Virginia Woolf’s philosophy was that literature does not reflect reality. She explores this idea in, “The Lady in the Looking-Glass: A reflection”, where the looking glass becomes a metaphor for literature, and it’s inability to adequately grasp reality. Like literature, the looking glass provides a picture, which is then distorted with subjective interpretation.
“If she concealed so much and knew so much one must prize her open with the first tool that came to hand - the imagination,” (page 1226). The reflection itself is not enough. It presents a picture, but no meaning, no motivation. So imagination and fantasy fill in. Pure speculation takes over, and the narrator begins probing for hidden meanings that may or may not even exist. “Under the stress of thinking about Isabella, her room became more shadowy and symbolic the corners seemed darker, the legs of chairs and tables more spindly and hieroglyphic,” (line 1226). It goes to the ridiculous point of personifying the furniture as secret-keepers. “Sometimes it seemed as if they knew more about her than we, who sat on them, wrote at them, and trod on them so carefully, were allowed to know,” (page 1225). Yet, such speculations ignore the fact that mere drawers and furnishings are just that. They are simply drawers and furnishings. Speculation and imagination romanticizes and builds them up, but in doing so looses sight of their true nature.
Isabella herself is treated the same way. The narrator looking into the mirror imagines Isabella to be a worldly woman of mystery. “She had never married, and yet, judging from the mask-like indifference of her face, she had gone through twenty times more of passion and experience than those whose loves are trumpeted forth for all the world to hear,” (page 1226). Just as her letters and furniture were built up to be great symbols and hints at her glamorous life, every move that Isabella makes is seen as indicative of some greater truth about her. Out in the garden she picks a convolvulus flower instead of a rose or zinnia which is more typical for a woman her age. This, “showed how very little, after all these years, one knew about her, for it is impossible that any woman of flesh and blood of fifty-five or sixty should be really a wreath or a tendril,” (page 1225). The looking glass’s reflection presents a picture, but that is all that it can do. It cannot reveal Isabella’s real motivations in the matter. So they are open to speculation. Perhaps they are a symbol of her true self. Maybe she just likes those flowers better. The latter option is boring. Back to the first one, the interesting one. “But one was tired of the things that she talked about at dinner. It was her profounder state of being that one wanted to catch and turn to words, the state that is to the mind what breathing is to the body, what one calls happiness or unhappiness,” (page 1227).
Yet all these speculations made by the narrator are completely off base. “She stood naked in that pitiless light. And there was nothing. Isabella was perfectly empty. She had no thoughts. She had no friends. She cared for nobody. As for her letters, they were all bills,” (page 1228). Fantasy and imagination completely failed. They revealed no greater truths about Isabella Tyson. The reflection in the looking glass is very different from the flesh and blood woman because reality is living. The reflection is stagnant. “Meanwhile, since all the doors and windows were open in the heat, there was a perpetual sighing and ceasing sound, the voice of the transient and the perishing, it seemed, coming and going like human breath, while in the looking-glass things had ceased to breath and lay still in the trance of immortality,” (page 1225). Yes, the fantasies are more entertaining. But they ignore the actual woman they are trying to analyze.
The reflection in the mirror can only reveal so much about reality. It is a superficial view that is given more to subjective rather than literal interpretation. It’s the same way with literature. It can provide an image, an impression. But it only scrapes the surface of reality, and leaves the rest to interpretation.