Commentary on Mental Illness in Mrs. Dalloway

While reading Mrs. Dalloway, the one thing that found myself doing was trying to connect to Virginia Woolf herself. I found in fascinating that a writer who was able to describe simple things and mundane aspects of everyday life in such beautiful detail took her own life. Woolf suffered from bipolar disorder, and I think this novel is a testament to her suffering. Bipolar disorder is characterized by episodes of elevated mood alternating with a depressed state; I look at Clarissa Dalloway as the elevated mood, and Septimus as the depressed state. I think both are one in the same and both are written to represent the author herself.

Clarissa, as the “elevated mood” has an appreciation for life, and it is described in the second paragraph of page 2157, “For Heaven only knows why one loves it so, how one sees it so…” The sentence is written like poetry and it conveys a sense a beauty for her surroundings. Septimus is the contrast character to Clarissa. He’s not so much her exact opposite but a progression of her mood; from beautifying everything to a depressed state. He is what Clarissa’s character could become, but never does in the course of the novel.

At one point in the novel, Septimus’ “condition”, or rather lack-of condition is addressed; “Dr. Holmes might say there was nothing the matter. Far rather would she that he were dead!” (Top of page 2168). This sentence is a direct notion to mental illness. The idea that there is nothing actually wrong, and one is better off acting a certain way than being dead. What’s really interesting is that Clarissa and Septimus never actually encounter each other in the novel and that also speaks to Woolf’s internal struggle with her illness. The two sides of herself are always separate and there was never a middle ground where she could come to a sense of balance and normalcy. At the end of her party when she learns of the suicide, Clarissa reflects on Septimus’ death; “She felt somehow very like him-the young man who had killed himself. She felt glad that he had done it; thrown it away… He made her feel the beauty; made her feel the fun.” (bottom of 2259). I think this makes it clear that both characters are one in the same and the characters are in fact a manifestation of Woolf’s struggle with mental illness.

Work Cited

Woolf, Virginia. “Mrs. Dalloway”. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. 9th ed. Vol. F. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 2012. 2155-2264. Print.

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7 Responses to Commentary on Mental Illness in Mrs. Dalloway

  1. bkmilne says:

    Very interesting post. I never thought about how seriously Virginia Woolf may have portrayed her illness through this novel.
    Through Septimus, it is quite obvious to see her display of mental illness, but I never thought about Clarissa.

    I do agree that Clarissa is in a higher state than Septimus, but I also feel there is (although possibly minimal) some sort of middle ground, even in the separate characters themselves.

    Septimus has moments of severe weakness, especially when he thinks about or sees the doctor. But there are instances when he seems not normal, but content. Not extremely happy like Clarissa, but he does find a middle ground (where he is relaxed).

    Clarissa on the other hand also has low points, not like Septimus, but low enough that she doesn’t enjoy life as much as she should. Such as fretting over Peter. Clarissa is in such distress over men that she is not the happy woman she usually appears to be. I would also consider this middle ground, where she is at a normal state worth living in, but still is not exceptionally happy.

    Now together, though they never meet, but Clarissa is introduced to his character, and they seem to form a middle ground where Clarissa can reflect on her life. We see that she thinks of her life as “fun”.
    Overall though I agree with your statement. Together Septimus and Clarissa may not make middle ground because Septimus had committed suicide, and Clarissa is proud of home for that. It is, but on the same hand is not, a contrast of the strong and weak mental states.

    I then ask, was Septimus’ suicide done in a moment of strength or weakness? Was he panicing or was he proud (and didn’t want himself to be taken as doctors hostage) ?

  2. daynaaasen7 says:

    Rosalee, your thoughts on mental illness in Mrs. Dalloway really stirred some new ideas for me! I previously had not thought of Clarissa and Septimus as symbols of Woolf’s own bipolar disorder and I found it to be a very interesting point. Seeing as both characters were revealed to us through streams of consciousness, it would make sense that Woolf would be able to write the thoughts of these two different people so easily because it could have been things she had experienced in her own life. I wonder if the parallel between Woolf’s own disorder and the characters of Clarissa and Septimus was done intentionally? Maybe Woolf thought she was creating these characters simply for the story, when in reality she was channelling her own inner struggles through these characters without realizing it. It is rather eerie that both Septimus and Woolf committed suicide. It’s almost as if Woolf provided us with foreshadow into her own life, if the symbolic resemblance of Clarissa and Sepitmus was intentional towards her own bipolar disorder.

  3. carlyferguson1 says:

    Great Post! I think its super interesting how you connected the two characters here to represent the mental issues that Woolf was suffering from. After reading it, i never made those two connections back to her personal life experiences. I found that through the use of Sepitmus, Wolfe was able to hit home better with the idea of depression through his ever lasting experiences from war. As we gain insight into both Clarissa and Septimus, readers are aware of the thoughts and experiences through these characters. However, i think it is key that Septimus and Clarissa never meet. It shows how mental issues are something that can so easily be hidden from the public, and for a good reason, as more often than not they are hard to understand and deal with from an outsiders perspective.

  4. teresastapor says:

    I want to say thank you for writing this post. It was something I wanted to look into further since all I knew about Virginia Woolf (before this class) was the fact that she filled her pockets with rocks and drown herself in a river by her house. As I was reading this novel, I found it almost haunting in her descriptions of people and suffering. She was very much sync with her struggles with bi-polar and depression and it showed in her work. I did notice, as you pointed out, her parallels between Mrs. Dalloway and Septimus but I also notice how she described people as a whole, “all those hurrying along the pavement this Wednesday morning are but bones.”. This line made me think, death, decay and the fragility of what we call our life. I got a sense that she saw the beauty in life, but it was outshone by her dark burden of depression.

  5. alexandramueller says:

    I really like this idea! I know that I was writing about another one of Woolf’s pieces in my post, “Professions for Women,” in which Woolf discusses “the Angel in the House” which is a personification of the idea of female repression. I think that it’s very logical for her to be personifying the two sides of her condition in a similar way in “Mrs. Dalloway.” I think she makes her strongest points when she uses these kinds of personifying metaphors.

  6. thetheresak says:

    Rosalee,

    Great post! We touched on it a bit during class, but after reading it for a second time I had more thoughts on it.

    While reading Mrs. Dalloway, I honestly didn’t take Woolf’s personal mental condition into consideration. But after reading your post, I was fancied by your idea that Clarissa and Septimus are the manifestations of the (opposite) moods of Woolf’s mental illness.  I find it to be an interesting interpretation. As different as the two of them are, as separated as they are, and as unknown they are to each other, Septimus and Clarissa are still similar – still connected. This is similar to bipolar disorder. The two moods are different, but are still maintained in the same person – still connected.

    My main question is if Septimus’s death is the end of  the odd manifested relationship of Septimus and Clarissa, did it symbolise something to Woolf? Was his downfall a demonstration of her failing struggle with bipolar disorder? This question, and the true answer that I wish I could know, makes me agree with Dayna’s comment. It does seem like Woolf foreshadowed her own downfall and issues with bipolar disorder.

    I felt like quickly googling to see if I could find an answer to my question, but didn’t find much more. Although, some website I found argued that the two characters double each other or that Septimus works as a doppelgänger to Clarissa. Maybe that could interact with your thought of bipolar disorder?

    Oh, and I did find a similar university student blog with a post on the two characters which anyone can check out here.

    Again, good job.

    Theresa

  7. Athena G. Csuti says:

    Excellent post! Interesting perspective. I knew Woolf suffered from mental illness but I didn’t know it was bipolar disorder (which was not an actual categorization when she was still alive, it was ‘manic-depression’ and not well understood). Now that you point it out I definitely see that dichotomy between Septimus and Clarissa but perhaps in a different way than what you describe.

    Both characters exhibit moments of high and low mood, and Septimus’s experiences are tied directly to a distinct illness, PTSD. I think that Septimus and Clarissa less represent the episodes or rapid cycling of bipolar disorder, and more the perspectives of mental illness in society. Septimus represents one ‘type’, his disorder is all consuming and he has lost touch with reality. He is unable to hide it, and people do not understand him nor want to. Clarissa, though she does not experience mental illness in the novel, represents the opposite type: the one who hides and internalizes their experience. She never lets anyone really know what is going on beneath the surface and is socially acceptable because of it. Clarissa denies herself the experience of working through her issues (in her case regret and remorse) and as a result her external interests and experiences are dulled. This could be symbolic of the other cliche extreme of mental illness, instead of being completely insane she represents someone who is heavily medicated and loses parts of their identity. Both are segregated from normal society, one by choice and one unintentionally.

    Woolf as someone who experienced mental illness surely must have struggled between dealing with her issues and still being a normal, functioning member of society. Septimus and Clarissa symbolize these two ideas. Septimus’s experience with PTSD in some ways is similar to bipolar disorder, but not enough for these two to be representative of that specific illness.

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