Grundkurs Literaturwissenschaft Anglistik Prof. Dr. G. Blell
Liane Grossmann Samariterstr.33 10247 Berlin
Midterm paper - Short story interpretation
"The Doll`s House" by Katherine Mansfield
Katherine Mansfield, New Zealand`s most famous writer,was born in Wellington in 1888 into an upper-middle class colonial family. She died of tuberculosis at an early age, but her achievements "on the development of the short story as a form of literature" are widely acknowedged today. Her stories, which "reveal the influence of Chekhov"2 , are rather simple in form but nevertheless portray impressively characters and their traits in certain moments of life.
Mansfield created her own typical and unique style of writing. Her literary work also reflects very much the memories of her own childhood and upbringing in New Zealand of the 19th century.
"The Doll`s House", a short story, seems to reveal such biographical influence, since it appears to be set in a colonial socie ty of the late 19th century, exactly the time when Katherine Mansfield herself lived with her family in the countryside similar to that described in the story. Although Mansfield does not waste many detailed descriptions on the matter of setting, the reader gets an impression of the immediate neighbourhood and surroundings through various subordinate information. "It is summer time", there are "thick buttercups at the road edge" and one can look "over the hay paddocks, past the creek, to the group of wattles where Logan`s cows stood waiting to be milked." All that sketches the rural area, where the Burnell family with their three children - Isabell, Kezia and Lottie lives.
One day those three girls receive with particular enthusiasm the present of "dear old Mrs. Hay" : a doll`s house.
They are excited by every little detail of the house and cannot wait to tell about it to their school mates the next day.
Katherine Mansfield slips into the children`s mind and the reader experiences through their view the true joy, which is so typical of children. No detail seems to be left out. It is almost as though oneself stands besides the girls, remembering the own childhood and watching all the marvellous features that are spotted. The house is for instance "spinach green" and "the door, gleaming with yellow varnish, was like a little slab of toffee." What more childlike associations could Mansfield give in her description ? Toys and sweets are the most loved things of children after all. Mansfield obviously chooses and uses a rather figurative language to express the children`s feelings and thoughts.
What Kezia, for example, "liked frightfully, was the lamp". She does not simply like this lamp but she likes it frightfully. Kezia is fascinated by the lamp, which she thinks is perfect.
Kezia and Lottie are the younger sisters of Isabel, who is described as the domineering one of the three. She is the eldest and therefore sets the tone when it comes to the point of telling the news about the doll`s house at school.
At the playground of the school we do not only get to know all those children surrounding the three Burnells , but also two excluded girls - "the little Kelveys". They are said to have a prisoner as their father and the mother works as a cleaner. None of the other children talks to them. They were even formally instructed by their parents not to get in contact with them.
Thus Mansfield shows how children already learn very early how the society they live in works. In a way the children imitate the behaviour of the adults. They tease the two girls with remarks like "Is it true you`re going to be a servant when you grow up, Lil Kelvey?" or "O-oh, how awful!".
Again it is the language of Mansfield that gives a unique impression of the situation. Lena, one of the girls, gives "a little squeal and danced in front of the other girls." She is then "sliding, gliding, dragging one foot" towards the Kelveys. The sentences used are stripped compressed, but nevertheless produce a particular kind of authenticity. You can picture the circumstances in your mind when the group of "little girls rushed away with a body, deeply, deeply exited, wild with joy...And never did they skip so high, run in and out so fast...as on this morning." It is marvellous how Katherine Mansfield creates with few sentences the complex feelings of those children. This method or technique is also used when it comes to the description of the characters themselves. They are not described in every detail, but their nature and outward appearance is introduced little by little. It is told what they do, what they eat and wear, but not more than is needed to understand the characteristic features that are important for the story. Mansfield tags the characters to specific and typical characteristics.
Else, one of the two Kelvey girls, always looks or even stares and Lil gives time and again "her silly, shame- faced smile." This expression is repeated at least three times in the course of the story. Lil does not seem to find another appropriate reaction to the harassment of all the others. And how could a little girl possibly find a way of reacting differently, when this behaviour is even modelled on the teacher as well ? Lil and her sister Else are used to be on their own, being outsiders. Else always walks behind her older sister, she "scarcely ever spoke" and "nobody ever seen her smile". Their social background differs very much from the one of their school mates. Mansfield shows this difference through means of comparison and contrasting. Lil and Else for instance "chewed their jam sandwiches out of a newspaper soaked with large red blobs." while the group of girls eat "their thick mutton sandwiches and big slabs of johnny cake spread with butter."
In addition , the outward appearance of the Kelveys is described very detailed. Katherine Mansfield needs less than ten sentences to paint a picture of the two and their peculiar appearance. The two are dressed in "bits" that were given to their mother. One can imagine how silly a little girl looks in a dress "made from a green ... table cloth of the Burnells` " with "red plush sleeves from the Logans`curtain" and as if this alone would not already make Lil the laughing stock, she wears a "grown-up woman`s hat" on top. The reader feels like standing himself infront of Lil having a close look at her, it is almost impossibly not to smile at this striking combination of colours and garments. It supports furthermore the point that those two girls are expelled from the circle of the others. They do not only eat different sandwiches but also wear unusual clothing. No wonder that Lil and Else stick together in their particular situation. Together they form a whole - Else , the " tiny wishbone of child, with cropped hair and enourmous solemn eyes" and Lil, the " stout, plain child, with big freckles." It is significant that there are occasionally associations with animals given in connection with the two Kelveys.
Once Else is compared with "a little white owl", another time both are said to be "like two little stray cats" and aunt Beryl treats "those little rats" as if "they were chickens". All these animals Lil and Else are compared with are the sort of animals , which are hunted or in the case of rats even chased by humans. In any case, these animals are not likely to be welcomed within the domestic surroundings of most people, especially not at this time, when the family home had to represent in a way the social status. Mansfield chose really impressively this comparison with animals to portray how the Kelveys are seen and why no-one wants them arround.
Kezia disregards this one afternoon and without permission of her family she invites or rather persuades Lil and Else to come in and see the doll`s house.
All other girls had already been there and now Kezia wants the Kelveys to have a look.
In this situation we recognize their different social background once more - this time in the use of their language. When Kezia says "You can come and see our doll`s house if you want to," Lil answers "Your ma told our ma you wasn`t to speak to us." She uses "wasn`t" instead of the correct form "weren`t". The Kelveys can see the doll`s house for a short moment, which they had already heard so much about. They are overwhelmed, "Lil breathed loudly, almost snorted; our Else was still as a stone." and would have probably stood there for some time, if Aunt Beryl had not cropped up. She throws them out of the house and reproves Kezey for the incident.
The innocent world of a child, who does not really understand the reasons and the deeper social meaning of all this stands opposite the rule-governed world of the adults. It seems to be a matter that Mansfield wants to criticize sharply. Adults are generally not shown as very positive characters in her story. Even though they are not in the centre of attention or events and are characterized only with very few words, Mansfield`s point becomes clear. An exception is Mrs. Hay, "Sweet old Mrs.Hay,..., most sweet and generous." Aunt Beryl however has a "cold, furious voice." Her appearances within the story are always in connection with any kind of authoritarian instructions. One of her first remarks on the doll`s house is that "the smell of the paint was quite enough to make any one seriously ill." and as already mentioned she later throws the Kelvey children out of the house - "proud and cold." The reader does not get any further information , about the Burnell parents for instance.
There is generally not one central character in the story, but the children are obviously the most rounded ones. I already examined, that they are described through repetition, the way they act and in the case of the Kelveys as well in their outward appearance. Mansfield paints broad brush strokes of their behaviour and in a way of the events in the whole story. The plot is confined to the essentials. All remarks that are unimportant in any way for the story seem to be left out. Nothing is for example told about Lottie, the third Burnell daughter. We only know about her existence but she does not play any role whatsoever.
In spite of this minimal narrative technique does the reader get a clear impression of what happens and what the involved characters are like. There are various points of view employed.
Katherine Mansfield shifts from conscious to unconscious. Sometimes everything is seen through the eyes of the children so to speak, at other times the events are told from an outside point of view. The latter view is used when more general and objective statements are given to the reader , such as "For the fact was, the school the Burnell children went to was not at all the kind of place their parents would have chosen if there had been any choice." or "In the afternoon Pat called for the Burnell children with the buggy and drove home. There were visitors." At the very end of the story this outside point of view describes how the Kelvey children have a rest at some distance to the Burnell house, where they had just been thrown out. It is the one and only moment when Else smiles "her rare smile" and even more remarkable she says "softly" : "I seen the little lamp." One feels for Else - "our Else". This little word "our" is always added in front of her name. By doing that, the character of this rather fragile and shy child becomes more intimate and thus the reader sympathizes even more with her.
The few words of Else at the end leaves the reader very, very moved (!) and surely this was Katherine Mansfield`s aim.
Children have their own way of seeing things. They pay attention to things that adults would not even recognize or see as particular beautiful. This little lamp is one of those things. Another is when the children dream about opening all houses unconventionally by opening "the whole housefront" at once, like God probably does it "at dead of night."
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