, but difficult to get close to due to their unpleasant arrogance.

The dolls inside the dollhouse also seem to represent the Burnells besides Kezia. There is a mother and father and two children that one may see as Isabel and Lottie, as it is implied they share their parent’s ideas and do not question their prejudiced beliefs. According to Kezia, “[the dolls] didn’t look as though they belonged,” once again pointing out that, despite the outward beauty and normalcy of the doll’s house, there is something off-putting. The dolls do not fit the grandeur of the doll’s house, just as the Burnells do not deserve nor fit their lavish lifestyle because of their damaging beliefs. Their beauty is only at a surface level, with only ugliness inside.

If the dollhouse itself is a symbol of Burnell’s prejudice due to their social standing, the little lamp in the doll’s house seems to be a representation of Kezia. She is the youngest of the sisters and the only one who desires to invite the Kelveys, unaffected by her elders’ prejudiced beliefs. Despite “knowing quite well” why her parents disapprove, she doesn’t seem to understand why the Kelveys shouldn’t see it. She is the only one who notices the little lamp inside the dollhouse and loves it more than anything else. It is a small, insignificant object, yet Kezia gives value to it and refuses to dismiss it, similar to how she refuses to dismiss the Kelveys after being told to repeatedly.

Furthermore, while the dolls in the dollhouse are mismatched, the lamp is not – “the lamp was perfect. It seemed to smile at Kezia, to say, ‘I live here.’ The lamp was real.” The lamp is the only thing that matches the dollhouse. Kezia’s compassion and lack of prejudice speak of her internal beauty that matches her external beauty. Kezia is the only one who is deserving of the luxury she lives in since she doesn’t believe herself superior. She is not fake and has a good heart, unlike her family, who only prioritize the possession of material objects and see them as a status symbol.

Lamps are also a symbol of light, and it can be said that Kezia was a light for the Kelvey sisters as well. During the climax of the story, she is the only one who shows them kindness by inviting them to see the dollhouse despite knowing she would get in trouble for defying her parents. After being plagued by the cruelty and darkness of their peers, the Kelveys find respite in the form of Kezia, who helps them momentarily forget the miserable circumstances they face each day. At the conclusion, the Kelvey sisters are sitting and pondering the experience. Despite not having had a chance to see the entire dollhouse, they seem content, for they have “seen the little lamp.”

The little bit of kindness that Kezia showed the sisters was enough for them to forget the humiliating experience of Aunt Beryl chasing them away, once again, due to their social status. Despite the lack of importance, everyone else shows the little lamp; it is an accomplishment for the Kelveys that they have seen it. It can be assumed that because the other girls are privileged and do not experience prejudice due to social standing, the lamp and what it symbolizes means little to them. However, for the Kelveys, who are constantly discriminated against, seeing the lamp is the most important thing. Experiencing Kezia’s kindness is what they are happiest about rather than seeing the dollhouse itself.

Conclusion: The Interplay of Symbolism and Society

There are many layers to Mansfield’s The Doll’s House. It is a beautiful story told in the third person omniscient by a narrator through simple language and symbolism, which can be interpreted in many different ways. While prejudice based on social class is the explicit theme, childhood innocence and the effect of kindness seem to be the implicit subtheme. Mansfield seems to heavily imply that one’s outward appearance should match one’s inner soul; otherwise, the lack of compatibility is visible. It is not wealth and status that matters, but rather how one treats others. In summary, “A little bit of kindness goes a long way” and is far more satisfying and beneficial than any self-righteous sense of superiority brought about by material objects, as we see by the end of the story.  

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Textual Analysis of Symbolism and Social Strata in "The Doll's House". (2023, Aug 30). Retrieved from https://papersowl.com/examples/textual-analysis-of-symbolism-and-social-strata-in-the-dolls-house/