The Lady in the Looking Glass

by

Virginia Woolf

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The Lady in the Looking Glass Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Virginia Woolf's The Lady in the Looking Glass. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Virginia Woolf

Born into a well-off family in South Kensington, London, Virginia Woolf was home-schooled with a focus on classics and Victorian literature. She then studied history and classics at King’s College in London, where she was influenced by the women’s rights movement, and she began writing for publication in 1904. In 1912, she married writer and political theorist Leonard Woolf, with whom she founded Hogarth Press, where much of her work was published. Her first novel was published in 1915, and her best-known novels Mrs Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and Orlando were published between 1925 and 1928. Woolf was also an accomplished essayist, and is well-known for her 1929 essay “A Room of One’s Own,” which became an influential feminist text. Woolf suffered from mental health problems that included severe depression, psychotic episodes, and mania, and some have speculated that she may have had bipolar disorder. After a severe depressive episode, she died by suicide in 1941.
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Historical Context of The Lady in the Looking Glass

Woolf was highly influenced by the historical upheaval of her time. The years between World Wars I and II were Woolf’s most productive literary period, during which she wrote this story and many of her most well-known works. Woolf was a pacifist and held strongly to her anti-war views for her entire life, and she explores war’s moral dilemmas and fallout in other writings. Woolf was also influenced both by the women’s rights movement, with which she came into contact during her studies, and intellectual circles such as the Bloomsbury Group, a loose collective of writers and artists in London known for their free-spirited lifestyle. Around the time she was writing “Lady in the Looking-Glass,” Woolf also gave the lectures that would be transformed into her most famous essay, “A Room of One’s Own,” which called for both literal and metaphoric space for women writers to develop their work. In this story, Woolf turns her attention to material wealth and privilege, another major preoccupation for this writer born into a well-off family and living in a historical epoch marked by economic inequality.

Other Books Related to The Lady in the Looking Glass

Considered one of the great novelists of the twentieth century, Woolf was a pioneer of modernism. She was known for using stream of consciousness as a narrative device, a device found in “Lady in the Looking-Glass” and also in other modernist works like In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust and in Ulysses by James Joyce. Thematically, “Lady in the Looking-Glass” explores the way women are perceived in society, a preoccupation similarly explored in Woolf’s essay “A Room of One’s Own” and her novel Mrs. Dalloway, which also features the looking-glass as a crucial symbol. “Lady in the Looking-Glass” is also influenced by both Edwardian and realist literary conventions, in that it implicitly critiques both the ornate descriptions of the Edwardians and realism’s reliance on concrete physical details. Finally, some critics have noted that the story’s unusual approach to characterization foreshadows Woolf’s later experimental novel The Waves.
Key Facts about The Lady in the Looking Glass
  • Full Title: The Lady in the Looking-Glass: A Reflection
  • When Written: likely 1927 or 1928
  • Where Written: Sussex
  • When Published: 1929
  • Literary Period: modernist
  • Genre: Short story, modernist
  • Setting: The home of Isabella Tyson
  • Climax: The moment Isabella is seen clearly in the mirror
  • Antagonist: The story has no clear antagonist, though it could be argued that both the looking-glass and the narrator themselves play an antagonistic role
  • Point of View: First-person plural

Extra Credit for The Lady in the Looking Glass

Unread Letters. “Lady in the Looking-Glass” was likely inspired by Woolf’s visit to the painter Ethel Sands’s home in Normandy. Woolf noted in her diary (September 20, 1927) that Ethel did not look at her letters, wondering what it implied and commenting, “How many little stories come into my head!”

Self-Exploration. Virginia Woolf would continue to be preoccupied by issues of wealth, social class, and material riches throughout her career. Much later, in 1936, she would publish an essay titled “Am I a Snob?” exploring the privileged circles in which she had moved and the role of social critics who also hold their own elite status.