The New Dress by Virginia Woolf
In The New Dress by Virginia Woolf we have the theme of insecurity, appearance, inferiority, individuality, alienation, connection, class, escape and change. Taken from her The Complete Shorter Fiction collection the story is narrated in the third person (though some critics suggest Woolf is using stream of consciousness) and from the beginning of the story the reader realises that Woolf may be exploring the theme of appearance and insecurity. Mabel feels no comfort in her appearance (in her new dress) rather she feels so insecure about how she looks (and how she may be viewed by others) that she attempts to hide herself from the view of the other people at the party. Something that is noticeable when Mabel ‘went straight to the far end of the room, to a shaded corner where a looking-glass hung and looked. No! It was not right.’ This line is important as not only does it highlight the sense of exclusion that Mabel feels when it comes to the other people at the party but it also acts as a trigger for Mabel to recall the sense of inferiority she had felt when she was a child. Which in turn suggests that Mabel has been uncomfortable about how she is perceived by others for a considerable length of time (childhood to womanhood).
It is also interesting that throughout the story Mabel shows herself no kindness. Something that is possibly triggered by her sense of insecurity when it comes to other people (upper class). Rather than embracing her history (mother’s Paris fashion book) Mabel feels that she deserves to be chastised for how she is dressed at the party. Rather than being proud of her individuality and Miss Milan’s work on the dress, there is a sense that Mabel feels ashamed because she is not the same as everyone else at the party (in fashionable and expensive clothes). Woolf’s use of the line ‘flies trying to crawl’ is also interesting as many critics suggest that by including this line into the story Woolf is making a direct reference to Anton Chekhov’s short story ‘The Duel’ and the character Nadyezhda Fyodorovna. Who in the story feels that just like a fly she kept falling into the ink (darkness) and crawling out into the light again. It is also noticeable that though Mabel compares herself to a character in a story she is unable to picture the other people at the party in the same light. Rather she sees them as ‘dragon-flies, butterflies, beautiful insects, dancing.’ Which in many ways serves to not only further highlight the sense of insecurity (socially) that Mabel feels but also the sense of alienation that she may possibly feel? She feels as if she is unable to connect with those at the party. So overpowering are these feelings that Mabel begins to envy and spite those at the party rather than again focusing on her own originality or individuality.
Woolf also appears to be exploring the theme of class. Not only through the insecurity that Mabel feels while at the party but by telling the reader that Mabel (one of ten children) never had enough money when she was growing up ‘always skimping and paring.’ Throughout her childhood Mabel dreamt of being taken away from the life she was living and being ‘married to some hero like Sir Henry Lawrence, some empire builder.’ However it is interesting that when Mabel begins to further reflect on her life the reader becomes aware that she is in fact happy being married to Hubert, living with him and her two children in their small house. Though it is also noticeable that Mabel’s insecurities or self-doubt return after she thinks about her life in the present (at the party).
There is also some symbolism, particularly names, in the story which may be important. Mabel’s surname is Waring and throughout the story the reader senses the internal conflict that Mabel feels because of her social insecurities. Also the reader is aware that Mrs Holman (whole) ‘could never get enough sympathy and snatched what little there was greedily, as if it were her right.’ However the most important symbolism in the story is probably Mabel’s dress itself. Woolf by using the colour yellow for the dress could be suggesting, at least symbolically, that the only unique person or shining person (yellow representing the sun) is Mabel herself. Something that is more noticeable to the reader when we discover at the end of the story that she decides to leave the party. The fact that the party takes place upstairs in Mrs Dalloway’s home and that Mabel at the end walks down the stairs to leave the party may also be symbolically important as Woolf could be using the stairs to symbolise the differences between those who remain at the party (upper class upstairs) and Mabel who decides to leave the party.
The ending of the story is also interesting as it would appear that Woolf is further exploring the theme of escape or as some critics might suggest, Woolf is introducing change into the story. By having Mabel decide to do something different the following day it is possible that Woolf is suggesting that not only is Mabel escaping from the views held by those at the party, who again are all upper class but she is also being to take control of her life, to embrace her individuality. No longer is she reliant on the opinions of others. Something that is noticeable when she waves to Charles and Rose ‘to show them she did not depend on them one scrap.’ Woolf also appears to be drawing on Chekhov again as Mabel is walking down the stairs and leaving the party. The line ‘Lies, Lies, Lies’ (which is repeated twice in the story) may be a direct reference to ‘The Duel’ again and the character Laevsky’s opinion of himself as being better than others. It is possible that Mabel has become aware that the life that she aspires to be part of (upper class) is in reality not her true path and by leaving the party, Mabel is again not only distancing herself from upper class society but is also being true to herself.