If you're like us, the mere thought of dolls coming to life sends you diving for the covers. But not Sara. To her, dolls are people. "Dolls ought to be intimate friends," she tells her father and Miss Minchin: "[Emily] is going to be my friend when papa is gone. I want her to talk to about him" (1).
Sara's doll Emily has a name before she exists. Well—she exists, but Sara doesn't have her. She and her father drive all over London looking for Emily, before Sara finally finds her. When she does, Sara introduces her to her father just as if she's actually a real little girl.
Sara isn't the only one who treats Emily like a little girl. Our narrator does, too. Check out the way she's described: "she had naturally curling golden-brown hair, which hung like a mantle about her, and her eyes were a deep, clear, gray blue, with soft, thick eyelashes which were real eyelashes and not mere painted lines" (1). If you didn't know this was a doll, you'd think it was one of Miss Minchin's prettier students.
What's the point of all this? Well, it shows us that Sara is creative and imaginative, for one. And it also shows us that Sara can love just about anything.
But Emily also symbolizes the way that Sara has to grow up. She never stops loving Emily, exactly, but she does begin to see that dolls might not be a substitute for real-life family. During one of her really bad nights in the attic, she actually yells at Emily:
"You are nothing but a DOLL!" she cried. "Nothing but a doll—doll—doll! You care for nothing. You are stuffed with sawdust. You never had a heart. Nothing could ever make you feel. You are a DOLL!" (10.34)
Of course Sara immediately realizes that Emily can't help being a doll—but we think that this is pretty important moment for Sara's character, because it shows her growing up. Now, instead of adopting Emily, she thinks more seriously about the poor children all around her.
One thing we noticed is that Emily basically disappears once Mr. Carrisford adopts Sara. Instead of worrying about Emily, Sara learns to care for Becky and Anne, the little beggar girl. It's almost like Emily was practice: just like little girls were supposed to practice being mothers with dolls, Sara learned how to be kind and compassionate with Emily.
But eventually, everyone has to grow up.
Sara knows she has to grow up. When she gets a doll on her eleventh birthday, she ominously call is "The Last Doll." (With a name like that, you know this story isn't going anywhere good.)
The Last Doll symbolizes the end of Sara's childhood for her, and for the book it symbolizes the end of her privileged, pampered life. Sure, by the end of the story she's a little princess again. But she's suffered. She's lost her beloved dad, and she's seen first-hand how cruel people can be. She realizes that dolls have no place in the real world—not just the world of adulthood, but a world in which little girls are starved and beaten.
Kind of a bummer, right? Well, the point is (we think) the Sara learns to rely on herself rather than on a doll. Instead of imagining stories about dolls, she imagines stories about herself. And that gives her a kind of maturity that dolls never could.