Narration, Responsibility, and Awareness in Yeats’s “The Dolls”

Yeats’s “The Dolls” uses multi-faceted symbolism and third-person narration to address the artist’s responsibility for social and political awareness. The poem reads like a fairy tail about living dolls who are insulted by their maker’s decision to have a child. The doll-maker is troubled by this, but his wife is ultimately the one who addresses the issue. The doll-maker and his dolls represent the artist and his poems while the cradle represents a world outside of–but influenced by–art.


There’s not a man can report

Evil of this place,

The man and the woman bring

Hither, to our disgrace

A noisy and filthy thing.’ (8-12)

This statement comes to us from the oldest doll, whose laments echo the straight-laced Catholic ideals of the time. Celibacy and purity were highly valued, both in art and in life (Cullingford). The way that the doll references the “man and the woman” and the “noisy and filthy thing,” that they created proves the common contempt for sexual activity (10, 12, italics added for emphasis). Even the birth of a child, something that is normally celebrated, is declared “insulting” and “disgraceful” (3, 11). The doll’s polemic is also addresses the literary censorship that took place at the time. The word “Evil” is likely a reference to “obscene” literature, which the doll claims was not actually made by our artist, the doll-maker (Cullingford).

Though it is tempting to call the doll-maker “Yeats,” we can’t assume his identity. The poem is written in the third-person, which separates the doll-maker/artist and the reader more than it would in the first-person where the reader has direct access to the speaker’s thoughts. This poem is not the artist’s confession of a struggle between his work and his life, but an acknowledgement of the weight of the artist’s responsibility. As a poet, the artist is responsible for what he writes and the knowledge that it will be consumed by many people. As a parent, the artist is responsible for the child’s upbringing the way he shapes the child’s early ideology. The way that Yeats separates us from the doll-maker allows him to make this point and shows the extent of his self-awareness. He clearly takes the responsibility of being a public intellectual very seriously.

Works Cited

  1. Cullingford, Elizabeth. “Swans on the Cesspool: Leda and Rape.” Gender and history in Yeats’s love poetry. 1993. Print. 140-164.
  2. Yeats, W.B. “The Dolls.” The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats,” edited by Richard J. Finneran, Scribner Paperback Poetry, 1989, 126.

Pledged on the Honor Code, IJS

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