And yes -- so she breathed in the earthy garden sweet smell as she stood talking to Miss Pym who owed her help, and thought her kind, for kind she had been years ago; very kind, but she looked older, this year, turning her head from side to side among the irises and roses and nodding tufts of lilac with her eyes half closed, snuffing in, after the street uproar, the delicious scent, the exquisite coolness (Woolf 18).
Literary depictions of the two cases are polar opposites of one another. The differences also reflect the complicated nature of capitalist market economies and mass consumerism. While Clarissa's ability to buy flowers and gloves at her leisure time is the demonstration of how consumerism makes people happy, "Miss Kilman's need for a petticoat is in direct opposition to the needs being met, encouraged, and created by modern consumerism" (Abbott 204).
Miss Kilman is not against consumerism and the elite culture of Bloomsbury per se; she resents that she cannot be part of it. She is jealous of Clarissa and, if it were up to her, she would like to enjoy the luxuries of consumer society, too. But her desires are circumvented by the economic realities of the working-class women to which she belongs. She goes shopping with Elizabeth to get a new petticoat but also to enjoy what Abbott calls "the commodity spectacle" of the Army and Navy Stores. However, her shopping excursion turns out to be disappointing: "Miss Kilman enters the spectacle of the Army and Navy Stores as a potential witness to this spectacle and a potential consumer of commodities, but she leaves it as a stunned, disoriented, and defeated victim of consumerism" (Abbott 205). As the consumer spectacle reveals Miss Kilman's apparent deficiencies, Elizabeth suddenly realizes that she belongs to higher social group. She searches for her gloves, demonstrating her class, and leaves (Woolf 199). The cruelty of consumerism separates Miss Kilman from the only person who treats her more or less as a human being.
As Abbott explains, the scene with a mirror ultimately de-individualizes Miss Kilman as a person. Miss Kilman approaches a mirror and sees the juxtaposition of herself and the dazzling images of consumer commodities of the store. Abbott points out that "the mirror mocks her as her misshapen image is juxtaposed on commodities she cannot buy, or wear, or use as an unattractive, disenfranchised demos of consumer society" (207, italics original). The consumer society meets Miss Kilman's minimum needs, but she is completely lost there, confused, disillusioned, alone, and one might say ostracized. Miss Kilman, as narrated in Mrs. Dalloway
blundered off among the little tables, rocking slightly from side to side, and somebody came after her with her petticoat, and she lost her way, and was hemmed in by trunks specially prepared for taking to India; next got among the accouchement sets, and baby linen; through all the commodities of the world, perishable and permanent, hams, drugs, flowers, stationery, variously smelling now sweet, now sour she lurched, saw herself thus lurching with her hat askew, very red in the face, full length in a looking-glass; and at last came out into the street" (Woolf 201-2).
She is effectively relegated to the status of a non-individual, as "the existence of commodity culture and commodity spectacle in its most quintessential form, the department store, validates and reinforces her social nonstatus -- both her lack of a resilient concept of an individualized self and, in the context of the community around her, her nonconformity in politics, education, sexual desire, occupation, gender role, and, yes, underwear" (Abbott 207). The consumer society in this sense is not just an economics issue, but is interlinked with politics, gender issues, sexuality, and mainstream culture.
As these examples from the novel demonstrate, social inequality as critiqued in Mrs. Dalloway is not only about disparity between haves and have-nots. O'Dair argues that in Mrs. Dalloway Woolf uses a Weberian definition of social status, not the Marxist one. One's ability to produce and buy is certainly part of the status, but Woolf shows that "inequality is not only a matter of class defined in terms of one's relationship to production but also a matter of status, of prestige, defined largely in terms of one's relationship to consumption" (338). Consumption is more than just a mere gratification of one's needs and desires. It is related to prestige and class. Cultural elitism of Clarissa, Elizabeth, Sally, and other upper-middle class women can be better understood with Pierre Bourdieu's definition of social distinction: "the denial of lower, coarse, vulgar, venal, servile -- in a word, natural -- enjoyment, which constitutes the sacred sphere of culture, implies an affirmation of the superiority of those who can be satisfied with the sublimated, refined, disinterested, gratuitous, distinguished pleasures forever closed to the profane" (cited in Spohrer 118). In Mrs. Dalloway, the stark contrast between Clarissa and Miss Kilman is not simply the fact that the former can immerse herself in the consumer culture because she has economic means to do so and while the latter cannot. Clarissa's shopping excursion reinforces her aristocratic position, whereas Miss Kilman's dreams of being a part of the consumer culture are totally shattered.
This focused analysis of the theme of shopping does not, of course, mean that everything in Mrs. Dalloway revolves around consumerism and shopping. The novel addresses numerous other issues and critiques social injustices of the British society in 1920s. The analysis of shopping, however, is important on two grounds. First, shopping is often seen as a trivial matter, an activity everyone engages in to buy necessities or spend some leisure time. But Woolf demonstrates that shopping can reveal complexities of social inequality and that it is inextricably linked to politics, culture, social stratification, and gender. And second, Woolf suggests that consumerism is not the root of all evil. Consumer society offers women opportunities to reclaim their position as fully-fledged citizens of the society, empower them, and provide them with venues for expressing their opinions freely. At the same time, consumerism is cruel and is a tool of patriarchal oppression. Woolf reveals the complicated nature of capitalist economy and its offshoot: consumerism. And she does so through a literary work, using the characters of her novel: Clarissa Dalloway and Miss Kilman. These two characters and their shopping excursions in Mrs. Dalloway reflect Woolf's inner conflict over her appraisal of the consumer society.
Abbott, Reginald. "What Miss Kilman's Petticoat Means: Virginia Woolf, Shopping, and Spectacle." Modern Fiction Studies 38.1 (1992): 193. Academic Search Premier. Web. 16 Mar. 2012.
O'Dair, Sharon. "Beyond Necessity: The Consumption of Class, the Production of Status, and the Persistence of Inequality." New Literary History 31.2 (2000): 337. Academic Search Premier. Web. 16 Mar. 2012.
RACHMAN, Shalom. "Clarissa's Attic: Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway Reconsidered." Twentieth Century Literature 18.(1972): 3-18. Humanities & Social Sciences Index Retrospective: 1907-1984 (H.W. Wilson). Web. 16 Mar. 2012.
Simpson, Kathryn. "Economies and Desire: Gifts and the Market in "Moments of Being: 'Slater's Pins Have No Points'." Journal of Modern Literature 28.2 (2005): 18-37. Humanities Full Text (H.W. Wilson). Web. 16 Mar. 2012.
Spohrer, Erika. "Seeing Stars: Commodity Stardom in Michael Cunningham's "The Hours" and Virginia Woolf's "Mrs. Dalloway.." Arizona Quarterly 61.2 (2005): 113-132. America: History and Life…