In The Lady in the Looking Glass, Virginia Woolf uses three specific techniques in conjunction with the motif of the looking glass to portray a glimpse into post-Victorian society. By including the dichotomies of subjective versus objective point of view, the private versus the public sphere, and a fragmented narrative style, the modern era is ushered in as one with inspiration from the Victorian writers but also literary idiosyncrasies of its own.
Following the Victorian period, society was shifting towards more modern values but the idea of the private and public sphere still remained in the back of people’s minds. In The Lady in the Looking Glass, the narrator is positioned in the drawing room, an interrupting member of the private sphere of Isabella, the “mistress of the house” (1288). The relationship to Isabella is unknown, though if the narrator is allowed into the private sphere of her home, which, as an unmarried woman, would have been decorated with strictly with items that she valued, the reader can assume that the narrator has a uniquely close relationship to her.
With the looking glass there is a peculiar style in which the narrator uses the space: he or she observes Isabella in the mirror “like one of those naturalists” (1288), in the same private sphere, yet with the prying curiosity of those in the public sphere. The narrator goes on to insist that “sometimes it seemed as if they [the furniture] knew more about her than we, who sat on them, wrote on them, and trod on them so carefully, were allowed to know” meaning that while Isabella let this person in particular in her house, they are not fully allowed to know Isabella beyond the surface. This quote demonstrates that in the transition from the Victorian to the modern period, the public and private sphere still existed, but the dichotomy between them was more arbitrary- just because you were invited into someone’s home, that did not mean you were invited to know their inner self.
In this short story, the motif of the mirror also works to introduce the juxtaposition of the subjective and objective point of view. The subjective occurs, as we discussed in class, when the narrator is interpreting the meaning behind Isabella’s actions, while the objective is in reference to Isabella’s point of view, i.e. her actions, which she is unaware are being observed (10/19). The looking glass serves as a conduit for both in that the narrator sees Isabella lackadaisically moving about her life through the mirror, for them it is a glimpse into her subjective life.
Meanwhile, when Isabella looks in the mirror, she is merely seeing her reflection. To her, it is only her face and normal daily actions. The way that the narrator understands her actions is as data to be analyzed and observed for implications of Isabella’s personality. He or she states on page 1290, “If she concealed so much and knew so much, one must prize her open with the first tool that came to hand-the imagination,” which is used along with the data of her everyday activities to piece together who Isabella is as a person, without any contextual information from Isabella.
Isabella on the other hand, does not see any menial labor such as cutting overgrown branches in the garden as imbued with meaning. The narrator, from their subjective point of view, gives special significance to the pursuits of the homeowner, yet the homeowner is not there to offer any objective context.
The third way the motif of the looking glass effectively works to cater towards the modern period of writing is in the narrative style. The fragmentation in the narration is meant to simulate the limited range of the mirror. No matter who is looking in the mirror, Isabella, the narrator, etc., only one part of the reflection is visible. Isabella looks in the mirror in The Lady in the Looking Glass solely to gaze upon her own face, but the narrator is at a distance. He or she can move to various locations in the drawing room to see more of the rest of the house that is reflected in the looking glass, as if looking at one piece of a kaleidoscope, but the entirety of Isabella’s home cannot be viewed simultaneously.
The fragmentation also works because the narrator is observing Isabella “like one of those naturalists” (1288) and putting together the pieces of her intimate life, such as the “large black form” (1289) of the postman visiting her, her cutting overgrown branches in the garden, or “straightening a rose, there lifting a pink to smell it” (1290), all threaded together with imagination. As the story exists, the narrator will never have a cohesive compilation of Isabella’s life story, a detail which is represented by the broken up narrative style.
In Virginia Woolf’s story The Lady in the Looking Glass, she utilizes the literary technique of juxtaposing the subjective and objective point of view, the public and private sphere, as well as a fragmented narrative style. These work together with the motif of a looking glass to paint the modern era as one with remnants of the Victorian period, but also a writing style (in addition to cultural and social values) that are independent from its traditional counterpart.