Mental Health in Virginia Woolf's "Mrs Galloway" - Essay Sample

Published: 2023-10-15
Mental Health in Virginia Woolf's "Mrs Galloway" - Essay Sample
Type of paper:  Essay
Categories:  English literature Historical literature Gender in literature
Pages: 7
Wordcount: 1801 words
16 min read


The early 20th century represented one of the toughest times in the history of all nations, especially those that took part in the First World War. The devastating effects of the war were felt by both soldiers and civilians who all experienced both physical, psychological, and mental trauma. A wide range of British post-war literature covers the effects Virginia Woolf's "Mrs Dalloway" is more than a mere general representation of the aftermath of the first world war in Britain, but a poignant description of how personal it was to some particular groups of individuals in the British society. Sorrow, fear, and grief were some of the overriding emotions that engulfed British society in the early 20th century. While children and women were restrained and locked down in their homes, fathers and husbands were fighting in the battlefronts. People would wake up to sad telegram news of the loss of loved ones as 160000 soldiers were killed with thousands injured (Reisenauer 217). That is when British society discovered the realities and meaning of suffering. Literature is dotted with tales of post-war Britain and how it took a toll on society. But Woolf's perspective is deeper than what the eyes can see, or the mind can imagine. Initially, Woolf was never really perceived as someone who would aggressively confront the realities of war, sex, and social issues. However, in "Mrs Dalloway," she narrates different stories from different perspectives using the character of Mrs. Clarissa Dalloway, a high-class wife of a British member of parliament, and the mentally unstable war veteran, Septimus Warren Smith. In this novel, Woolf borrows a day in the lives of these characters showing how close each of them was moving closer to their deaths and the underlying mental instabilities that act as the undercurrents of war. This paper presents Woolf's depiction of mental illness, including shell shock using the characters of Mrs. Dalloway and Warren Smith, and the related impact on the social spectrum in Britain in the early 1920s.

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Septimus Smith and Shell Shock

Smith was a former soldier whose time serving in the British army left him with unusually odd behaviors that people could not clearly understand. Having spent time in the front lines and lost his best friend, Septimus manifested disturbing tendencies typical of most soldiers who were lucky to have returned alive. Shell shock was a mental illness that was not well known at the time Woolf wrote her novel. Synonymous with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), very little was known of shell shock, a condition that left soldiers shivering, fearful and crying involuntarily whenever they had constant memory intrusions of the scenes they had witnessed during the war(Bethea 249). Woolf posits that whatever was known of this condition was merely a blanket diagnosis. Many soldiers would suffer from shell shock during the war, and by so doing, they jeopardized their fellow soldiers and minimized the chances of winning the war. At the time of writing the novel, the British had already suffered huge losses, and whatever was showing in terms of signs were only the residual mental effects of war. For instance, during an episode, Septimus "saw a dog becoming a man" and also saw his dead friend Evans coming to him (Woolf 66).

According to the toughness principles of war, soldiers were not meant to show any signs of weakness, and Woolf is well aware of this aspect. One would wonder why she let the reader know the predicaments and the vulnerabilities that soldiers can have. Woolf presents Septimus as a human being who should be vulnerable and be affected by the negative aspects of life, such as war. While the British imperialism was barely stable, the culture of strength and manliness was still being instilled, and the notion was well maintained by the conservative citizens who could not accept the new realities settling in(Bethea 249). People were becoming disillusioned and losing faith in the British Empire following the huge losses of war, yet they stuck to their social systems. Through Septimus, Woolf forces the readers to engage with shell shock firsthand and experience the internal and external consequences it can have on soldiers. Woolf is not only critical in her depiction of this condition but is also concerned about how the British society treated ex-soldiers. The veterans were suffering, and that explains why there was a plan to take Septimus to a psychiatric hospital. It is unfortunate that the disorder was viewed as a sign of weakness or cowardice. The empathy that the reader accords this soldier is partly down to the understanding that he is only human, after all. The treatment of soldiers by society indicates that there was no empathy towards the soldiers, and this explains why Woolf is concerned that the condition was being downplayed and misunderstood(Bethea 250). The cures mentioned, such as the pills and tonics were ineffective temporary solutions as Septimus, and other ex-soldiers had failed many of them. Such situations illuminate Woolf's literary perceptions that the British Empire was becoming vulnerable and broken (Reisenauer 219).

Woolf indicates that the British Empire had failed soldiers who fought for the country not only by their failure to cure them of postwar traumas but also because of their petty attentions to unnecessary social events like hosting parties. In the same social events like the one hosted by Mrs. Dalloway, the veterans did not mean that much to the Britons of high social standing. The suggestion that Septimus would be better at a psychiatric hospital did not go down well with him, and that is why he finds the easiest way out by committing suicide. With the act of Septimus' suicide, Woolf seems to suggest that the notion of freedom from such effects was just, but illusions and that is why Septimus fancies death other than being locked in a mental institution. Woolf largely uses Septimus to propagate the theme of mental illness because, just like the British society of that time, he could not bear living with the realities of life as a result of the First World War(Bethea 252).

Clarissa Dalloway

Critics have argued that the characters of Mrs. Dalloway and that of Woolf have many things in common, leading some scholars to conclude that this novel was meant to be an autobiography. The projections of Woolf's own life events directly maps into this novel's plotlines. Mrs. Dalloway represents women married into the higher class, bridging the gap between the upper and lower social strata evident in England in the early 90s(Sang Gyu 159). There is evidence that Woolf herself struggled with bipolar disorder, a mental illness related to mood swings. Both Septimus and Clarissa showcase particular similarities of symptoms with Woolf as a person.

With Clarissa not physically seeing Septimus and only hears about his death in the party, Woolf communicates an important point about mental illness. Clarissa's predicament and that of Septimus are completely different. The two are residents of London, yet they do not get to meet, meaning that by not having them to physically meet, Woolf captures how mental illness can exist exclusively contained within individuals without the rest not affected to ever find out. With this technique, Woolf criticizes the wider society in terms of the treatment methods that exist in England(Sang Gyu 159). The use of Clarissa and Septimus at the same time indicates that mental illness should be a concern for everyone irrespective of their place in society.

Woolf's use of Clarissa and her struggle with emotional stress and depression suggests that there is much more emotional stress exerted by the societal pressure. Septimus, despite being a celebrated war hero, was stereotypically used by the author to remind the whole of England that the reminders of the First World War still existed among them in England in the form of human beings (Rachman 3).

Mental stress as a theme runs deep in "Mrs Dalloway," and the author provides a window to the reader through which her own struggles with mental stress could be experienced. While Septimus commits suicide by throwing himself out of the window, Clarissa commits emotional suicide by bottling her feelings and emotional pathway to her husband. Because this condition was not well understood at the time, the stream of consciousness gives the readers a way to draw the parallel traversing across class lines (Rachman 3). Other than mental distress, Woolf uses this technique to subtly illustrate the crumbling British class systems.

Woolf seems to be clearly preoccupied with death, and at the center of it is something mental such as PTSD, witnessed in Clarissa and Septimus' fears and hallucinations. It slowly becomes evidently clear that the persons portrayed were not cowards when losing their lives. The ghostly and ineffective treatments prescribed were rejected because they could not help as many had failed to get rehabilitated. Woolf pricks into the conscience of the British society imploring them to be humane and understand that the victims of mental distress and terrors of war really deserved more than they got (Rachman 3).


To conclude, Woolf addresses mental illness and shell shock in a manner that that criticizes the understanding of these conditions by the British society. The author lays bare the shamefully shallow perception of mental health and the laughable ineffective treatment methods suggested for those suffering from mental problems. The aspects presented by the author communicate more about the nature of the British Empire and the rigidity that it seemed to upheld despite the notion that it was slowly crumbling. As people lost hope in the system, the postwar stressors and rigid societal norms were claiming lives. Those from the higher social classes were preoccupied with irrelevant social issues falsely thinking they were immune from mental problems. As the condition consumes its victims one by one, there was no voice to speak for the fallen heroes and the emotionally and mentally troubled. Woolf makes it her responsibility to give them a voice and raise awareness of mental health.

Works Cited

Bethea, Arthur F. "Septimus Smith, The War-Shattered Christ Substitute In MRS. DALLOWAY". The Explicator, vol 68, no. 4, 2010, pp. 249-252. Informa UK Limited, doi:10.1080/00144940.2010.535456.

Rachman, Shalom. "Clarissa's Attic: Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway Reconsidered." Twentieth-Century Literature, vol 18, no. 1, 1972, p. 3. JSTOR, doi:10.2307/440690.

Reisenauer, Eric M. "A World In Crisis And Transition: The Millennial And The Modern In Britain, 1914–1918". First World War Studies, vol 2, no. 2, 2011, pp. 217-232. Informa UK Limited, doi:10.1080/19475020.2011.613244.

Sang Gyu, Lee. "A Study On' Time Trauma' In Virginia Woolf'S Mrs. Dalloway." English21, vol 29, no. 4, 2016, pp. 159-182. The 21St Century Association Of English Language And Literature, doi:10.35771/engdoi.2016.29.4.008.

Thomson, Jean. "Virginia Woolf And The Case Of Septimus Smith." The San Francisco Jung Institute Library Journal, vol 23, no. 3, 2004, pp. 55-71. University Of California Press, doi:10.1525/jung.1.2004.23.3.55. Accessed 19 July 2020.

Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. 1st ed., Hogarth Press, 1925, pp. 1-214.

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