Although she may not be the most sympathetic character in Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway, Miss Doris Kilman is one of the most intriguing primarily because she is so unlovable. Her irrational hatred of Clarissa Dalloway and strange attachment to Elizabeth Dalloway, combined with her religious conversion, places her on the margins of society. Woolf’s depiction of Miss Kilman, a single woman displaced by the war, may be read as a figure of the lesbian with no place in 1920’s London.
The primary section of the novel in which Woolf allows the reader access to Miss Kilman is when she and Elizabeth go shopping and then out to tea. The narrative flows between Miss Kilman and Elizabeth’s separate consciousnesses, occasionally intersecting in the sparse dialogue that Woolf provides. There are three levels of consciousness evident in this scene: the spoken (objective), the thought, and the subconscious (both objective). The sub-conscious may not be fully recognized by the character, and may be considered a repressed thought or emotion. Miss Kilman’s repression stems from her inability to acknowledge her homosexual desires. “Miss Kilman could not let her go! This youth, that was so beautiful, this girl, whom she genuinely loved!” (Woolf 128). The reader does not discover Miss Kilman’s true feelings for Elizabeth through her dialogue or thought because Miss Kilman herself does not recognize this desire; instead, the omniscient narrator states what the character can or will not.
After Miss Kilman’s burst of unarticulated emotion at the thought of Elizabeth leaving, Woolf pulls out of the depths of her character’s subconscious to focus on what would otherwise be a meaningless physical gesture: “Her large hand opened and shut on the table” (Woolf). However, with through her subconscious, the slight movement of Miss Kilman’s hand holds a significant meaning. Her repression manifests itself physically — perhaps in a different era she could have grabbed Elizabeth’s hand – as the confines of societal convention. Woolf also uses Miss Kilman’s hand to indicate her homosexuality. Miss Kilman is a working, unmarried woman and her “large” hands add to these masculine traits. Her hands also remove her from the upper-class society of The Dalloways, in which women like Elizabeth would have delicate and unblemished hands. (Interestingly, Elizabeth is looking “for her gloves – her white gloves” while Miss Kilman internally feels that the girl “must not go!”)
Woolf then switches from the objective back to the subjective, this time Elizabeth’s thoughts. Elizabeth is more aware of her feelings, less repressed, than Miss Kilman: “But perhaps it was a little flat somehow, Elizabeth felt. And really she would like to go” (Woolf). She is made unsure of Miss Kilman’s signals because Miss Kilman herself is unsure of them. Miss Kilman, unaware of her own emotions, senses Elizabeth’s discomfort and re-enters the objective by stating, “I’ve not quite finished yet” (Woolf). Her vocalization enters the public sphere and in doing so carries the societal binds that prevent Elizabeth from leaving. She may not be able to physically keep the girl at the table, but the same conventions that repress Miss Kilman also dictate how Elizabeth must act. “Of course, then, Elizabeth would wait. But it was rather stuffy in here.” This feeling of oppressive closeness may not only be a result of the physical world, but also her discomfort under the intense gaze of Miss Kilman. Woolf depicts Elizabeth as desiring independence and freedom; she travels alone by bus, aware of other people looking, but rejecting the company of those around her.
Meanwhile, Miss Kilman searches for human connection in a world that has rejected her. She is forced to remain on the outside of a society that she both loves – Elizabeth – and hates – Clarissa. The torment she feels is a result of her jealousy and repression; the heartbreaking crisis that Miss Kilman feels when Elizabeth leaves is a result of both of these mental and societal fetters.
“She was about to split asunder, she felt. The agony was so terrific. If she could grasp her, if she could clasp her, if she could make her hers absolutely and forever and then die; that was all she wanted. But to sit here, unable to think of anything to say; to see Elizabeth turning against her; to be felt repulsive even by her – it was too much; she could not stand it. The thick fingers curled inwards.” (Woolf 128 – 129)
Miss Kilman’s emotional crisis forces her to acknowledge her feelings for Elizabeth. For a brief moment, self-repression is cast aside and she is able to recognize her desire. But she quickly becomes aware of Elizabeth’s own consciousness; which, while unspoken, does not return the fervent yearning felt by Miss Kilman. Self-repression and awareness of societal expectations returns, evidenced by the objective – her fingers imperceptibly closing on emptiness.
Through her unique movement between subjective and objective, the spoken, thought, and unconscious, Virginia Woolf examines the paralyzing predicament for Miss Kilman in 1920’s London. Unlike Clarissa Dalloway and Sally Seton, Miss Kilman’s status as a working, unmarried woman, places her outside the acceptable realm of society. This repression of her identity, perhaps not fully understood by the character herself, is only discernible through the slightest movement of her hand.