The Doll’s House by Katherine Mansfield, 1922
The magic trick:
Big, bold, aggressive sentimentality to produce an effect
What a story! Do you hate the Dickensian angelic characterization of the poor? Do you hate sentimentality? Well, too bad. You’re mean and heartless and cruel and stupid. Mansfield goes full-on Dickensian sappy here and it’s brutally effective.
She is going after the class system of World War I era British Empire. We have poor, innocent school children cast out of the social group at school. We have a rich girl with good instincts who wants to do the right thing. We have mean, evil adults intent on perpetuating the wealth gap for no other reason except that they are insecure and angry. Nothing about this story isn’t obvious. But that’s OK. The end isn’t meant to surprise. It’s meant to devastate. And that’s quite a trick on Mansfield’s part.
“Is it true you’re going to be a servant when you grow up, Lil Kelvey?” shrilled Lena. Dead silence. But instead of answering, Lil only gave her silly, shame-faced smile. She didn’t seem to mind the question at all. What a sell for Lena! The girls began to titter. Lena couldn’t stand that. She put her hands on her hips; she shot forward. “Yah, yer father’s in prison!” she hissed, spitefully. This was such a marvellous thing to have said that the little girls rushed away in a body, deeply, deeply excited, wild with joy. Someone found a long rope, and they began skipping. And never did they skip so high, run in and out so fast, or do such daring things as on that morning.