The Theme of Madness in "Mrs Dalloway"

Term Paper, 2018

13 Pages, Grade: 3,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Madness

3. Virginia Woolf’s Biography

4. Mrs Dalloway
4.1 Clarissa Dalloway
4.2 Septimus Warren Smith
4.3 Dr. Holmes and Sir Williams
4.4 Lucrezia Warren Smith

5. Conclusion

6. Works Cited

1. Introduction

The early 20th century was a troubling time for many. The first World War, which lasted from 1914 to 1918, left behind many wounded people. But it was not just physical scars that the battles have caused. Many British civilians and soldiers had to deal with different types of madness like shell shock, today known as posttraumatic stress disorder, that brought along many other problems such as isolation, repression and social degradation.

The main thesis of this paper is that madness plays a substantial role in the novel which represents Woolf’s private life in a lot of ways but also the influence the first world war had on Britain’s society and their mental health.

To investigate the representation and role of madness in Virginia Woolf’s novel “Mrs Dalloway”, this paper will be opened by a brief definition of madness and its different types that were relevant for Britain during the early 20th century, followed by a summary of Virginia Woolf’s own biography in order to understand the role madness plays in her novel. Those sections will be compiled by the help of adequate secondary literature.

I will then apply the elaborated aspects to the novel’s main character Clarissa Dalloway. Is Clarissa affected by the war and if so, how does it show? Has madness impacted her in any way? The following subsection is concerned with Septimus Warren Smith and his experience with madness and the effect the war had on him. Why does he behave the way he does and how does his madness show? The final subsections will determine how society, especially Dr. Holmes and Sir William Bradshaw, view madness and the way they contemplate and handle mental illnesses in others. I then will give a short outlook on Lucrezia Warren Smith and her relationship to Septimus and the doctors.

At the end, this paper will summarize the most important points as well as answer the opening questions. Furthermore, it will be examined whether there are parallels between the character’s and Woolf’s private life and what role these play. It will also be discussed whether the thesis was proven right or wrong.

2. Madness

World War I lasted for four years, it began in July of 1914 and ended in November of 1918. Those four years costed numerous victims - physically and mentally.

Post-war anxiety was very prominent among Britain’s population in the early 20th century. People suffering from anxiety disorders may experience panic attacks, phobias or discomfort when they are surrounded by people. This might lead to them avoiding certain situations, for example leaving their houses or spending time with their friends and families and pursuing hobbies. They often isolate themselves.

Depression is another important mental illness which many British people suffered from during the time of and after the war. Depression describes the emotional state of being sad or lacking emotion, it can be episodic or permanent. (Kanter 3). People suffering from a depressive disorder experience a row of symptoms, including “loss of interest in activities, sleep and appetite changes, guilt and hopelessness, fatigue, restlessness, concentration problems” (Kanter 4). The disorder often results in death, usually by suicide.

The most prominent consequence of the war amongst soldiers was ‘shell shock’, which is now known as posttraumatic stress disorder. The term derived from “an attempt to describe cases that arose in the context of exploding ordnance but where enduring symptoms could not be linked to the presence of an obvious organic lesion” (Jones 1641). Shell Shock was originally believed to be linked to physical brain injury, for example by exploding shells. That was until doctors learned that soldiers who did not endure head wounds also experienced symptoms of it (Jones 1642). The most common symptoms are nervousness, amnesia, a pessimistic attitude, social retreat and a personality change (Steil and Rosner 2). There are also physical evidences, such as abdominal ache, cephalea as well as regressive and aggressive behavior. Furthermore, those who are affected often show signs of a fear of the dark or being alone and sleep disturb­ances (Steil and Rosner 3). They often feel responsible for their own misery and regularly ex­perience flashbacks (Steil and Rosner 4). Shell Shock is strongly linked to Schizophrenia and Paraphrenia, where the diagnosed experience hallucinations and paranoid delusions (Henke 14).

Trauma survivors are often unable to think of their grim experiences in a chronological order and fail to comprehend that they are no longer part of their lives. They believe that they are ever-present and are “unable to integrate the traumatic event into [their] personal [lives]” (DeMeester 200). Since the traumatic experience has destroyed their past beliefs and ideologies, it is important for them to “find new, more reliable ideologies to give order and meaning to [their] post-traumatic [lives]” (DeMeester 199), so that they can recover and overcome it.

3. Virginia Woolf’s Biography

Virginia Woolf was born in January of 1882 in London and died in March of 1941 in Sussex. Her father, Leslie Stephen, who was a writer himself, was “unnaturally sensitive, desperate for his mother’s approval and sympathy” when he was a child (Welsh 7). Virginia Woolf would adopt those attributions of his. In 1862 he married Harriet Marian who soon gave birth to their first daughter Laura. Laura happened to be mentally disabled. After just eight years of marriage, Harriet passed away (Welsh 8).

He later met Virginia’s mother Julia Prinsep Jackson, who took care of her own mother and found comfort in the feeling of being needed and the power it gave to her (Welsh 9). The relationship between Leslie and Julia was not necessarily a healthy one:

He needed Julia to talk him to sleep and convince him that his was not a wasted life. Julia responded by claiming that it hurt her how much he loved her, that she feared always hurting him because she was not worthy of his love, and she too suffered from over-extending herself. (Welsh 11)

The marriage between her parents influenced Virginia and she entered new relationships with distrust, tense and passive-aggressiveness (Welsh 11). Because their mother took care of her sick relatives, the Woolf children were constantly surrounded by illness and death (Welsh 10). Julia herself died in 1895. Her mother’s death led the young woman into depression and Virginia began to feel things more intensively. “All life became overwhelmingly intense, increasing the excitement of an already overwrought young girl” (Welsh 15). Shortly after, her half-sister Stella died from peritonitis and her father abused her sister Vanessa (Welsh 16) before he died in 1904. Virginia herself was abused by her step brothers (Welsh 20).

These events led to her hearing voices and she stopped eating. Desperate and plagued by her declining mental health, she committed her first suicide attempt by jumping out of a window in 1904 (Welsh 18). Many more deaths of family members were to follow, and Virginia’s mental health worsened.

She suffered from manic-depressive psychoses and eventually died by suicide in March of 1941 (Welsh 38). This time, she drowned herself. Given she had already failed to commit suicide two times before, she filled the pockets of her coat with stones (Welsh 65). Her death was an act of despair.

4. Mrs Dalloway

In the following paragraphs, I will adapt the elaborated aspects to the characters Clarissa Dalloway, Septimus Warren Smith, Dr. Holmes and Sir Williams Bradshaw from Virginia Woolf’s novel “Mrs Dalloway” which takes place in a day in the early 1920s. The goal is to show how madness is displayed and whether it is represented in a realistic manner. I will then give an outlook on Lucrezia Warren Smith to show the perception of madness by someone who is neither a professional, nor a person affected.

4.1 Clarissa Dalloway

Clarissa is a middle-aged woman from London who is preparing a party she is having that evening. She is married to Richard Dalloway, by whom she has a daughter named Elizabeth. Her marriage allows her to live a life of glamour, but both of them, Clarissa and Richard, have difficulties expressing their feelings for each other. Richard buys Clarissa flowers, but he cannot get himself to tell her that he loves her (Woolf 129). Mrs. Dalloway’s real love, however, is Peter Walsh, with whom she used to share a close relationship in her youth. When meeting him again after several years, her feelings for him arise: “She looked at Peter Walsh; her look, passing through all that time and that emotion . . .” (Woolf 47). This meeting makes Clarissa question her life choices. She wonders what would have been different if she did not marry Richard but Peter instead, which is a theme that can be found throughout her entire life.

It is hard for Clarissa to communicate her emotions; thus, she mostly has to handle them herself. Loneliness and Isolation take control over her existence.

Excerpt out of 13 pages


The Theme of Madness in "Mrs Dalloway"
RWTH Aachen University
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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virginia woolf, mrs dalloway, dalloway, modernism, madness, psychology, psychologie
Quote paper
Elena da Silva (Author), 2018, The Theme of Madness in "Mrs Dalloway", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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