Mental Ilness in Novel "Mrs. Dalloway" by Virginia Wolf

Categories: Mental Illness

The idea of mental illnesses is a concept that is still, even in this day and age, not fully understood by most of society, even though it is fairly common. In order to find an immediate “cure” we turn to countless doctors, psychiatrists, and even religious leaders, in hopes that they can magically make the illness just go away. However, without truly understanding the illness itself, it is very difficult to be able to help and actually treat someone with a positive result.

Take depression for example, a huge part of depression is caused by low self-esteem. People suffering from depression genuinely do not believe that they are good enough or worth it. They may feel as though no one wants them around and just run through the motions, until they finally give up, afraid and alone. Society is so focused on constraining people into the perfect norm that they neglect to realize how that may even be the cause to some possibly severe mental illnesses, depression just being one of many.

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Due to the fear of judgment from our society, people suffer in silence for as long as possible, not revealing their mental weakness, if they can help it. Instead they put on a façade, faking happiness, suppressing their negative thoughts, which only makes it that much more overwhelming when they are pressured to be someone they are not.

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Wolf, introduces the idea of mental illness and how society “fixes” the lack of proportion present in the people who suffer from them.

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The novel gives us a clear picture of a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, a middle-aged woman, who married into high society, as she plans a party, which is a hobby of hers. Simultaneously, a young war veteran, Septimus Smith, suffers from shell shock, a form of PTSD, and is trying to cope with his illness, aided by his wife Lucrezia and his doctors, Holmes and Bradshaw. Throughout the novel, these primary characters interact with each other as well as the rest of their society, providing us with a perspective on how they are influenced by those around them. As we move from character to character, we are able to aptly visualize society’s grasp on people inflicted with certain types and degrees of mental illness and how it has shaped their thoughts and influenced their actions, while observing their journeys, eventually leading to freedom from the phantasmal chains that drag them down. Although we imagine society as this invisible presence, forcing people to do only things that are deemed socially appropriate, it can also manifest itself as powerful people who have great influence on the community. Characters such as Sir Bradshaw and even Hugh Whitbread act as a manifestation of society, dictating what makes a person appropriate for this elite group. This in turn may worsen the sickness of the mind that some may already have. With other people around them telling them these mental illnesses do not exist, they force themselves to suppress that part, until it becomes too much.

Within the novel, the author also brings up the idea of proportion and conversion in regards to how society attempts to alter people to fit the norm.

“Health we must have; and health is proportion; so that when a man comes into your room and says he is Christ (a common delusion), and has a message, as they mostly have, and threatens, as they often do, to kill himself, you invoke proportion…”

At that time specifically, in order to be a prominent and respectable member in society, members must have a balance of the mind and body. Thus, having a mental illness was a prime example of being disproportionate. Conversion was the way of fixing these lapses in society. The author describes conversion as “feast[ing] on the wills of the weakly, loving to impress, to impose, adoring her own features stamped on the face of the populace”. Conversion is the darker part of society, usually left unaddressed, especially at that time. It is the part that attempts to extinguish the unique personalities of members of society, even the ones who suffer in silence.

An accurate representation of society’s repression of mental illness is showcased by Sir William Bradshaw. He is the second doctor that Lucrezia takes Septimus to, in a desperate attempt to cure his lunacy. Bradshaw’s entire approach to mental illness is based on the concept of proportion and lack thereof. “To his patients he gave three-quarters of an hour; and if in this exacting science which has to do with what, after all, we know nothing about — the nervous system, the human brain — a doctor loses his sense of proportion, as a doctor he fails”. He believes that to be as good a doctor as he is, one must practice proportion, in the way he diagnoses, as well as the way he treats said diagnosis.

“Worshipping proportion, Sir William not only prospered himself but made England prosper, secluded her lunatics, forbade childbirth, penalised despair, made it impossible for the unfit to propagate their views until they, too, shared his sense of proportion …Sir William with his thirty years’ experience of these kinds of cases, and his infallible instinct, this is madness, this sense; in fact, his sense of proportion.”

His idea of what constitutes a proper individual may be very different from someone else’s’. However, because he is so powerful and influential, this is what people end up having to conform to. In this case, Bradshaw acts as the society so intent on oppressing its members in an attempt to create a uniform, seemingly perfect world. Septimus, as his patient, is forced to integrate Bradshaw’s idea of proportion into his life, just because his word seems to be the law, at least in terms of medical diagnoses. Septimus, before Bradshaw can make him a puppet, blindly following the doctor’s orders, takes matters into his own hands, choosing to end his life, ultimately severing Bradshaw’s, and in turn, society’s, realm of control over him.

But Sir Bradshaw does not stop there; not only does he dictate the perfect ratio that Septimus needs to be to be considered “healthy” and “normal”, but he also exerts his dominance over his own wife, Lady Bradshaw. “Fifteen years ago, she had gone under. It was nothing you could put your finger on; there had been no scene, no snap; only the slow sinking, water-logged, of her will into his. Sweet was her smile, swift her submission”. Although she wasn’t considered mentally unstable, her passive submission to his dominant personality was harmful to her mental health. She initially did not fit Sir Bradshaw’s idea of a proportionate human being. So, slowly but surely, he managed to exert his power of dominance over her, gradually altering her entire personality until he managed to fit her into the mold he devised for her. Sir Bradshaw’s command over both Septimus and Lady Bradshaw symbolizes the power that society has over its weaker members undergoing their own hidden suffering. Unlike Septimus, who ultimately took control from Bradshaw and escaped through suicide, Lady Bradshaw let her husband slowly strip away her personality until there was nothing left other than a shell following her husband’s bidding.

Moreover, when Clarissa meets her old friend Hugh Whitbread, she automatically knows not to ask about his wife, Evelyn, and her unspecified illness.

“Evelyn was a good deal out of sorts, said Hugh, intimating by a kind of pout or swell of his very well-covered, manly, extremely handsome, perfectly upholstered body (he was almost too well dressed always, but presumably had to be, with his little job at Court) that his wife had some internal ailment, nothing serious, which, as an old friend, Clarissa Dalloway would quite understand without requiring him to specify.”

They both seem to know that Evelyn is sick, yet they have a mutual unspoken agreement to not talk about it. Clarissa does not bring it up at all but just knows that Evelyn is sick. Hugh, like Bradshaw, is another character that believes in his own idea of proportion. His wife’s illness does not fit his image as a higher-class socialite that he wants everyone in his social circle to see him as. Instead of exerting his dominance over his wife like Bradshaw did, he just hides her illness under his extravagant and haughty persona, using the rules of conduct expected by society to his advantage, ensuring that her illness is kept under wraps. Although they have two different approaches to removing any sign of disproportion, both Bradshaw and Hugh have enough of an influence through society to repress their respective “issues” that do not fit their idea of a balanced society.

Furthermore, Clarissa, through her pursuit of status and affection, lets society suppress her so much, trapping her in a box of loneliness and constant longing for something more, that she finds it difficult to escape. The entire novel, she is dissatisfied with her life, blaming her unhappiness on herself and how to stop tarnishing her social image. “She could see what she lacked. It was not beauty; it was not mind. It was something central which permeated; something warm which broke up surfaces and rippled the cold contact of man and woman, or of women together. For THAT she could dimly perceive. She resented it…”

She goes through various emotions that signify depression, feelings of loneliness, worthlessness thereby suppressing herself and using society as an excuse. She feels as though she is not enough for Richard and that he has completely left her after being invited to Lady Bruton’s without her.

“It was all over for her. The sheet was stretched and the bed narrow...Richard, Richard! she cried, as a sleeper in the night starts and stretches a hand in the dark for help. Lunching with Lady Bruton, it came back to her. He has left me; I am alone for ever, she thought, folding her hands upon her knee.”

Just the idea that she wasn’t invited to a social lunch that her husband was, incites a dangerous train of thought for Clarissa, who already has feelings of neglect bouncing around in her mind. She is so obsessed with the idea that Lady Bruton, an influential socialite, does not like her that she is unnecessarily distressed. This just shows how much influence societal norms can have, pushing her already slightly unstable mind more over the edge. She is very much distraught, which only further disrupts her mind, making whatever illness she has that much worse.

Be that as it may, at the end of the novel, in reaction to Septimus’s death, she regrets that she has lost herself in her quest for getting higher in society and striving to be liked by everyone. “She had schemed; she had pilfered. She was never wholly admirable. She had wanted success”. But with the news of Septimus’s death, she realizes that she should feel happy and content in whatever life she has at that moment. Although her first reaction when presented with the news was the superficial thought that death had ruined her party, a thought influenced by the society she had grown up in, she eventually realizes how good she has it and how she should appreciate what she has instead of being depressed about it. She learns from Septimus’s death, slowly beginning to rebalance her psyche, and restoring the balance that got overshadowed by her depressive thoughts. The unrealistic expectations that society pressures her with were the cause of her depressive thoughts and her desperate need to be perfect. When she lets go of that burden that she put on herself, that is when she is able to rise up from the state of mind she was in an attempt to be happy and content with her life now.

People may not even realize they are suffering. They may just feel weighed down by even the simplest of day to day tasks that they may have enjoyed at one point. There are signs, that, if appropriately detected and treated, can help change lives and prevent unnecessary deaths. Yet, the issue does not lie with the people suffering from mental illness, but lies in society itself. The sickness that so easily spreads in some communities is not physical or mental ailments that medicine can cure. It is a heavy weight that sits on everyone’s shoulders, some more than others, and constantly reiterates that they must be better. The only way we can fix this is to stop letting past societal norms influence our thoughts and actions. In Mrs. Dalloway, each and every character, at one point of the novel, are caught in the web that society builds, preventing their true personalities from shining through. In society, especially at the time of the novel, mental illness was thought to be imaginary and nonexistent. The idea that people in a community can be different and unique is a completely new way of thinking that, at that time, wasn’t at all common. Thus, the way the characters react to mental illness is very revealing. Even the ones going through feelings of depression and doubting their self-worth, suppress those emotions and paste a smile on their face, hiding their pain so that no can see. Yet if we could just look past what society deems as normal, mental illnesses such as those might be a little less common and definitely not as severe as the ones that exist in our communities.

Updated: Feb 27, 2024
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Mental Ilness in Novel "Mrs. Dalloway" by Virginia Wolf. (2024, Feb 27). Retrieved from

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