The Lady in the Looking Glass Summary
“The Lady in the Looking Glass” is a 1929 short story by Virginia Woolf about Isabella Tyson, a woman whose guest observes her with a shifting set of perceptions and assumptions.
- The story’s unnamed narrator sits in Isabella’s drawing-room and observes her movements in the garden through a mirror.
- The narrator uses the immediate facts about Isabella to try to understand her at a deeper level, imagining that Isabella leads a rich, thoughtful, happy life.
- When Isabella finally enters the house, the narrator sees her in an entirely different light.
Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 838
“The Lady in the Looking Glass” begins by warning the reader that people should not hang mirrors in their rooms. Doing so is like leaving checkbooks or confession letters open in one’s house. The story then proceeds with an unidentified narrator describing a mirror in Isabella Tyson’s house from the perspective of Isabella’s sofa in the drawing room. By looking in the mirror, the narrator can see some of the house’s interior, including a marble-topped table, as well as the exterior of the house, including a stretch of garden. We learn that the house is empty and that the narrator feels like a hidden observer of animals, watching the play of the light and shadow and the billowing of curtains as if these things were fauna. The narrator notes the drastic difference between the dark stillness of the house and the vibrancy of the garden outside. We learn that the windows are open in an attempt to offset the summer heat.
The narrator then explains that half an hour prior, the house’s owner, Isabella Tyson, had entered the garden, likely to pick flowers, but the narrator can no longer see her in the mirror. The narrator imagines that Isabella is likely picking some fantastic flower that grows on vines, like a convolvulus, because Isabella herself is “fantastic and tremulous.” However, the narrator immediately casts doubt on this appraisal of Isabella, claiming that comparing her to a tendril is cruel and noting, too, that they do not know Isabella’s true nature. What the narrator does know is that Isabella is a rich spinster in her late fifties who has travelled and collected most of her belongings from around the world. The narrator supposes that Isabella has many letters inside the drawers and cabinets that she has collected over her life, all tied with neat ribbons. These letters are presumably from friends, lovers, and acquaintances, all discussing the many experiences that they and Isabella have shared.
Suddenly, a dark figure looms into the view of the looking glass, drops a series of pink and gray “tablets” on the marble-topped table, and leaves. The narrator realizes that it was only the postman bringing letters for Isabella. The narrator imagines that these letters hold the secrets of Isabella’s life—and of life itself—and that they would join the other letters in Isabella’s cabinets. The narrator begins thinking of Isabella as a challenge to be understood and realizes that the only tool that one can use to understand Isabella is the imagination: “One must put oneself in her shoes.” The narrator then acknowledges that it is possible to literally see Isabella’s shoes. Her shoes, the narrator notes, are fashionable and comfortable. The narrator then begins to figuratively step into Isabella’s shoes, imagining her thoughts and feelings as she gardens. As the narrator imagines it, Isabella uses scissors to cut a dead flower as the sun beats down on her face. As she is cutting the dead flower, she begins thinking about her acquaintances—those whom she has not seen in some time and those to whom she should send flowers. The narrator supposes that Isabella must be happy, given that she is rich, well-travelled, and in possession of many friends.
However, the narrators’ imagined scene turns somewhat somber as Isabella cuts an overgrown branch of traveler’s joy. The narrator imagines that this would make Isabella sad because she had to kill a living thing, causing Isabella to reflect upon her own mortality. However, this imagined Isabella realizes that even if she must die, she will lie with and nourish flowers with her body. Ending the reverie, the narrator then begins to make other suppositions about Isabella: that her mind wanders and that she keeps her many thoughts to herself. The narrator imagines that Isabella’s mind is like her room, full of dancing shadows and locked drawers holding delicate truths. The narrator acknowledges that if one is to imaginatively unlock Isabella and peer into her being, one must use the most delicate tools.
The narrator continues to look at Isabella in the mirror, noting that she is too far away to make out clearly, but as she approaches the house, she appears bigger and bigger, and each other item in the mirror seems to make way for her. When she finally arrives, Isabella stops and is illuminated by a “pitiless light” reflecting upon her from the mirror. The narrator notes that in that light, the superficial aspects of Isabella’s character are removed, leaving the core reality. At once, the narrator realizes that all the imaginings about Isabella were only imagined. Indeed, the essence of Isabella, which the narrator had sought to delve into, is emptiness. The narrator sees Isabella as thoughtless and friendless and supposes that the letters are not rich correspondences but merely bills. The narrator notes, moreover, how old and haggard Isabella appears. The story concludes with another admonition that people should not hang mirrors in their rooms.
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