The theme of appearance in the relationship between Miss Kilman and Clarissa Dalloway in Mrs Dalloway Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) was a middle-class well-educated woman who became one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. She was a member of the Bloomsbury Group, a gathering of Modern artists linked by friendship or love who lived near Bloomsbury in London.1 In 1925, she published Mrs Dalloway, a novel in stream of consciousness, which means that we follow the characters’ thoughts as they enter their minds. It relates one day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, a middle-class woman of fifty who is throwing a party that night. In parallel, we also follow Septimus Warren Smith, a young shell-shocked soldier. The extract I have chosen to study takes place in the afternoon, when Elizabeth Dalloway, who is Clarissa’s daughter, is taken by Miss Kilman, her tutor, to go shopping. Clarissa meets them both and we are given a glimpse of the relationship between the two adults. We are going to study how important appearances are in this passage. According to the Oxford dictionary, appearance is “the way that someone or something looks.”2
First of all, in this passage we can witness two worlds colliding, each embodied by Clarissa Dalloway and Miss Kilman. Indeed, both women by their look, represent two different social classes. Miss Kilman with her old mackintosh embodies the poor working class. As for Clarissa, she represents “all the other fine ladies”3, that is the wealthy middle-class, which is “condescending”4. Their dislike for each other is a metaphor of the fight between their two classes. As a matter of fact, the post-war and post-Victorian era in which Mrs Dalloway is set is for the United Kingdom a moment of self-questioning. The British Empire is declining and people are questioning the social order’s legitimacy.5
However, their fight cannot be reduced to a mere class conflict. Clarissa and Miss Kilman also differ in their believes. Indeed, Miss Kilman is a Christian whereas Clarissa is sceptic. We can see their believes through their clothes again. Miss Kilman wear a mackintosh, a unisex garment, she looks as if she is some kind of nun. As for Clarissa, she totally accepts her femininity. The former has therefore decided she would conduct a sort of holy war in order to convert Mrs Dalloway and that is why both women loathe each other. It is shown by the terms each uses to describe the other. Clarissa thinks of Miss Kilman as “a monster”, “ugly”, “without kindness”6 and Miss Kilman says she is a “fool”, a “simpleton” and comes from “the worthless of all classes”.7 Moreover, the lexical field of power with words such as “overcome”, “felled her”, “subdue”, “mastery”8 shows well how Doris takes the conversion seriously. We can even say the struggle is more personal than religious eventually. The religious motivation is finally just a pretext for Doris to release her hatred against Clarissa while keeping up the appearance of a good woman.
Finally, we can say that Elizabeth is their battlefield. Each woman struggle to keep her influence on the girl in an attempt to defeat one another.9 And actually, Elizabeth looks like a trophy in this passage. Miss Kilman only thinks of her as a “beautiful girl”10, nothing is said about her character. Thus, appearances are important because they help us to understand the hatred and conflict between Miss Kilman and Mrs Dalloway. In this passage, appearances are also interesting because, for once in Mrs Dalloway, the physical appearance matches with the inner self. However, Virginia Woolf quickly qualifies her words by reminding us that our interpretation of someone’s appearance is very subjective.
It is true that all along the novel, the author encourages us to go beyond someone’s look because there is always more than what meets the eyes. Nonetheless, in this extract, the characters’ physical appearance mirrors their personality. Definitely, Miss Kilman is as mean and bitter...
Bibliography: LEHMANN John, Virginia Woolf and Her World, , London: Harvest Edition, 1977.
TRANSUE Pamela J., Virginia Woolf and the Politics of Style , New York: State University of New York Press, 1986.
WOOLF Virginia, Mrs Dalloway , London: Penguin Group, 2012.
BETTS Raymond F., Disorder: Europe in the 1920’s, [http://britannia.com/history/euro/3/1_2.html], last consultation: 14/12/2014
CAREY Gary, Cliffsnotes on Mrs Dalloway : Elizabeth and her tutor, [http://www.cliffsnotes.com/literature/m/mrs-dalloway/summary-and-analysis/elizabeth-and-her-tutor] last consultation: 14/12/2014
Oxford Dictionary Online, [http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/appearance]
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