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One possible thesis statement that immediately suggests itself after one reads Virginia Woolf’s short story “The New Dress” might be phrased as follows:
Although Virginia Woolf’s short story “The New Dress” might seem to deal with a character who is almost pathologically shy and insecure, the fact that the character is female is crucial to an understanding of her insecurities. Perhaps her feminine insecurities can partly be explained in Darwinian terms.
In other words, Mabel Waring might be far less obsessed with the possible shortcomings of her clothing if she were not a woman but a man. Of course, the upper-class social circles in which she moves have much to do with her preoccupation with her appearance, but even more important is the fact that she is female. In almost every human society of which we have knowledge, women have been judged, far more than men, on the basis of their conformance to (or departure from) certain “ideal” standards of beauty. (Men tend to be judged more in terms of strength and financial success.) Women have often been discriminated against because they have fallen short of such supposed standards. Aging actresses, for instance, often have more trouble sustaining their statuses as movie or televisions stars than do aging male actors. Male actors who age are often thought to have developed interesting “character” traits (think of Sean Connery, Humphrey Bogart, Paul Newman, Clint Eastwood, and numerous others). Female actors who age are often consigned to bit parts or forgotten altogether. A few great actresses escape this fate (Betty Davis might be cited as one example), but on the whole, even today, women are far more likely to be judged in terms of their physical appearances and fashionable dress than men.
To say this, of course, is not to say anything especially surprising, and that is why a Darwinian approach to this theme might make your argument more intriguing. A great deal of fascinating work has been done recently about Darwinian explanations of the kinds of prejudices just outlined. You may want to take a look, for instance, at the work of David P. Barash (such as his book Madame Bovarie’s Ovaries: A Darwinian Look at Literature). Barash will lead you to other important work that might help you place Woolf’s story in an intriguing larger context. Barash’s book and the studies he cites may help you to give an unusual explanation of passages in Woolf’s story such as the sentence with which it opens:
Mabel had her first serious suspicion that something was wrong as she took her cloak off and Mrs. Barnet, while handing her the mirror and touching the brushes and thus drawing her attention, perhaps rather markedly, to all the appliances for tidying and improving hair, complexion, clothes, which existed on the dressing table, confirmed the suspicion -- that it was not right, not quite right, which growing stronger as she went upstairs and springing at her, with conviction as she greeted Clarissa Dalloway, she went straight to the far end of the room, to a shaded corner where a looking-glass hung and looked.
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