Identity in Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
The nature of identity is a major theme in Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway. The novel, written in 1925, explores the timeless question of whether we are ever able to truly understand the "self." Is it something ephemeral, fleeting, or vague, or a clearly defined entity? How do our surroundings, our physical environment and our human relationships impact the notion of self or personal identity? Can the self ever really be considered an individual entity, or is it inextricably intertwined with the outside world?
On a very basic level, the reflection our face in a mirror is comprised of lines, contours, depths and promontories. These are the images perceived by the eyes; it is our brains that create the more recognizable symbols of eyes, nose, lips, and cheekbones. Ultimately these symbols coalesce into a larger picture of a face, and not just any face, but our own. While it would be possible to gain some generalized understanding of our physical appearance through the sensation of touch, our reflection is necessary in conceptualizing our physical selves in their totality.
Society as a Mirror for the Self
The mirror serves as a microcosm of a larger reality. In life, we cannot fully understand identity until we see it reflected back to us by the mirror of the “other.” Yet like the looking glass, the reflection generated by the community-at-large is composed of bit parts, small symbolic representations that only coalesce and become imbued with meaning once they have returned to us, to be digested and assimilated into our overall self-concept.
While the characters in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway have only a limited understanding of one another, each creates a personal identity through his or her varied reflections in the eyes of others. Clarissa Dalloway exemplifies this idea, as throughout the course of the novel, the reader witnesses her identity develop in tandem with her contact with the outside world .
The Other as Caricature
It is clear that none of the characters in Mrs. Dalloway know much about one another. At one point the question is asked, “…for what can one know even of the people one lives with every day?” (188). It becomes apparent that what each knows of another is a compartmentalized version. Richard Dalloway sees Clarissa as “Mrs. Dalloway,” a charming wife with a delicate constitution. Clarissa’s servants help her to portray the image of the “gentle, generous-hearted” society wife (38), while to Peter she is a snob and the perfect hostess. It is Peter who, though at times depreciating, is most aware of Clarissa’s multi-faceted nature. “…She had her reserves; it was a mere sketch, he often felt, that even he, after all these years, could make of Clarissa” (76). Through these relationships Woolf posits that no matter how close we are other people, they will never exist as more than a rough caricature to us. The Other is fundamentally an alien identity, one which we are only able to understand through the context of our relationship with that person.
The Playing of Roles
Clarissa Dalloway plays many roles to many different people, appearing to be made up of many differing and even irreconcilable aspects. Woolf describes Clarissa getting ready for her party as “…collecting the whole of her at one point (as she looked into the glass), seeing the delicate pink face of the woman who was that very night to give a party; of Clarissa Dalloway; of herself." There are three progressive images reflected in the mirror: the hostess, the woman, and the inner or core self. Clarissa, while aware of these dichotomies of self, seems relatively content with the schism between inward and outward nature until Peter makes his unexpected return. Facing Peter, someone whom she has known in another lifetime, as another version of self, causes her an inner conflict that forces her to reconcile her varying aspects of self.
The Process of Reflection
Woolf uses the metaphor of the party and its preparation to chart a journey towards the eventual assembly of Clarissa’s identity. If Peter is to be considered the catalyst towards redefinition, then the party itself exists as the epipany of understanding. The party is a figurative device in which all of Clarissa’s personality aspects come together at once. It is telling that as the party begins, Clarissa describes a sense of erasure of personality. Her identity has not yet been glimpsed in the mirror and hasn’t yet undergone the process of exterior reflection. As the party progresses and Clarissa moves from guest to guest, she is able to reassemble the sense of self that has been deconstructed by the appearance of Peter. The party guests and the distinct relationship Clarissa has with each reflect back to her the many facets that make up her total self, just as the mirror at the beginning of the day reflected a tri-part identity: the hostess, the woman, the self.
Internalizing the Reflection
Though Woolf presents a construction of self that derives from the symbolic reflection in the unknown other, the final stage of this process is still internal. While the face may be reflected in the mirror, internal cognition, consciousness or subconsciousness is what interprets and assimilates the symbols presented as a face, and understands that face as the outward manifestation of self. Identity derived through relationship with the other and the outside world still needs the medium of the individual consciousness to assemble it. When Clarissa breaks from the party to watch the woman across the street through her window, Woolf is allowing Clarissa the necessary space to assimilate the self that has been pieced together out of the many roles she has played that night. The Clarissa that returns to the party is a different version that the one that has left; she has now reconciled and integrated the opposing factions of her identity.
The Unknown Within the Self
Clarissa at the window is the final scene in which the narration inhabits her thoughts. Just as when she pondered her image at the dressing-table mirror earlier in the day, there is again a mirror image in play. The anonymous woman across the street is the reflection of Clarissa: her mirrored image represents the unknown variable within Clarissa's own self. This unknown woman reflects the “other” within Clarissa, the part of herself that she can never truly understand, no matter how many epiphanies of self-understanding she undergoes. Woolf makes it apparent that while we can never really know another, neither can we ever fully know ourselves. In this absence of understanding and awareness, it is our experience and relationship with others, with the world, that act upon our inner core of being, however alien to us, to create something that we can understand or conceptualize as our own individual selves.