ENG 3259 Literature, Reading, Mental Health
Question 1. The Representation of Isolation and depression in Mrs Dalloway and The Bell Jar
Many studies of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway have focused on its themes of gender roles, repression, issues of feminism and its writing techniques. I will be examining it from a different perspective; that of mental health issues, particularly isolation and depression. Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar also voices similar concerns with these issues of mental health. As an established writer, Virginia Woolf published her novel Mrs Dalloway in 1925. It was at a time when Woolf was mentally stable. She had previously been shattered with fits of “madness” that no amount of prescribed rest could cure. These bouts would usually come after she had experienced a traumatic event. Her early experiences with incest and parental deaths likely proved her depression.1 It seems that writing was one way of Virginia Woolf’s escape from her personal pain and loss. In Mrs Dalloway she began to find her own voice and work through her past by creating a new life on paper. Phyllis Rose states that: “ Mrs Dalloway represents Woolf’s fullest self –portrait as an artist; it contemplates the relationship between her own madness and creativity.”2It was originally entitled “The Hours” but was changed later by Woolf to Mrs Dalloway.3 In the novel Woolf discovered a new literary form that was capable of expressing the new realities of post war England. Mrs Dalloway takes place in a single day in June 1923 and depicts the subjective experiences and memories of its characters in post – world war London. Devoid of much physical action, the narrative voice focuses on the inner thoughts of the characters as they flow from one idea to another with little pause or explanation, a style referred to as free indirect discourse. This style gives the reader access to mind of the books protagonist Clarissa Dalloway, and a myriad of other characters as they try to make sense of life from their own perspective. There are several major characters and many minor characters that appear in the text, their thoughts linking together like a web. Occasionally the thoughts that they have connect together and they are successful in communicating with each other. More often however, their thoughts do not connect, which leaves the characters isolated and alone. The metaphors of fish swimming in water used by Woolf indicate how loose the connections between people really are. Characters see each other as objects rather than living people; they think about others but do not necessarily communicate with them. Clarissa’s husband Richard Dalloway loves her but he finds himself incapable of telling her this and uses flowers to convey his message.4
The party that Clarissa holds aims to bring people together, but instead it becomes rather a gathering of a group of people who are actually isolated within themselves. The isolation that they feel creates a deep fear within them. They think they are all alone and that the world is against them because it doesn’t understand them and their problems. In the text we are given the opportunity to see this first hand through the eyes of Septimus Warren Smith, a man who has gone mad because of the war. Having fought in World War 1, Septimus Smith’s mental illness is invariably a result of the casualties that he had witnessed and death, which he narrowly escaped. He is unable to deal with the flash backs and painful memories and as a result defies life by committing suicide. “ He was deserted. The whole world was clamouring; kill yourself, kill yourself, for our sakes?”5, “Besides, now that he was quite alone, condemned, deserted, as those who are about to die are all alone, there was a luxury in it, an isolation full of sublimity; a freedom...
Bibliography: Beck, T. Aaron, “ The Development of Depression: A Cognitive Model.” The Psychology of Depression: ( Contemporary Theory and Research. Ed Raymond, J. Friedman and Martin M.Katz ( Washington: Hemisphere Publishing Corporation,1974)
Bell, Quentin, Virginia Woolf: A Biography: Volume 2 (London: The Hogarth Press Ltd, 1972)
Briggs, Julia, Virgina Woolf: An Inner Life, (London: Penguin Books Ltd,2005)
Bronfen, Elisabeth, Sylvia Plath (Newcastle: Athenaeum Press Ltd, 2004)
De Salvo, Louise, Virginia Woolf: The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on her life and work (Boston: Beacon Press, 1989)
Macpherson, Pat, Reflecting on The Bell Jar (London: Routledge, 1991)
Perloff, Marjorie, “A Ritual for being born twice: Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, Contemporary Literature 13.4: Autumn, 1981.
Plath, Sylvia, The Bell Jar (London: Faber, 2005)
Trombley, Stephen, ‘All That Summer She Was Mad’ : Virginia Woolf and Her Doctors (London: Junction,1981)
Woolf, Virginia, Mrs Dalloway, ed by Stella Mc Nichol (London: Penguin Books ltd, 2000)
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