Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

The Lady in the Looking-Glass: Reflections on the Self in Virginia Woolf

Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

The Lady in the Looking-Glass: Reflections on the Self in Virginia Woolf

Article excerpt


This essay addresses Virginia Woolf's exploration of the concept of the self through reference to a range of her prose writings. In these writings, Woolf questions whether the self is unitary, constant and finally knowable, or fragmented, unstable and inscrutable; whether the self is merged with other people, and constructed from interactions with the world; and whether or not a durable and fixed self-image is a necessary prerequisite for successful social interaction. Woolf's engagement with the conventions of biography is examined primarily through the lens of two short stories: 'The Lady in the Looking-Glass' and 'An Unwritten Novel'. I argue in the first instance that Woolf's concerns about 'life-writing' are influenced both by the spirit of modernist experimentation and by gender politics, before moving on to an exploration of the ways in which her views on biography inform her own memoir, 'A Sketch of the Past'.

The second half of this essay focuses on Wool's 1931 novel, The Waves, which is, perhaps, her most sustained meditation on the nature of subjective identity. Using Jacques Lacan's concept of the 'mirror stage', I analyse Woolf's rendering of the multiple 'selves' that feature in The Waves. Finally, I investigate correspondences between this novel and 'A Sketch of the Past', with a view to situating The Waves as a modernist autobiography of the type that Woolf envisions when she re-imagines biographical conventions elsewhere in her work.

Keywords: gender, identity, representation, autobiography


The very title of Virginia Woolf's short story 'The Lady in the Looking-Glass: A Reflection' (1929) speaks directly to her close engagement--both here and elsewhere-with the issue of selfhood, and the possibility of its narrative articulation. The looking-glass motif is a recurrent feature of Woolf's writing, and functions variously as a surface upon which the self--or alternative selves--might be reflected or envisioned, and as a metaphor for the processes of autobiographical writing. Similarly central to Woolf's aesthetic is the tension between the individual's public personae and his or her 'private' self. Through a range of biographical, autobiographical, and fictional strategies, Woolf explores the extent to which the private self can be conceptualised as a fixed, unitary, and bounded identity. Furthermore, she questions whether or not the self can ever be formulated 'accurately' within the limited terms of language. In this essay, I contend that these issues can be productively considered in terms of psychoanalytic theory and, more specifically, Jacques Lacan's concept of the 'mirror stage'--the moment in infantile development at which the child first sees itself as distinct from others, and thereby assumes a self-image or imago (442). I will argue that much of Woolf's writing, most notably The Waves (1931), can be usefully re-examined through the lens of recent theory and Lacanian psychoanalysis.

'The Lady in the Looking-Glass' testifies to Woolf's interest in biography. It is well documented that Woolf's father, Leslie Stephen, became the editor of the Dictionary of National Biography in 1882, the year that Virginia was born. This huge responsibility, his 'major life's work', involved documenting the lives of 'great men' in the traditional biographical style, which meant, in essence, recording their major public achievements (Lee 7). While Woolf inherited her father's respect for life-writing, she had a detached and irreverent attitude towards the 'great men' whose lives were documented in the Dictionary, as displayed in the final paragraphs of her memoir 'A Sketch of the Past' (1939-40): 'Greatness still seems to me booming, eccentric, set apart; something we are led up to by our parents and is now entirely extinct' (136). Woolf was more interested in writing the lives of the unknown and the marginalised, as demonstrated by 'Lives of the Obscure' in the first volume of The Common Reader (1929). …

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