Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Madness, mind-doctors, and Mrs. Dalloway

Sabina Dosani
London, England

London top-hat, from the period of Mrs. Dalloway, similar to the hats made by Rezia and likely worn by the treating psychiatrist

Mrs. Dalloway, published in 1925 as the fourth novel by Virginia Woolf, is a life-in-a-day novel, almost certainly influenced by James Joyce’s Ulysses. In her 1919 essay Modern Fiction, Woolf rejects her materialist forerunners, praising Joyce and others like him: “They attempt to come closer to life… so must discard most of the conventions commonly observed by the novelist. Let us record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order which they fall.”1

In Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf discards convention by transcribing characters’ unspoken thoughts for contemplation by a reader. David Herman described the “inward turn” taken by the modernist novel and its emphasis on “capturing mental or psychological texture of those lived experiences.”2 Richly evocative, “Piccadilly seemed to chafe in the very air in the Park and lift its leaves hotly, brilliantly, on waves of that divine vitality which Clarissa loved.”3

Mrs. Dalloway is set in London, the city Woolf returned to after three years recovering from “alternating swings of mood occurring with the seasons”4 in the relative rurality of Richmond-upon-Thames. Madness exiled Woolf to the countryside, excluded from cultured society. While writing Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf recorded her love of London in her diary, “London, thou art a jewel of jewels…music, talk, friendship, city views, books, publishing… all this is now within my reach.”5

Patricia Waugh writes, “In Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf fictionalized the psychotic voice-hearing that she herself associated with sexual abuse, patriarchal bullying…But she displaces her experiences onto the war veteran Septimus Smith.”6 From the opening, Mrs. Dalloway is shadowed by death, “did it matter that she must inevitably cease completely; all this must go on without her.”7

Mrs. Dalloway opens at the end of the First World War with characters, unrelated by plot-forms, looking at planes in the sky, a metaphor for free association, the pilot analogous to Freud’s ego: “The aeroplane turned and raced and swooped exactly where it liked.”8 The characters struggle to make sense of what the plane trails mean, like psychoanalysts grappling with free-association. The seeming impossibility of flight is analogous to the apparent impossibility of transcribing consciousness. Woolf’s plane, a mechanized bird, evokes William James’ paper The Stream of Consciousness: “Like a bird’s life, it seems to be an alternation of flights and perchings…Let us call the resting places the substantive parts and the places of flight are the transitive parts of the stream of thought.”9 The effort of deciphering is both the difficulty in making sense of thoughts emitted by another and a metascript for threatened mechanization, feared by modernists.

In his afterword to A Fortunate Man, John Berger’s biography of country doctor, John Sassal, Berger wonders how Sassall’s suicide, fifteen years later, changes the story. He concludes, “Yes, his death has changed the story of his life… rather I now begin with his violent death, and, from it, look back with increased tenderness on what he set out to do and what he offered to others, for as long as he could endure.”

Sixteen years after writing Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf drowned herself in the River Ouse, after writing to her husband: “I feel certain I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time.”

Psychiatrist and Woolf biographer Peter Daly recorded, “During madness birds spoke to her in Greek.”10

Woolf uses Septimus, who also hears birds speak to him in Greek, to portray her own disordered mind:

“The whole world was clamouring: kill yourself.”11 Throughout Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf transcribes thoughts of Septimus Smith, appropriating his trauma to critique the patriarchal culture that contributed to the Great War that has so damaged him.

Woolf allows characters’ mind-wanderings to direct narrative, sacrificing plot for dream-like symbolism. For example, Septimus’ perception that he is merging with leaves illustrates sensations of physical unreality that are part of psychosis: “…leaves were alive, trees were alive. And the leaves being connected by millions of fibres with his own body, there on the seat.” This shares symbolism with Gilman-Perkins’ narrator believing she is one with the wallpaper.

Woolf uses parentheses to depict streams-of-consciousness. This allows her to represent one thought while simultaneously enclosing a second thought, held at the same time or focalized through a different character, within parentheses. For example: “‘Look, look, Septimus!’ she cried. For Dr. Holmes had told her to make her husband (who had nothing whatever seriously the matter with him but was a little out of sorts) take an interest in things outside himself.”12 Woolf looks back to Clarissa’s youth, “At some party (where she could not be certain) for she had a distinct recollection of saying to the man who was with her…”13 and, focalized through Septimus Smith, back to the Great War, “They waited till the War was over, and now the dead, now Evans himself…”14 Temporal dislocations, which Gilman and McEwan also employ, are hallmarks of modernist mindscapes. Woolf’s narration is free-indirect third-person, in contrast to Gilman’s first-person interior monologue. Both techniques evoke empathy with characters’ thoughts.

While Gilman’s narrator is unnamed, Woolf’s characters have names rich in meaning. Septimus, literally, “born seventh,” can be read ironically. Biblically, seven denotes perfection. Paired with “Smith,” it suggests everyman’s infinite uniqueness. When depicting Septimus’ madness, focalization is frequently through Rezia, “Never, never had Rezia felt such agony in her life.”15 Rezia is first introduced with her full name, “Lucrezia Warren Smith, seated by her husband’s side.”16 Her name, from Latin lucrum, meaning wealth, from which we get “lucrative,” is shortened to Rezia. Rezia is a hat maker. Designed to give shelter, hats bestow modesty while calling attention to the head. Hats contain the cranium, where neurologist Freud located consciousness. Woolf chose a sewing-spouse for war-broken Septimus, as if this artisanal woman of wealth would literally be the making of him: “…something failed him. He could not feel. Hats being made protected him. He was assured of safety; he had a refuge.”

Rezia and Septimus are first encountered in St James’ Park. After his symptoms publicly embarrass Rezia, Woolf moves them to a small room; her shrinking spaces mimetic of Septimus’ diminishing feelings, “He had not cared when Evans was killed.”17 After Septimus’ madness attracted a passer-by’s attention, Rezia’s wedding ring slips off. Worry quelled her appetite, leaving her physically as diminutive as her foreshortened forename. His madness diminishes her and their union: “marriage was over…with agony, with relief.”18 As Septimus’ madness progresses, Woolf refers to Rezia as part of Septimus, subsumed by him: “So they crossed, Mr. and Mrs. Septimus Warren Smith.”19 Rezia asks, “why should she suffer?”20 A Freudian reading of this passage is as a cipher of Woolf’s guilt of the impact of her madness on her husband Leonard, later evidenced in her suicide note.

Dr. Holmes is subversively named for the doctor-detective, presenting denouements in the traditional detective novel. Although there is a denouement, Septimus’ suicide comes at the end of the book, turning Conan Doyle’s form on its head. Unlike Conan Doyle’s detail-focused Holmes, Woolf’s Holmes is “a damned fool.”21 He is arrogant, equating generalist knowledge with that of a specialist, saying ironically “by all means go to Harley Street.”22 He is rude to women, “he had to give that charming little lady a friendly push.”23 Holmes compliments the “fine panelling”24 in Septimus’ house in Woolf’s neighborhood, Bloomsbury, noting the folly of landlords who “paper it over.”25 Holmes’ folly lies in papering-over “cracks” in Septimus, dismissing those “sudden thunder-drops of fear”26 as “nerve symptoms and nothing more.”27 Woolf, like Gilman, exposes what lies beneath the wallpaper: a troubled mind’s inner workings.

Mrs. Dalloway critiques the mind-doctors Woolf encountered. Psychiatrist George Savage forbade adolescent Woolf from continuing her lessons.28 He is a likely model for Sir William Bradshaw, named for the train-guide writer, obsessed by railway time, “It was precisely twelve o’clock, twelve by Big Ben.”29 This patriarchal oppressor, with scant interest in his patient’s story, allots each a forty-five minute slot, a parody of the so-called Freudian hour. Other than stammering “I, I, I,” Septimus is given no speech in his appointment with Bradshaw. His stuttering staccato could be read as Woolf’s criticism of the patriarchy that led to the war that has damaged him. Woolf does not develop this in their clinical encounter. Instead, she writes in third-person narration, focalized again through Rezia, “Sir William would make all the arrangements.” New Zealand writer Janet Frame, following treatment in London for mental illness, recalled male psychiatrists’ power: “It felt as if the arrangements were being made for me, as if I were lying on my death bed watching the invasion of my house…”30

Neither Holmes nor Bradshaw realize Septimus is on his deathbed. His suicide is a social inconvenience, “in the middle of my party,”31 Clarissa complains; the news filtered through her experience. This reads as blaming the mind-doctors, caring more about railway-time and rest-cures than people. Another reading is as an early suicide note from Woolf: “Death was a defiance…people feeling the impossibility of reaching the centre…There was an embrace in death,”32 even as it disrupts the party.


  1. Virginia Woolf, Modern Fiction, in The Common Reader 1925 (written 1919).
  2. David Herman, Reminding Modernism, p. 243.
  3. Mrs. Dalloway, p.5
  4. Peter Daly, Virginia Woolf: The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Robson Books, 1999, introduction.
  5. The Diary of Virginia Woolf, January 9th 1924, ed Anne Olivier Bell and Andrew McNellie, Hogarth Press, 1978, Penguin 1981, Vol II, p. 283.
  6. Patricia Waugh, The novelist as voice hearer, The Lancet, Vol 386, Dec 5 2015, p. 54.
  7. Mrs. Dalloway, p. 7.
  8. Mrs. Dalloway, p. 19.
  9. William James, The Stream of Consciousness, 1892. First published in Psychology, Chapter XI (Cleveland and New York).
  10. Peter Daly, p. 185.
  11. Mrs. Dalloway, p. 97.
  12. Mrs. Dalloway, p. 20.
  13. Mrs. Dalloway, p. 32.
  14. Mrs. Dalloway, p. 73.
  15. Mrs. Dalloway, p. 105.
  16. Mrs. Dalloway, p. 20.
  17. Mrs. Dalloway, p. 96.
  18. Mrs. Dalloway, p. 70.
  19. Mrs. Dalloway, p. 187.
  20. Mrs. Dalloway, p. 68.
  21. Mrs. Dalloway, p. 96.
  22. p. 99
  23. p. 96
  24. Mrs. Dalloway, p. 95
  25. p. 95
  26. p. 95
  27. p. 96
  28. The Female Malady, p. 126.
  29. p. 99
  30. Janet Frame, Faces in the Water, 1961, p. 216.
  31. p. 197.
  32. p. 198.

SABINA DOSANI is a consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist and a medical humanities scholar. She is interested in representations of psychiatrists in modernist fiction.

Highlighted in Frontispiece Volume 10, Issue 4 – Fall 2018

Winter 2018



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