Life is perhaps one big search to discover who we truly are. As we grow older, we also change. As we move from place to place and from group to group, people see us in different lights, and we are indeed impacted. As all of these transformations affect who we are, our perception of ourselves often times begins to blur. As if we are a Monet painting, from far away we appear as a complete, oft beautiful product, but with a closer, more examining look, we are made of thick lines and messy colors. We are more than the reflection in the mirror, more than the face in pictures, more than the image in others’ minds. Virginia Woolf thoroughly explores these issues by making readers question how perception is different from reality. By using defamiliarization, presenting the everyday in a strange way, Woolf juxtaposes our understanding of who we are and how those around us influence how we see ourselves. When we strip away everything people perceive and the material things, then we can truly begin to examine ourselves for who we really are, regardless of whether or not we like what we see.
Who we are is completely affected by who people believe we are. We cannot examine ourselves without first examining what others see in us. We must filter through our external fronts in order to find out who we truly are internally. In the 1998 Disney movie Mulan, Christina Aguilera suggests that outsiders might believe they know a person, but all they really see is the person that is outwardly presented to the world. “If I wear a mask/ I can fool the world/ But I cannot fool my heart/ Who is that girl I see/ Staring straight back at me?/ When will my reflection show/ Who I am inside? (Aguilera).” This mask can be anything from a more literal definition such as the make-up and the clothes we wear to a more figurative description of the way we talk, act, and behave. This mask can oftentimes blur the truth of who we are behind all of these additives. What people perceive from these fronts are often times not true to reality.
This division between perception, representation and reality is what makes modernist work stand out from the work that preceded it. There is a deeper focus upon abstraction than there is upon the concrete. Pablo Picasso’s Self Portrait 1907 portrays the artist in a very masklike way. Simply put, this mask appearance is most likely a product of Picasso’s interest in African art. However, it is also perhaps a description of modernist expression of self. While the painting very much resembles Picasso, he created the self portrait in a way that differs quite starkly from the photographed artist. The jagged edges, exaggerated shapes, and brown tones work together to create something familiar, yet strange. The figure boldly looks out at the viewer. Without a hint of fear, he presents himself, in the way he sees best, for the world to judge. He shows that he is more than just the man that we see.
In this way, the mask in Picasso’s painting is much different than the mask Aguilera sings of. Picasso’s mask is possibly the truest representation of the self. In a defamiliarized way, Picasso depicts himself as he believes he really is. His almond-shaped eyes, protruding nose, small lips, and rigid hair are all presented somewhat true to reality. However, through his abstractions, Picasso also gives viewers a deeper look into the artist’s thoughts. His exaggerated parts explore his grandeur. His bold eyes perhaps see more than the viewer ever can. With this, he questions the viewer as to what exactly they are seeing and what they are capable of seeing. Everything the viewer can assume Picasso is suggesting about the complexity of his inner self is simply an inference. This is the point of perception. Picasso’s perception of himself is not the truest to the actual Picasso. The viewer’s perception of the work is completely subjective. Thus, we return to the idea of what is real and how we are impacted by others’ perception.
Woolf examines how these perceptions impact how we view ourselves. In “The Lady in the Looking Glass,” Woolf first presents us with an image (built up through others’ perceptions) of Isabella Tyson. However, with this, she also explains that what little these people knew about her was also very shallow. There are facts about Isabella, but there are also things that no one “close” to her could never fully comprehend. Woolf says there must be truth: Isabella is fifty-five to sixty years old, rich, and travels frequently. Oppositely, Woolf also says there must be a wall, behind which hide the true passions of the woman. “…she had never married, and yet, judging from the mask-like indifference of her face, she had gone through twenty times more of passion and experience than those whose loves are trumpeted forth for all the world to hear” (Woolf 89). Once again, we have the image of a mask. In this case, Isabella’s mask is put on to hide her emotions, her pains, from the world. With this though, friends only know what they are allowed to see. They come up with analogies to describe her, because they do not know her on any deeper of a level. Isabella’s mask not only protects others from her sensitivities, but she also protects herself. When she puts on that “mask-like indifference” she blocks out the unfavorable parts of her life and personality.
While people have their perceptions, they often times want to discover the reality. But it is not in their power to discover the truth. They can do certain things to try to dig up this truth, but it is really up to the person to decide how much of the truth they are willing to present. “One must refuse to be put off any longer with sayings and doings such as the moment brought forth – with dinners and visits and polite conversations” (Woolf 91). Woolf proposes that when people do not know the truth, they will leave their opinions up to their imagination, and further obscure what is the reality of the person. Isabella did not want to be fully known, but she knew that she could no longer hide from others, and from herself. Like the secrets in her letters, she wished she could just as easily hide the secrets within herself. “Isabella would come in, and take them, one by one, very slowly, and open them, and read them carefully word by word, and then with a profound sigh of comprehension, as if she had seen to the bottom of everything, she would tear the envelopes to little bits and tie the letters together and lock the cabinet drawer in her determination to conceal what she did not wish to be known” (Woolf 90). Similarly, when Isabella got to the bottom of herself, she wished she could just tear up the truth and easily conceal what she didn’t want to be known. Alas, she could hide no more. She knew deep down of her regret, of her mortality. This is where she has to begin to strip herself down, regardless of how unflattering the final product might be.
As Isabella sheds the unessential and superficial, she finally sees beneath the wall to woman herself. When Isabella makes her way closer and closer to looking-glass, her truth is more and more prevalent. “She came lingering and pausing, here straightening a rose, there lifting a pink to smell it, but she never stopped; and all the time she became larger and larger in the looking-glass, more and more completely the person into whose mind one had been trying to penetrate” (93). It is in this mirror that the perceptions and the accessories are shed. It is in this mirror that the true Isabella is reflected. Contrary to the amiable, thoughtful and exquisite Isabella we first imagine, the mirror presents the viewer with an empty, aged woman. “Look, as she stood there, old and angular, veined and lined, with her high nose and her wrinkled neck, she did not even trouble to open [the letters/bills]” (Woolf 93). Woolf then suggests that people should not have looking-glasses in their homes because of this description. Isabella worked hard to cover the truth, but she could not hide her imperfections and her reality from the looking glass.
In “The Lady in the Looking Glass,” Woolf questions viewers’ beliefs about what others perceive of us, how these perceptions impact our own views of ourselves, and in turn, who we really are. Stephen Howard’s essay inspired by a module taught by Professor Linda Anderson at Newcastle University really puts these ideas into perspective. “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” (Howard 44). Throughout this short story, Woolf presents these sometimes conflicting ideas. She makes the reader wonder what parts constitute the whole of the self, how can anyone really know us, but more importantly, how can we really know ourselves, and how is this self affect by those around us.
From Aguilera’s song to Picasso’s self-portrait to Woolf’s short story, we are asked questions about our inner selves. Aguilera suggests that sometimes we wear a figurative mask to conceal our true character, but deep down we (and mirrors) know who we really are inside. Picasso also gives off the impression of a mask, but in a different way. His mask is an abstract representation of his actual self. His mask perhaps gives viewers a deeper view to the real Picasso. However, this view is all about perception, which is actually what Woolf is wanting readers to think about. She shows the repercussions these perceptions can have on the self, and the very people who are making the inferences. It is not until we strip away those beliefs and everything that we add to our own mask that we can begin to examine our true selves. But with this, she leaves us with a parting thought: how well can we even know ourselves?
Aguilera, Christina. “Reflection.” Mulan: An Original Walt Disney Records Soundtrack. Walt Disney Records. 1998.
Howard, Stephen. “The Lady in the Looking-Glass: Reflections on the Self in Virginia Woolf”.
Journal of International Women’s Studies. Jan. 2007. Web. 13 April 2010. <http://www.bridgew.edu/SoAS/jiws/Feb07/Howard.pdf>
Woolf, Virginia. A Haunted House and Other Stories. San Diego: Harcourt, Inc., 1972.