Mental Illness in "Mrs Dalloway" and "The Hours"

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One of the most important themes of ‘Mrs. Dalloway’ and, by virtue of it being a derivative text, of ‘The Hours,’ is that of mental health. The ways issues of mental health are presented are, almost universally, sympathetic and, in the case of the former, empathetic. The strongest symbols of this theme are Septimus and Clarissa in ‘Mrs. Dalloway’ and Richard, Laura (Mrs. Brown), and Virginia (Mrs. Woolf) in ‘The Hours.’ Most have problems which are very much the product of their time and we see the way in which people with such illnesses were (and in the case of Richard still are) treated for their malaise. Also of interest in these texts is the relationship between era and the illnesses suffered and the treatment given; across these two texts, the years 1923, 1949, and 1999 are represented.

The most explicitly portrayed mental illness is that of Septimus in ‘Mrs. Dalloway’ whose shell-shock (brought about by action in the First World War) seems to have brought about a plethora of other symptoms. The utter lack of comprehension and compassion on the part of his doctors partly draws from similar experiences Woolf suffered at the hands of her own doctor, Dr. Savage, and also the way in which shell-shock victims tended to be regarded at the time. As such, the theme is wider than just Septimus’s manifestation of ‘war neurosis’ à la Freud. It also encompasses his treatment by the careless Dr. Holmes with his suggestions that Septimus play golf, eat porridge, and take bromide and the sinister Sir William Bradshaw who wishes Septimus to enter a ‘rest’ home and seemingly to undergo Orwellian re-programming. Bradshaw’s stream of consciousness sections are especially revealing of the attitude of some doctors at the time:

‘Health we must have; and health is proportion; so that when a man comes into your room and says he is Christ… …and has a message… …and threatens… …to kill himself, you invoke proportion; order rest in bed; rest in solitude; silence and rest; rest without friends, without books; without messages; six months’ rest…’ (Page 110).

This portrayal of Bradshaw’s thoughts could well reflect Woolf’s own experiences (and those of others) coming through to damn both the doctors who mis-treated patients suffering from shell-shock and those who did the same to patients suffering from more common mental illnesses. Woolf portrays doctors as being either useless, or indulging in sinister social engineering bordering on eugenics. One can contrast the way in which Septimus is treated with the way in which Prior is treated in Pat Barker’s ‘Regeneration’ trilogy, which is also based on the experiences of patients with shell-shock, however, these patients are talked through their illness, something which was, in many ways, ahead of its time. The contrast between these treatments represents a controversy in medicine at the time, with some doctors advocating talking to shell-shock victims, and others simply locking them away in sanatoria. It is unlucky for Septimus that he has seen doctors of the latter rather than the former type.

Septimus’s delusions are portrayed in Woolf’s characteristic stream of consciousness style; the sentences tend towards the short and clipped, although, as with others in the book, they are interspersed with some longer, more complex ones.

‘Once you fall, Septimus repeated to himself, human nature is on you. Holmes and Bradshaw are on you. They scour the desert. They fly screaming into the wilderness. The rack and the thumbscrew are applied. Human nature is remorseless.’ (Page 108).

Here, we see a classic example of the way in which Septimus’s thoughts are portrayed, the short, simple sentences, the labouring of the ‘human nature’ motif (apparently a common symptom of psychosis), and the bleak metaphors leading, on the downward curve of his emotions, to a bleak world-view. That Septimus’s thoughts show him to be a helpless victim in this affair evokes a great deal of sympathy for him in the mind...
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