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STUDY ON SUBJECTIVITY AND FEMINISM IN VIRGINIA WOOLF’S THE NEW DRESS
Sâmbătă, 08 Mai 2010 18:09

STUDY ON SUBJECTIVITY AND FEMINISM

IN VIRGINIA WOOLF’S THE NEW DRESS

Part I

 

                                                                                   Prof. Delia Ilona Cristea

                                                              Colegiul Naţional Elena Cuza, Craiova

 

 

Whether or not the short-story “The New Dress” was previously meant to be a chapter of the novel “Mrs. Dalloway”, is less important. What is relevant, nevertheless, is that some of the characters and the main event-the party- appear in both pieces of writing, and that the short-story was written in 1924 while Virginia Woolf was revising the novel, and therefore, there are elements that indisputably connect the two. Here the emphasis is put on the inner workings of the mind of Mabel Waring, who becomes the protagonist, Clarissa Dalloway  remaining the affable and charming hostess only, with a small part in the development of the events. 

 

As for the events themselves, it is obvious that nothing much happens in the story, the focus of interest shifting from the outer world to the inner world, namely the plot losing in importance in order to make room for the more intricate and complex universe of the main character’s mind, who appears to be in the middle of a crisis. The facts themselves do not matter much, and the modern narrator has chosen to use a more adequate technique-the stream- of- consciousness technique- to manage the shifts from the present into the past more smoothly.

 So, the “New Dress" is Virginia Woolf's short story about Mabel Waring, who attends a social gathering wearing a new yellow dress. The story is written in a stream-of-consciousness fashion as it describes Mabel's thoughts and actions while she is at the party. Mabel’s yellow dress- designed with her dressmaker specifically for this particular occasion, after an image from an old-fashioned magazine in Paris, has taken countless hours to finish, attempting to get the design just perfect for this social gathering, where she wishes to make an image of perfection of herself.

As she arrives at the party and removes her cloak, Mabel sees herself in a mirror and immediately announces to herself that the dress is not right. There is just something wrong with it, although there is no indication of precisely what the problem is. The dress actually sounds quite exquisite from the description Mabel provides, with a high waist, long skirt and high sleeves, made of yellow silk.Mabel takes a long look at her self in the mirror and finds a seat on a sofa where she can still view herself in the mirror. As the other attendees are enjoying themselves at the party, Mabel is focusing on her dress and develops an obsession about what the others are thinking about her. When the others attempt to make conversation with Mabel, she reads into their comments and silently interprets their comments as slights on her appearance. The only time that Mabel thinks anything positive about this entire experience is when one woman tells her that her skirt is just the perfect length. At this moment, and only for a brief moment, Mabel feels positively enthused about the many hours she spent to perfect the design of this dress. In the next instant, a gentleman makes reference to a picture that is very old-fashioned. Mabel misinterprets this comment to assume that the gentleman is speaking of her new dress. Suddenly she again hates the dress and feels incredibly self-conscious.

As Mabel obsesses about this dress, she thinks of the many things in her life that have never been quite right, from her childhood, to her marriage and children, and even to her house. Everything has always been just not quite right. Her house, for example, is nice, but a bit small. Another example is that she is married to a good man, although he is not quite what she had always imagined herself with.Finally, Mabel begins to think of a way to help her self escape the undeniable shame that her dress is causing her. She thinks about going to the London library on the following day and getting books into which she will escape. She imagines herself becoming the characters about whom she will read, and suddenly she has the confidence to approach the hostess of the party.Rather than tell the hostess, Mrs. Clarissa Dalloway, that she is happy to be in attendance, or rather than thanking her for having been invited, Mabel simply tells Mrs. Dalloway that she is leaving and that she has had a wonderful time. As Mabel leaves the party, she continues to focus her thoughts on what others must be thinking of her. She believes they know she is lying about having had a good time, although there is no way anyone would know, since she had only been there for a very short time.

This brief presentation makes one point clear: nothing spectacular takes place in the short-story. Woolf’s tendency towards subjectivism, here and elsewhere in her other writings,  departing completely from what it is called “objective realism”, shows beyond any shadow of a doubt, that she abandons any effort at comprehensive or realistic representation and resorts to other means of exploring linguistic brushstrokes that would evoke rather than define the character. Woolf concentrates on the details she finds fascinating in Mabel’s “inner experience”, and any other insignificant trifles like objects or events are purposefully overlooked, being considered mere “external details”. Like in an impressionistic painting, Mabel’s character is not “described’ in the obsolete manner of the realist writers, her nature can only be deduced from a series of associations she makes in her mind, which will finally round her up conclusively. The scarcity of the dialogue prevents us to perceive Mabel through her words either, thus relying more on the inward representation of the woman’s life, on her reflections, frustrations and fears. The psychological decoding and cataloging of her mental processes allow the reader to practically view this very external world from within the character’s psyche,

Although World War I had ended nearly nine years before the publication of Virginia Woolf's short story "The New Dress," in 1927, the lingering effects of the war resonate throughout the work. Many commentators have remarked that much of Woolf's fiction has little connection to events taking place in the world. This may seem to be true of "The New Dress." It records one woman's impressions and experiences at a party. The disillusionment and despair that Mabel Waring exhibits during the party, however, may be seen to mirror the anguish that touched much of English society after the war, the feeling of not belonging to a society that has limited the freedom of the individual, particularly of women, especially due to financial considerations.( “fashion meant cut, meant style, meant thirty guineas at least”). The protagonist in “The New Dress” experiences disconcerting feelings of inadequacy and inferiority  specific to those of humble origins that alienate her from the others and makes communication utterly impossible.(“ All this had been absolutely destroyed, shown up, exploded, the moment she came into Mrs. Dalloway's drawing-room).

 

What we witness here is a patriarchal pattern, an excessive patriarchal dominance, and undoubtedly Mabel represents an example of the victimized prototype, engulfed by a world she wants to embrace, but which overtly or covertly threatens her individuality (“trying to be like them”). She is torn between her private self as a person she likes to be and her public social identity (“She faced herself straight in the glass; she pecked at her left shoulder; she issued out into the room, as if spears were thrown at her yellow dress from all sides.  But instead of looking fierce or tragic, as Rose Shaw would have done -- Rose would have looked like Boadicea -- she looked foolish and self-conscious, and simpered like a schoolgirl and slouched across the room, positively slinking, as if she were a beaten mongrel, and looked at a picture, an engraving.  As if one went to a party to look at a picture!  Everybody knew why she did it -- it was from shame, from humiliation”).

 

The social order of Britain in the twenties was resolutely inimical to the reality of actual life cherrished by Mabel, and created standards that, far from allowing for free, individual expression, forced people like her into rigid roles with unfulfillable expectations.(“ "I feel like some dowdy, decrepit, horribly dingy old fly," she said, making Robert Haydon stop just to hear her say that, just to reassure herself by furbishing up a poor weak-kneed phrase and so showing how detached she was, how witty, that she did not feel in the least out of anything. And, of course, Robert answered something, quite polite, quite insincere, which she saw through instantly, and said to herself, directly he went (again from some book), "Lies, lies, lies!"  For a party makes things either much more real, or much less real, she thought; she saw in a flash to the bottom of Robert’s heart; she saw through everything.  She saw the truth. THIS was true, this drawing-room, this self and the other false”).Woolf attempts to recreate the stream and pattern of her character’s thoughts and feelings from a totally “internal” viewpoint, thus emphasising her uniquess. She uses less restricted presentation of life, therefore abandoning linear narrative and finding an alternative to the male-dominated reality. Her use of stream-of-consciousness technique consolidates  her position as one of the leading modernist writers.

 

 

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