Virginia Woolf's short story "The Lady in the Looking Glass: A Reflection", is the sad self portrait of a woman whose character is examined both from outside and in, and found to be unsatisfactory. In her examination, Woolf uses modern features of theme and style. These features employ modern ideas of narration and character to illustrate a fuller, more complete picture of the character than is possible using only traditional techniques of narration. Woolf also advocates in this story the usage of the stream-of-consciousness technique.
The first question which must be asked, and which will subsequently bring us to greater understanding of the story, is the question of the identity of the lady in the looking glass. The story calls her Isabella Tyson, but certain clues lead one to believe she may be someone else. The story uses a looking glass as a metaphor for the lady's character, which we will presently discuss in more depth. The title and subtitle of the piece indicate that the story is a means of examining a lady via her reflection in a looking glass. One does not use a looking glass to examine another person. One uses a looking glass to examine one's self. Thus we may now give a new name to the lady in the looking glass: Virginia Woolf. The story then becomes Woolf's attempt to examine her own character through the vehicle of modern narrative techniques. However, to understand the true beauty of Woolf's execution of this, we must examine her use of modern styles and themes more in depth.
The strongest theme in this story is the distinctly modern theme of the split self. Here we see one figure with many levels of character. This theme is accentuated through the metaphor of the looking glass. The first picture we receive in the story is the contrast between the interior of the house and its exterior as seen through the looking glass. The interior is a world of movement. It is portrayed as a dynamic environment that is constantly in a state of flux from one state to another. The play of light and shadow, as well as the animal images, give the picture a sense of hidden depths, things not seen from the surface. This is consistent with modern ideas about the fluidity of character. A person's character is something which changes according to mood or circumstance. It cannot be captured in one still image. It is in constant motion. In contrast, the image of the house's exterior, as reflected in the looking glass, is still, serene, and peaceful. There is no movement, only a placid surface. Additionally, let us remember that an image reflected in a glass is flat and two dimensional, and that when looking at an object through a looking glass, one cannot see what is within the object; one can only see the reflection of its surface. It does not, indeed cannot, reflect the true depth of the object. Applying this metaphor to the split self, the interior image of the house reflects the deep interior of the self, constantly shifting, changing, and adapting, hidden away from the world behind doors. The external image of the house is the looking glass reflection is that part of the self as seen by the world, a mask hiding in one fixed expression all the roiling turbulence beneath. The internal and external images of the self are by no means corresponding. In fact, as seen in this story, they are often wildly different.
The main style of narrative which Woolf uses is the stream-of-consciousness technique. From the images of the house we learn not only the physical aspects of the house, but the impressions they leave as well. The narrator's attention is then drawn from the house to its mistress, Isabella Tyson. First she thinks about Isabella based on her appearance and behavior: "She suggested the fantastic and the tremulous convolvulous" She then reviews the established facts about Isabella's life: that she is single, rich and travels, as if these things embody the lady herself and tell the reader everything he needs to know. But this is not satisfactory and she begins to wonder what might be hiding deep within the little drawers of Isabella's mind. It is at this point that the narrator's musings are interrupted by the mail, an event which changes the picture under contemplation and leads the narrator down a new track of thought. She contemplates what Isabella talks about and realizes that this cannot in fact encompass the whole person, as she says: "It was her profounder state of being that one wanted to catch and turn to words". And finally, as Isabella makes her way back to the house and finds her letters, the narrator feels that she sees the true woman. And in her the narrator finds nothing. This beautiful woman with the lovely house and exciting life is nothing but empty. We hear every thought within the narrator's mind. We follow her as she examines Isabella's character. We see her change her mind and begin again. This then is how real thought occurs. Instead of a narrative that states relevant facts, we follow a person's mind as it wanders to and fro. In this way the reader receives a deeper understanding of Isabella that is possible under conventional narrative styles.
An interesting point to make about this story is that it is not, if the lady is indeed Woolf herself, only a soul searching story about a lady. It is a story about how to write in stream-of-consciousness technique. In addition to coming to conclusions about Isabella, simultaneously with these conclusions, describes in detail the stream-of-consciousness technique. First, Woolf makes her case. Earlier in the story the narrator examines Isabella based on her looks, her dinner conversation, and facts about her life. She goes on to say: " she could no longer escapeone must prize her open with the first tool that came to hand". This type of "prying" indicates a conventional approach to narration. The character is treated roughly, as though it were fixed and crude. But this approach does not satisfy, and the narrator states: "To talk of prizing her open' to use any but the finest and subtlest and most pliable tools upon her was impious and absurd". In this sentence the narrator realizes that a person is much deeper than originally believed and that one must look for more subtle ways to expose the true person: the stream-of-consciousness technique. Next, Woolf continues by recognizing that stream-of-consciousness is difficult to follow and see clearly, but like Isabella getting "larger and larger in the looking glass, more and more completely the person", one gets a feel for the person that conventional narrative could not supply. She adds that each thought in the stream-of-consciousness technique adds to the whole picture giving deeper understanding about the person and "bring[s] in some new element which gently move[s] and alter[s] the other objects." She concludes that using this technique one can see past the reflection into the true object: "Everything dropped from herall that one had called the creeper and the convolvulous.Here was the woman herself." This is a story about the subtleties of stream-of-consciousness in narrative.
All of these points combine to make Virginia Woolf's story "The Lady in the Looking Glass: A Reflection" the epitome of modern narrative fiction. It is all the more impressive when one realizes that the stream-of-consciousness technique is used to understand not the person supposedly sitting in the room doing the thinking, but the lady who is reflected in the glass. Normally the stream-of-consciousness technique is used to understand the thinker. In this story, it is used to understand someone else; someone reflected in a glass. This is yet one more elegantly constructed hint that the thinker and the person in the glass are identical. And let us remember, one uses the looking glass to reflect one's self, thus combining, the lady, the narrator, and the author: Virginia Woolf.