Analysis of the Message and Themes in Virginia Woolf’s Novel Mrs. Dalloway

June 7, 2022 by Essay Writer


We can find many kinds of writing where the issue of mental disorder is reflected. many famous writers are interested in human psychology, inner processes as well as in mysteries of human brain. Writer‘s own experience and mood are reflected in his writings. Therefore, it enables us to explore not only the world of the book we read but also we can peep inside the author‘s soul and his hidden wishes or grievances. Woolf‘s life, social and familial relationships and every single event in her life are very important when we are supposed to understand her writings.

If we want to understand deeper meaning and message of her books, it is interesting and relevant to explore the circumstances and thoughts that had led her to write what she did. When we come closer, we discover that many of events and people from her life are reflected in her novels. Even though the writing does not depict objective reality, it reflects inner reality of author‘s mind (Kodrlová, Čermák 60). Moreover, Woolf herself wrote: ―Every secret of a writer‘s soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind, is written in his works‖ (Spater&Parsons 83).

Virginia Woolf Biography

‘Virginia Woolf was tiny, shy, timid lady suffering from depressions. A woman making all those strange poetic attempts, woman brought-up in a family of ―big Victorian man‖ Leslie Stephen‖ (Hilský 155).

The most significant representative of English Modernism Virginia Woolf was born as Adeline Virginia Stephen on 25 January 1882, in London. Woolf had the opportunity to grow up in an intellectual environment and to be in the center of cultural and artistic life at that time thanks to her family. She was brought up and educated at home. Her father, Sir Leslie Stephen (1832-1904), was a philosopher, critic, historian as well as mountaineer. He worked as the editor of the Dictionary of National Biography. Woolf‘s mother, born Julie Prinsep Duckworth (1846-1895), was also interested in Stephen‘s articles and literature.

Woolf‘s family comprises various mental disorders. For example, her father Leslie had several psychotic breakdowns, while Woolf‘s cousin, poet James Stephen, Suffered from bipolar disorder and committed suicide at the age of thirty-three. Neither the step sister Laura was in mental balance, she was diagnostic with schizophrenia. Woolf‘s mother Julia was anxiously obsessed with health and illnesses which had impact on Woolf and her attitude towards health. Woolf was not only a novelist, but she occupied herself also with journalism and she was politically active. She organized meetings of Women’s Cooperative Guild, a company that was founded in 1883 in Great Britain. She was born in the late Victorian era. New socialist movements appeared and modernism was taking root. Also Freud brought new spirit into psychology and that was psychoanalysis. Even though women were not allowed to vote, suffrage movement was growing stronger and stronger.

She was sexually abused by her brother which made huge impact on her mental health In consequence of her mental illness,Virginia was sexually abused since 12 by her step-brothers Gerald and George. Her sister Vanessa also suffered abuse. It was reportedly said that Virginia suffered abuse until the age of 21. Many feel it was the reason for her many nervous breakdowns and drastic mood swings she experience throughout her life anxious states and inability to live on, Woolf filled up her coat pockets with rocks and drowned herself in the River Ouse, near the village of Rodmell, Sussex on April 28 in 1941 (Merriman, ―Virginia Woolf). She left two suicide letters from which one was designated for her husband Leonard while the second one for her sister Vanessa which could be perceived as a proof of mutual closeness.

Mrs. Dalloway

Mrs. Dalloway is autobiographical because it explores the similarities and Differences between what we call madness and what we call sanity. For Woolf, No theme could be more urgent. The novel enables her to examine attitudes and states of mind that are crucial to her experience (Schwarz 265). With regard to preceding Schwarz‘s and following Lee‘s description we can estimate main topics treated in the novel:

Mrs. Dalloway is modern novel in several senses, it treats many difficult subjects madness, shellshock, bisexuality, sexual repression, maternal jealousy, catastrophic effects of the War in suggestive and ironic (Lee, ―Virginia Woolf‘s Nose).

Mrs. Dalloway, first published in 1925, is an impressionist novel which is considered to be best-known and worldwide read. Only one single delightful day is depicted there. There are basically two narrative lines of the story which mingle with each other. These stories take place in the same time. First one narrates about Clarissa Dalloway, her husband, daughter, their friends and neighbors and also her friend Peter Walsh who is also an important and attractive character.

The other line shows us life and thoughts of Septimus Warren Smith and his wife Lucrezia Rezia Warren Smith with whom we spend considerable amount of time. The atmosphere, inner thoughts and one delightful day of June. Woolf admits that in the first version Septimus, who later is intended to be her double, had no existence; and that Mrs. Dalloway was originally to kill herself, or perhaps merely to die at the end of her party (Briggs 141). Originally it was Clarissa Dalloway who should have died in the novel, not Septimus.

Woolf uses a technique called stream of consciousness, which is a narrative technique used for expressing thoughts and feelings which pass through our mind. Basically our thoughts are written as they go in our brain without stopping or doing pauses. Woolf switches outer, objective space-time with inner, subjective continuum, her prose proceeds from one moment and place of objective reality to another. Among these ―points of reference she hangs wavy, fluttering ribbons of stream of consciousness of Mrs. Dalloway (Hilský 24).

As there is not much of an action, we observe thoughts and inner process of Clarissa, Septimus and Rezia. Therefore, the novel is not divided into chapters as we are used to in other novels. Initially, it may seem confusing.

Septimus Warren Smith

From psychological point of view, Septimus is a ―special case‖ because he shows symptoms of many mental disorders such as shellshock, schizophrenia, anxiety and depressions combined with each other. Even from Woolf‘s description we can reveal that Septimus is not in complete mental balance.

Septimus Warren Smith, aged about thirty pale-faced, beak-nosed, wearing brown shoes and a shabby coat, with hazel eyes which had that look of apprehension in them which makes complete strangers apprehensive too. The world has raised its whip; where will it descend(19) Septimus‘ mood during the whole novel can be characterized as rather downcast and aggrieved. Despite love and patience of his wife he does not see the beauty of the world,even the slightest one. Moreover, he is also highly skeptical about the entire world. He does not believe that people are good or that they could help him:

For the truth is (let her ignore it) that human beings have neither kindness, nor faith, nor charity beyond what serves to increase the pleasure of the moment. They hunt in packs. Their packs scour the desert and vanish screaming into the wilderness. They desert the fallen. They are plastered over with grimaces (97). we can discover that Septimus has a tendency to judge people and that he sees only bad ones. This tendency is typical for people suffering from depression because their self-esteem is low therefore they see no good in other people Septimus‘ relation towards doctors can be described as negative and even hateful. He distrusts them because they do not help him at all. His first doctor, Mr. Holmes, did not recognize symptoms of his illness. Moreover, he tends to declare that Septimus is completely healthy from his point of view.

There was nothing whatever the matter, said Dr. Holmes. Oh, what a relief! What a kind man, what a good man! thought Rezia‖ (98). Doctor Holmes calms Rezia by saying that Septimus is completely all right and that there is nothing what he would lack. As in this extract: 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 (26). Therefore Rezia thinks that it is enough to take Septimus out and show him beautiful things in the city. She is not aware of the real illness threatening her husband even if he is predicting his suicide: ―Because Septimus had said, ―I will kill myself; an awful thing to say (20).

Woolf wanted to criticize and point to inability of doctors to define and discover symptoms of mental disorder in time. It could be attributed to the fact that, in Woolf‘s period, doctors were not well-educated in this area and that they would ignore these kinds of illnesses.


Shell shock is a mental disorder which is described as a reaction to events that happened during the First World War. Generally, it could be a trauma from any battle. Reactions of soldiers are divers, starting from insomnia, panic, fear of being alone to inability to walk or talk. The name Shell shock was replaced after Second World War by new term called Combat Stress Reaction (abbreviated CRS). this trauma can be compared to posttraumatic stress disorder which shows similar symptoms, such as sleep disturbance or anxiety.

One of the main characters from the novel Mrs. Dalloway Septimus Smith could serve as an example of shell shocked person. He suffers from strange feelings caused by terrifying experience from the war. This fear or feeling can be, from the psychological point of view, called aforesaid Shell shock. The soldiers who participated in war (in Septimus‘ case the First World War) react to terrifying situations that they survived in diverse ways. Fallacies and delusions are also perceived as one of frequent symptoms of this mental illness. This sign is typical for Septimus because he is seeing things that are not real: He said people were talking behind the bedroom walls. He saw things too – he had seen an old woman‘s head in the middle of a fern (Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway 73).

Sometimes his visions are terrifying: “Skye terrier snuffed his trousers and he started in an agony of fear. It was turning into a man! He could not watch it happen! It was horrible, terrible to see a dog become a man!… Why could he see through bodies, see into future, when dogs will become men” (ibid 75)

Septimus is also persuaded that he saw a friend of him named Evans. That was only an illusion because officer Evans died just before the end of World War I and Septimus was a witness of it. “White things were assembling behind the railings opposite. But he dared not look. Evans was behind the railings” (ibid 22) ‘’ or A man in grey was actually walking towards them. It was Evans! But no mud was on him; no wounds; he was not changed”(ibid 77).

Septimus was not able to admit that Evans was dead. Furthermore, he even talks to him: “It was at that moment (Rezia gone shopping) that the great revelation took place. A voice spoke from behind the screen. Evans was speaking. The dead were with him. Evans, Evans! he cried. Mr. Smith was talking aloud to himself, Agnes the servant girl cried to Mrs. Filmer in the kitchen. ―Evans, Evans, he had said as she brought in the tray. She jumped, she. She scuttled downstairs”(ibid 101).

Septimus is highly traumatized by the deaths he has witnessed. Septimus‘ fantasy and hallucinations are very vivid. He feels threatened by his phantom. It may be attributed to the fact that he underwent horrifying events during the war and that his memories are unforgettable. The flashbacks from the war hunt him still but sometimes he is not willing to admit it. He wants to remain strong and invincible. With regard to textual evidence it appears that Septimus suffers from paranoid delusion and according to Lee he feels being in total isolation and therefore he cannot communicate. He is also represented as an experimental misunderstood artist whose character embodies all the terrible affairs that happened during the First World War


Anxiety is an unpleasant emotion triggered by anticipation of future events, memories of past events, or ruminations about the self. (Encyclopedia of Mental Disorders, ―Anxiety and anxiety disorders). Anxiety is generally perceived as combination of diverse emotions, including unjustified fear, bad premonitions and worries without substantiated reason. Next frequent symptoms are palpitation, headache, sweating, chest pain, shortness of breath, mouth is dry and the individual does not know what to do. Anxiety is unpleasant psychical condition whose cause is unfortunately often indefinable. Anxiety is very often connected with depressions and sometimes even with suicide. Individual feels irrational anxiety and worry about casual things. The issues to worry are usually family, health, money and friends. Feelings of unjustified fear often accompany the life of Clarissa Dalloway: “She had a perpetual sense. As she watched the taxicabs, of being out, out, far out to sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day” (Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway 12).

Grammatical features in the passage are worth noticing. Woolf uses repetition in order to emphasize Clarissa‘s negative feeling, in this case feeling of being alone and scared of common issues.

Fear is a central component of Clarissa‘s character. Though we don‘t know exactly what‘s wrong with Clarissa – as we do in the case of Septimus – we know she experiences daily anxiety and sometimes faces terrible fear of tasks as small as crossing the street. We also know she was once a patient of Dr Bradshaw and that just being in his office terrified her (Shmoop, ―Clarissa Dalloway).

Clarissa is also anxiously obsessed and unsatisfied with her appearance: ―Instead of which she had a narrow pea-stick figure; a ridiculous little face, beaked like a bird‘s (ibid 14). She also feels old ―She felt very young; at the same time unspeakably aged (ibid 12), however, she denies it: “Since her illness she had turned almost white. Laying her brooch on the table, she had sudden spasm, as if, while she mused, the icy claws had had the chance to fix in her. She was not old yet. She had just broken into her fifty-second year. Months and months of it were still untouched (ibid 42)

Next characteristic feature of anxiety is sense of being lost, overlooked and ignored. Clarissa sometimes feels like this “She had the oddest sense of being herself invisible; unseen; unknown” (ibid 15).

This anxious feeling does not have to necessarily be proof of mental illness but can be considered as its beginning. Depressions and anxiety brings us to another disorder which is called Bipolar disorder formerly also known as manic depression. Bipolar Disorder

Next frequent and really dangerous illness is Bipolar Disorder which is historically also known as manic-depressive disorder or manic depression. This term was replaced by the term Bipolar Disorder in 1957 by German psychiatrist Karl Leonhard (Noll 59). The term bipolar means that patient suffers both from mania and from period of depression. “A sparrow perched on the railing opposite chirped Septimus, Septimus, four or five times over and went on, drawing its notes out, to sing freshly and piercingly in Greek words how there is no crime and, joined by another sparrow, they sang in voices prolonged and piercing in Greek words” (Woolf 29).

As we can see, Septimus hears not only birds singing in Greek but also voices trying to suggest to him killing himself: “The whole world was clamouring: Kill yourself, kill yourself, for our sakes. But why should he kill himself for their sakes” (Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway 100)

Woolf herself noted in her memoire that in 1904 during her second serious breakdown, she lied in bed thinking that the birds were singing Greek choruses (Rosenbaum 44). The same thing claims Quentin Bell in his biography. “It was here too that she lay in bed, listening to the birds singing in Greek and imagining that King Edward VII lurked in the azaleas using the foulest possible language” (Bell 90).

This mental disorder manifests itself by blank look, exaggerated feelings bewilderment, or despair and also by hallucinations: “But he would not go mad. He would shut his eyes; he would see no more. But they beckoned; leaves were alive; trees were alive. And the leaves being connected by millions of fibres with his own body, there on the seat, fanned it up and down; when the branch stretched he, too, made that statement”(Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway 27) As this passage reveals, Septimus tries to persuade himself that he is not mad even if he sees leaves and trees as living creatures.

Suicide and Death

Suicide and dying is linking point between Woolf‘s personal life, and the life of her characters, especially in Mrs. DallowayClarissa‘s preoccupation with death and dying is obvious. When she learns about Septimus‘ death, she imagines how it feels like to commit a suicide:

“He had killed himself – but how? Always her body went through it, when she was told, first, suddenly, of an accident; her dress flamed, her body burnt. He had thrown himself from a window. Up had flashed the ground; through him, blundering, bruising, went rusty spikes. There he lay with a thud, thud, thud in his brain, and then a suffocation of blackeness” (Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway 196). Clarissa‘s image of suicide is really vivid and realistic, it even seems that she takes pleasure in imagining it. The moment of Septimus‘ death pushes her into thinking about dying: “Death was defiance. Death was an attempt to communicate, people feeling the impossibility of reaching the center which, mystically, evaded them; closeness drew apart; rapture faded; one was alone. There was an embrace in death” (ibid 197).

The conclusion that Woolf herself suffered from Bipolar Disorder, depressions or insomnia which were probably caused, by grave life events that occurred in her growing up. These moments were particularly the death of her mother Julia, brother Toby and possible sexual abuse by her stepbrothers.

Circumstances in her life caused several breakdowns and attempts to commit suicide from last of which was fatal. Even though her intention was not always visible or intended, her thoughts, state of mind and worries are indisputably reflected in her writings. This fact was proved thanks to Woolf‘s diaries where she revealed her intentions and ideas.


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