Reading Mindfully: Katherine Mansfield’s “The Doll’s House”

Reading Mindfully: Katherine Mansfield’s “The Doll’s House”

Each month, we pause for a moment to read mindfully, using literature to think about our perceptions and reactions to the world in which we live and work. Through these short texts and accompanying questions, we hope to give you a small taste of Books@Work. We hope you might share and discuss them with others – or send us your thoughts.

Although Katherine Mansfield spent most of her adult life living in London and traveling continental Europe, many of her short stories evoke the New Zealand of her childhood. A modernist writer, Mansfield was a friend of D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf. Her short story, “The Garden Party,” influenced Woolf’s masterpiece, Mrs. Dalloway.

The Nation and Athenaeum, July 3, 1926 [Public Domain] via the British Library

The Nation and Athenaeum, July 3, 1926 [Public Domain] via the British Library

“The Doll’s House” (1922) was first published in The Nation and Athenaeum. In the story, Mansfield turns her attention to the Burnell family – characters who appear in a number of her other works – and their response to a generous gift.

As you read “The Doll’s House,” consider these questions:

  • Mansfield goes to great pains to describe the house and all its contents – the bedspreads, the family that doesn’t quite fit, and, especially, the lamp. The house reeks of new paint and needs to be left outside, but it immediately becomes the children’s treasured possession. Why does it seem so important that the dollhouse is full of miniature versions of real things? In what ways does the dollhouse stand in contrast to the domestic realities of the Burnells and their schoolmates?
  • The dollhouse is an object of fascination, providing Isabel and Kezia with a lot of power in their schoolyard world. Given your thoughts on the dollhouse and what it represents, why is it meaningful that it gives the girls so much power? Do their power and choices  – or the Kelvey sisters’ relative lack of power – reflect your own experiences at any point in your life?
  • Though adults appear only on the outskirts of this story, they influence the children’s actions throughout it. In what ways do the children’s perceptions reveal deeper truths about the adult world, and especially the ways we come to learn bias and exclusion?

The Doll’s House
By Katherine Mansfield

When dear old Mrs. Hay went back to town after staying with the Burnells she sent the children a doll’s house. It was so big that the carter and Pat carried it into the courtyard, and there it stayed, propped up on two wooden boxes beside the feed-room door. No harm could come to it; it was summer. And perhaps the smell of paint would have gone off by the time it had to be taken in. For, really, the smell of paint coming from that doll’s house (‘Sweet of old Mrs. Hay, of course; most sweet and generous!’) – but the smell of paint was quite enough to make anyone seriously ill, in Aunt Beryl’s opinion. Even before the sacking was taken off. And when it was…

Continue reading here, or listen to Margaret Drabble read the story.

Image: Jacob Appel, The Dollhouse of Petronella Oortman, c.  1710, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons

Further Reading

Stepping Into Others’ Shoes: Literature and Workplace Diversity
On War, Dancing, and Light: Why Metaphors Matter
Storytelling as “Game-Changing Technology”

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Cecily Erin Hill

Cecily Erin Hill

Cecily Hill is the Project Director, NEH for All at the National Humanities Alliance and former member of the Books@Work team.