“The New Dress” by Virginia Woolf (in “The Seagull Reader) painfully captures the ridiculous extremes we humans will go to in order to feel we are as good (or better) than those around us. As someone who grew up very poor, and often felt beneath my peers, I can fully relate to Mabel’s (the main character) emotions.
After being invited to a Clarrissa Dolloway’s, Mabel has a special dress fashioned out of an old patterned yellow silk. Thinking she has created something beautiful and vintage, she arrives at the party and instantly has a change of heart. After seeing the other women she begins to have an internal dialogue that rips her self esteem apart. She begins imagining that the people around her are having secret conversations saying: “Whats Mabel wearing? What a fright she looks! What a hideous new dress!” (page 493). This continues until she decides to leave so that she may find a way to become better than all those at the party.
Mabel’s story sheds light on something I think we all do, but know I do all the time. Often in new crowds of people or when I’m somewhere I don’t belong, I start to talk myself into something untrue. Throughout the story Mabel is convincing herself in her head that the other guests are laughing at her new dress behind her back, and that she does not belong. As she most famously puts it, “No! it was not right” (page 492).
As I read her story I couldn’t help being reminded of something that happened to me, when we (English and Digital Humanities students that is) were all together for the orientation weekend. We were at the library and the baby was hungry, but I had no real convenient place to go. I ended up having to feed her in this single wooden chair that was in the ladies restroom. Just as I was thinking “O thank heavens no one is in here” a woman walked in. The entire time she was in the stall I was thinking things like my, “she probably think this is so weird I hope she isn’t one of those people that gawk at women breastfeeding openly.” When she was washer her hands I was trying to avoid eye contact until she finished and said to me: ” you are a beautiful momma, I hope I look half as good as you when I have a little one!” Needless to say, my day was made. From just a little thing I learned a valuable lesson. To Mabel she may have thought 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” but most likely the others weren’t thinking that at all (498).
The overall theme of the story seemed to be about insecurity. Many aspects of our culture these days, especially fashion, drive us to constantly compare ourselves to others. We have always been a people scared of being different. For some unknown reason it is considered better to go with the crowd and not stand out. Sure one stupid man sounded hurtful about Mabel’s dress, but most likely the others were not talking about her at all. Yet, when we are in that state of insecurity its like we create and entirely imaginary world within our heads. If only we could always have the mindset she discovers in the end when she waves her hand to Charles and Rose “to show them she did not depend on them one scrap” (page 499).