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The New Dress by Virginia Woolf: An Analysis of the Main Character

Mabel Waring is a severely insecure woman with negative self-esteem. While the aging process is taking away her youthful beauty, she tries to surpass her limitations by dressing in the latest fashion like her rich friends. But even her new yellow dress is not enough to lift her spirits. In this stream of consciousness tale, the main character feels like an animal or insect in her latest fashion creation. Written in 1924, "The New Dress" appeared in Woolf's book, Mrs. Dalloway, a year later, but was not published as a short story until 1927.

Mabel Waring is a severely insecure woman with negative self-esteem. While the aging process is taking away her youthful beauty, she tries to surpass her limitations by dressing in the latest fashion like her rich friends.  But even her new yellow dress is not enough to lift her spirits.  She feels like an animal or insect.  The narrator reveals that Mabel “saw herself...as a fly, but the others were dragonflies, butterflies, beautiful insects, dancing, fluttering…”. She uses such words as “dowdy, decrepit, horrible, dingy old fly” to describe herself. Even as a child, she had felt “inferior to other people”. She continues by saying that she “slouched across the room…as if she were a beaten mongrel…from shame and humiliation.” 

Mabel sits in the corner bemoaning her lack of style and acceptance.  She compares herself to a “fly struggling to climb out of the milk-saucer”. 

When she was younger, Mabel had dreams of marrying someone rich and famous like Lawrence of Arabia. She fantasized of living in an exotic place like India.  However, she and her aunts, and her brother had all married below their status.  Mable considered this to be a major failure.  She had lived a hard life and settled for a safe marriage with Hubert who worked in the Law Courts.  All of these things seemed to cause Mabel to remain in a constant state of depression, unable to change her life or help herself.

As Mabel leaves the party, she reaffirms the steps she will take to strengthen herself and thereby become a greater social success. But, because of her depression, the reader is left feeling that Mable is ill equipped to make the realistic changes that would be necessary to improve her situation.  This feeling  is reinforced as Mabel throws her 20 year old Chinese cloak that remind her of her youthful dreams around her shoulders, over her new yellow party dress. 

In conclusion, Virginia Woolf’s protagonist in The New Dress, Mabel Waring, is not a dynamic character.  Mabel is depressed at the beginning of this stream of consciousness tale, and the story ends in the same emotional state.  Mable is self-indulgent, self-effacing, seeks sympathy and praise from other characters who are of higher social class.  Woolf is ingenious in her play on words with Waring as Mable’s last name.  (“Waring” and “wearing” are homophones.)  This is ironic in that the major event in the story is Mable’s visit to the dressmaker and her wearing of the new yellow dress to Clarissa Dalloway’s party. 

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