Virginia Woolf is an outstanding feminist writer and one of the twentieth century’s most famous modernist writers. In her works, one can see high skills combined with innovative techniques and gripping plot. A short story The Lady in the Looking Glass: a Reflection, which was published in 1929, is a self-portrait of a woman who seems to be unhappy despite her seemingly happy life – Woolf skillfully uses the woman’s appearance and the description of her house to show what is really happening in her heart and what she is thinking about.
Since the short story is autobiographical, it is essential to learn the key facts about Virginia Woolf’s life. She was born into a well-off intelligent free-thinking family, so she started writing at an early age. Her mother is said to have been very beautiful, so she paid much attention to her own and daughter’s appearance. Despite the fact that the girl was very cheerful and enthusiastic, Virginia’s childhood was traumatizing – at the age of six she was sexually abused by her brothers, and soon after that her mother and sister died. This and the fact that being a girl Virginia was not allowed to attend school influenced her greatly, and it can be seen in her writings, in particular, in The Lady in the Looking Glass: a Reflection. Here, Woolf tries to understand whether one can really study oneself and know everything about own personality, or whether a true self is something obscure, mysterious, and hard to define.
The title of the short story The Lady in the Looking Glass: a Reflection hints that this is going to be a serious contemplation about her personality and how it can be narrated. The image of the looking glass here is essential, and it appears in many of Virginia’s works. It is obvious that the story is an autobiography, because people use mirrors to look not at other people but at themselves, so the person whom the narrator sees is Virginia Woolf. Howard says that “Woolf’s focalization of an “obscure” life such as Isabella’s displays Woolf’s wish to inscribe neglected areas of female experience into the realm of literature” (p. 45). The mirror is a symbolic surface speaking the truth, like in the famous tale about Snow White. The role of the looking glass is by no means crucial and very complex. The looking glass is also essential in writing portraits about oneself, for it shows what the person really looks like without coloring the truth. The narrator says that the glass shows the details which otherwise remain unnoticed: one can see how the world changes every second, watch the “nocturnal creatures”, while outside the mirror everything remains the same, so “It was a strange contrast ? all changing here, all stillness there.” Here, one can see a conflict between a public side of the person, which is open to everyone’s view, and her private life. Isabella’s life can be described as perfect, for, despite the fact that she is not married, she seems to be self-fulfilled and interested in many things. She lives in a gorgeous house with a beautiful garden, she often travels and every piece of furniture, carpets, and dishes she brings from different corners of the world, she has many friends, and every day she receives plenty of letters. However, in reality, Isabella is unhappy, because she is lonely and all her letters are simple bills.
Another important symbol in the short story is the house in which Isabella lives. The narrator mentions that Isabella made it herself – she brought many pieces of furniture from the places to which she travelled “at great risk from poisonous stings and Oriental diseases - the rugs, the chairs, the cabinets which now lived their nocturnal life before one's eyes”. Actually, Isabella’s life seems to be all about this house and the garden around it. Even the glass in which the narrator is looking and which is so revealing is hanging in that house. It is full of different cabins and drawers, and each of them has something in it, mostly these are letters with ribbons and flower petals indicating that Isabella is probably of a romantic nature. However, the narrator later realizes that Isabella is just like her house and maybe even she is her house. It is clear that the woman does not want to be open to public view, and she wishes to stay little known; she is closed, just like the drawers in her house. Virginia compares Isabella to “oyster” which is hard to open. Even the letters in which the narrator is so interested and which mean that she was probably once in love and show that Isabella is just like everyone else seem to be clued to the tables so firmly, that one has to use some tool to tear them off. Everything in the house is exquisite, just like Isabella’s appearance, but once the narrator takes a closer look, it becomes clear that the appearance sometimes might be deceitful.
It is worth mentioning that the language which is used by Woolf is very elaborate, and so are the images and the ideas that are presented in the short story. The very fact that she decides to introduce Isabella Tyson as a reflection in a mirror proved to be immensely interesting, for it gives the impression that the reader is watching TV – despite the fact that the story is very engaging, the distance between the reader and the main heroine cannot be erased. This feeling becomes even stronger when Woolf uses a pronoun “one” instead of personal pronouns: “one could not help looking”, “one could see a long grass path”, etc. Apart from that, the author calls those who are watching Isabella and the events in the mirror “naturalists who, covered with grass and leaves, lie watching the shyest animals”. Every sentence of the story is very poetic and filled with figures of speech. A good example of this could be the following sentence “They came pirouetting across the floor, stepping delicately with high-lifted feet and spread tails and pecking allusive beaks as if they had been cranes or flocks of elegant flamingoes whose pink was faded, or peacocks whose trains were veined with silver.” She uses “pirouetting” instead of simple “going”, describes their beaks as “allusive”, and tails are “veined with silver”. Such a description technique creates the impression that all these animals are passing in front of the reader’s eyes. Additionally, these “bright” sentences might be introduced on purpose as a stark contrast to the general gloomy mood of the story; the same happens with the life of Isabella – she seems to be so “glamorous”, but in the end of the story the setting is absolutely different.
In her The Lady in the Looking Glass, Woolf emphasizes that the society pays too much attention to the appearance and the outlook of the things surrounding people, while the content remains unknown. This idea is particularly true in the modern world. Everyone seems to be concerned about how they look, what they dress, what cars they drive, and in what houses they live. Decades have passed from the time when Virginia wrote the short story, and people still seem to be interested in the same things, because glamour and luxury are considered to be synonyms of happiness. Still, Virginia shows people what is hidden behind the pretty picture: when standing naked in front of the mirror, a real Isabella comes to light, Isabella who “was perfectly empty. She had no thoughts. She had no friends. She cared for nobody”. Interestingly, Woolf’s description of the interior of the house and woman’s appearance sheds no light on who Isabella really is, “Yet, it was strange that after knowing her all these years one could not say what the truth about Isabella was.” The narrator can imagine what Isabella likes to talk about at the dinner table, but he fails to understand her “profounder state of being.”
Woolf thought that it was not right to valorize the importance of solid facts while writing a biography. Everything that the narrator knows about the main character is that she is rich, she is a spinster, and she herself bought all the furniture in the house. However, this information gives no clue to what the woman is in reality. Knowing prosaic facts about someone’s life does not necessarily mean knowing about his or her true nature, because they cannot reveal their thoughts. Moreover, Isabella thinks much throughout the story. For example, the moment when she goes outside to cut some flowers or overgrown branches, the sun, which was previously shining, suddenly hides and “at the critical moment a veil of cloud covered the sun, making the expression of her eyes doubtful.” Once again, the narrator tries to guess what she might be thinking about, but he is probably nowhere near the truth. While cutting off the flowers, she definitely becomes sad, because “the fall of the branch would suggest to her how she must die herself and all the futility and evanescence of things.” Thus, Virginia demonstrates her idea and modern principles about how biography should be written – one should be interested in the unpredictable, enigmatic, and ever changing consciousness rather than in prosaic facts.
Another key element in The Lady in the Looking Glass is knowledge. Isabella seems to know many people, many things, she has considerable experience and she is always in a deep contemplation about something. The narrator, on the other hand, is concerned about the lack of knowledge, particularly, the knowledge about Isabella and her personality. He thinks that if he opens those envelopes, he will probably learn everything about her and her life, yet Isabella “did not wish to be known”, and the narrator thinks about it all the time. According to Schotter, “the narrators of Woolf’s works long for the transcendent hidden knowledge in the tablets, and even perhaps believe that that truth exists, but they are unable to access or decipher it.” In fact, the story consists of the narrator’s longing to know the things which he does not know about the woman, and actually no one knows anything about Isabella Tyson.
Woolf uses multiple modern styles, techniques, and themes in her short story, and one of them is the split of personality. Isabella is one woman with many different character features. This is again achieved with the technique of the looking glass. The first thing that is described is the discrepancy between the interior of the house and the picture that the narrator sees in the looking glass. The interior is very dynamic and never stays the same. Woolf describes the play of the light, falling shadows, there are also many beautiful animals. Therefore, the picture seems to have some hidden sense, it is very profound. This corresponds to the modernist comprehension of human character, which is changeable and depends on circumstances and situation. Character cannot be represented with a single picture, because it is in perpetual motion. Nevertheless, the exterior of the house is still and silent and deprived of any movement. With the help of this metaphor, the writer demonstrates that there is a conflict between the appearance and what is inside. Another modernist technique that is applied by Woolf is stream-of-consciousness, which is the principle narrative style here. Not only does the reader learn about the physical side of the house and the lady, but he/she is also shown their inner entity as well. First, the narrator makes the conclusion about Isabella basing on her appearance, and then he arranges the facts from her life into a sequence. However, this is not enough and the narrator starts wondering what else might be hidden in depth of her mind. Therefore, the reader follows not simply a number of facts or a distinctive plotline but the narrator’s thoughts. This ensures a better understanding of the woman.
In The Lady in the Looking Glass, Woolf tries to represent the world and people as closely to the reality as possible, as if it was a mirror reflection. When people look at each other, they only know what they see, and they can only suppose what the life behind the visual representation is. The narrator looks at the woman, sees her beautiful house and the letters, and draws the story of Isabella’s life in his head. However, very often it is better not to know the truth, no matter how desired it is. The reality happens to be different from the narrator’s expectations, and only Isabella knows it. When looking at her reflection in the mirror, she does not see a pretty lady in exquisite clothes; on the contrary, she knows that she is naked and “empty.” The same is in real life; human imagination is very rich, but the reality cannot correspond to it, and the expectations might sometimes be heightened. This is very disappointing, and that is why the narrator says that “People should not leave looking-glasses hanging in their rooms,” because the real Isabella was not as intriguing as she seemed to be. Moreover, the narrator blames Isabella for revealing the truth, as if she created the picture and then ruined it herself. The last paragraphs of the story show interruption of reality. From the very beginning of The Lady in Looking Glass, the narrator is trying to understand Isabella’s mind, but what he finds is more and more questions and complexities. The narrator understands that Isabella is “full of locked drawers”, so it is impossible to write a complete and clear biography of hers. However, in the end of the story, Isabella approaches the mirror and reveals some unknown facts.
In conclusion, The Lady in the Looking Glass by Virginia Woolf is an autobiographical short story which also deals with the continuous process of studying oneself. The image of the mirror helps show that despite her physical characteristics, Isabella considers herself to be empty and plain. Using modernist techniques and stylistic devices, Woolf argues that human character is very complex and enigmatic, and it is impossible to understand it concentrating only on appearance.
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