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Madness in Mrs Dalloway

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Madness in Mrs Dalloway

Madness is a prevalent theme in ‘Mrs Dallway’ and is expressed primarily, and perhaps most obviously through the characters Septimus Warren Smith and Clarissa Dalloway – however the theme is also explored more subtly in more minor characters such as Lucrezia and Mrs Kilman. Virgina Woolf’s own issues inspired her greatly, as she herself suffered her first mental breakdown at the tender age of thirteen and was prescribed ‘rest cure’ – just as Septimus is; Woolf is often described as a ‘mad genius’ as she was declared mentally ill at an early stage in her life — this intense and troubling lifestyle of erratic nervous breakdowns coupled with her substantial involvement in the Bloomsbury group in ‘the early manifestations of the Freudian psychiatry’ led to a close scrutiny and new way of looking at the issue of madness.

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The novel, in Virginias own words, attempts to present ‘the world seen by the sane and the insane side by side’ through the characters of the ‘sane’ protagonist Mrs Clarissa Dalloway and the ‘insane’ World War veteran Septimus Warren Smith, she intended for Clarissa to speak the sane truth and Septimus the insane truth, and indeed Septimus’s detachment enables him to judge other people more harshly than Clarissa is capable of.

The world outside of Septimus is threatening, and the way Septimus sees that world offers little hope. Septimus’s troubles stem from the war, and the memories of combat and the death of his best friend still haunt him. We can see how serious these issues are as the novel progresses, even when looking at something as ordinary as a motor car, Septimus is quick to scare – he becomes terrified at simple things because everyday life is now just as frightening as his memories of war. We see this when he notes ‘and there the motor car stood, with drawn blinds, and upon them a curious pattern like a tree’ he goes on to say that ‘this gradual drawing together of everything to one centre before his eyes, as if some horror had come almost to the surface and was about to burst into flames, terrified him. Septimus’ visions are also a source of anxiety for his wife, who feels like she has to hide him from the prying eyes of the public. She dreads what people must think of her husband because of the way that he behaves.

By presenting Septimus as she does, Woolf suggests that war can cause profound psychological effects – something society at her time was not prepared to accept because ‘shell-shock’ didn’t conform with “correct” British behaviour. In Woolf’s day, people were still trying to understand the psychological effects of World War and were not ready to accept the implications and effects of the underlying problem. Characters who mirror the thoughts of the society at this time are Septimus’s doctors. In the novel, the doctors, who are clearly men of their time, are supposed to be curing Septimus’s madness but in fact, the cure they have seems mad itself, especially to modern readers as the patronising advice sounds completely alien compared to the thorough health consultations that we are used to today. Septimus’s doctors say he needs ‘proportion’ and don’t hesitate to call him a ‘coward’ – which is ironic because he is actually described earlier on as ‘a brave soldier’ – the juxtaposition between ‘coward’ and ‘brave’ symbolise .

The ‘coercive discourse of power’ that is represented by Dr William Bradshaw and Dr. Holmes, ironically, throughout their course of treatment, never actually say that Septimus is suffering from “madness”; Bradshaw instead calls it lack of “a sense of proportion” and Dr Holmes, goes a step further, disregarding all possibility of mental illnesses as mere ‘funk’- “nerve symptoms and nothing more.” When Rezia asks him about his diagnosis of her husband, he very calmly replies that “there was nothing whatever the matter” with Septimus “except the sin for which human nature had condemned him to death.” This comes across in a very patronizing way and shows that in their society, Septimus’s problems were considered simple, which makes us sympathize with him because his complexity as a human being is being taken away from him, and not even authority figures can understand his suffering. The word ‘sin’ is also symbolic because throughout the novel, there are religious connotations surrounding Septimus, culminating in his suicide where he dies like Jesus – and this could be one of Woolf’s ways of foreshadowing his death.

Septimus himself doesn’t consider himself mad, whilst considering the ‘excitement of the elm trees rising and falling, rising and falling with all their leaves alight’ – Septimus thinks that it ‘would have sent him mad’ but then he comes to the conclusion that ‘he would not go mad. He would shut his eyes; he would see no more.’ Having experienced sheer terror, Septimus is clearly very moved by visions of beauty; the trees are very suggestive to him, just as flowers are suggestive to Clarissa. Woolf uses foreshadowing here, she structures this quote before Septimus’s eventual suicide, and the image of him shutting his eyes to shroud his vision is symbolic of his death – the quote also has a defiant and triumphant tone, which mirrors the freedom that both Septimus and Clarissa gain from his decision. The most significant aspect related to sanity and insanity that Virginia describes in the novel relates to the “Proportion and Conversion” that the modernist British society and its various authorities believed in. Whereas the concept of Proportion, as used in the novel, signifies a person’s ability to think and act in a coherent fashion, the concept of Conversion signifies the power of normalization shown by various ruling forces by trying to convert everyone within their domain to the same set of normality’s that have been fixed by the oppressive society.

This implies that anyone who dares to question this social blueprint and refuses to fit into the same mould, cannot, and will not be treated as a normal human being and needs to be transfered to sanatoriums, hospitals or such other isolating places for medical treatment and proper cure. Such ‘insane’ individuals who are believed to be a threat to the established notions of rationality must be ‘corrected’ even through the use of force, if necessary, until they fit into the prescribed norms of reason and coherence. Virginia Woolf criticizes this essentially imperial notion of reason and is strongly against any socially constructed binary of ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ based on the brutal mechanisms of power and control that she herself suffered from. Another character who completely eludes the theme of madness is the novels protagonist, Clarissa Dalloway. Clarissa is mad in a different way to Septimus, she fixates over her parties and tries to keep herself busy to stop herself from being driven mad by the thoughts of what could have been if she had chosen a different life with Sally or Peter. In order to escape the tyranny of unexpressed desires, she is forever, ‘mending her dress; playing about; going to parties; running to the House and back and all that…”.

Many other characters also have a subtle kind of madness, those in the novel who are supposed to be ‘normal’ to an extreme of being a successful politician, academician or intellectual have their own ‘eccentricities’, strange habits and behavior coupled with an overriding feeling of despair and incoherence: “Everything seemed very queer…all seemed, after Edinburgh, so queer Peter Walsh, had the strange habit of always carrying a large pocket knife with him and taking it out every time he met anyone: “What an extraordinary habit that was, Clarissa thought; always playing with a knife. Always making one feel, too, frivolous; empty-minded…”

There is Doris Kilman, for whom “her food was all that she lived for; her comforts; her dinner, her tea…The pleasure of eating was almost the only pure pleasure left her…”People like Hugh Whitbread and Lady Bruton “who had been afloat on the cream of English society” for many years, cut a sorry figure while trying to maintain their hierarchies and class distinctions by observing ‘little courtesies’. In conclusion, madness is a key theme in Mrs Dalloway and is expressed in a variety of different ways through a selection of different characters. Clarissa represents the sane truth whilst Septimus, who is patronized by his narrow minded doctors, symbolizes the insane truth. Woolf’s own feelings and experiences play a big part in this theme as she suffered from several mental breakdowns following a troubling and deeply traumatic childhood.

Cite this Madness in Mrs Dalloway

Madness in Mrs Dalloway. (2016, Oct 16). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/madness-in-mrs-dalloway/

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