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In an attempt to catch up with some classics of the short story, I started A Haunted House and Other Short Stories by Virginia Woolf a while ago. Although I like Woolf’s novels, I find her short stories more difficult to read, so rather than reading the whole collection, I prefer to read one story every so often.
“The New Dress” is typical of Woolf’s use of the stream-of-consciousness and it seems that this story might have been intended as a chapter of Mrs Dalloway. Indeed, we find the narrator, Mabel, at a party held by Clarissa Dalloway. The story focuses mainly on Mabel’s feelings of inadequacy at this party, which are represented by the dress she is wearing. Although she thought the dress to be fashionably old-fashioned, she realises, once at the party, how different she (and her dress) is from the rest of them, who are “dressed in the height of the fashion”, as she notices.
Mabel appears as a character who had different ambitions and dreamed, and still does, of adventures. However, she got married and like the rest them adopted a mundane style of life. Yet, she does not seem to have the same means as the society to which she belongs and consequently feels inadequate and the subject of mockery.
“She saw herself like that – she was a fly, but the others were dragonflies, butterflies, beautiful insects, dancing, fluttering, skimming, while she alone dragged herself up out of the saucer. (Envy and spite, the most detestable of the vices, were her chief faults.)”
The story follows her thoughts about the dress, about the party, about who she is and who she wishes to be. She tells herself that it is her choice not to be like the rest of them, but she also knows that she is envious of them and her final comment about her lying about enjoying herself at the party: “Lies, lies, lies”, could equally be applied to everything she says to herself about being different on purpose.
I am fond of Virginia Woolf and I enjoyed reading this story. I like the way it explores the tensions and feelings within the character of Mabel. Although it is anchored in the society in which Woolf lived, I think its concerns are still relevant nowadays. I know that I have experienced the same feelings of inadequacy, either because I could not afford to be like them or simply did not want to, which still leads to the same result.