Virginia Woolf’s 1925 novel Mrs Dalloway is one of the earliest showcases of the stream-of-consciousness technique. Woolf uses the technique to represent the interior of the human mind as it moves through a constellation of past, present, and future experience. It is also a novel about the decline of the British Empire, life in the machine age, and mental illness.
The last subject bears close ties with Woolf’s personal reality, and clear parallels can be drawn between the character Septimus Smith and the author’s own manic depression. It is also one of the themes that a comparison of Mrs Dalloway and The Hours pivots upon.
Woolf’s suspicion of the medical profession, and doctors who try to cure mental illness in particular, comes through the pages of her own diaries as well as the characterisation of Septimus Smith. In 1941, alarmed by signs of her illness returning, Leonard Woolf found his wife a doctor in Brighton, Octavia Wilberforce. Here is what Woolf wrote about Dr Wilberforce after their first meeting:
Monday March 24
She had a <face> nose like the Duke of Wellington & great horse teeth & cold prominent eyes. When we came in she was sitting perched on a 3 cornered chair with knitting in her hands. An arrow fastened her collar. And before 5 minutes had passed she told us that two of her sons had been killed in the war. This, one felt, was to her credit. She taught dressmaking. Everything in the room was red brown & glossy. Sitting there I tried to coin a few compliments. But they perished in the icy sea between us. And then there was nothing.
As we can see from the diary entry, Woolf was alienated from the person who was supposed to be providing her with emotional support. Septimus Smith holds a similar disdain for Dr Holmes, who gives him the following advice:
“Throw yourself into outside interests; take up some hobby. He opened Shakespeare — Antony and Cleopatra; pushed Shakespeare aside. Some hobby, said Dr. Holmes, for did he not owe his own excellent health (and he worked as hard as any man in London) to the fact that he could always switch off from his patients on to old furniture? And what a very pretty comb, if he might say so, Mrs. Warren Smith was wearing!
When the damned fool came again, Septimus refused to see him. Did he indeed? said Dr. Holmes, smiling agreeably. Really he had to give that charming little lady, Mrs. Smith, a friendly push before he could get past her into her husband’s bedroom.”
Dr Holmes in Mrs Dalloway is portrayed as pompous and ignorant, a caricature of the Victorian doctor who couldn’t distinguish psychological illnesses from a common cold. Dr Holmes advises Septimus to take more walks and take up a hobby.
Woolf’s personal experience is symptomatic of a more pervasive problem in the wider cultural context of Mrs Dalloway, namely, the lack of informed research into mental illness. Remember that in your essays for the comparative study of texts and contexts module, you need to consider how ‘social, cultural, and historical contexts influence the composer’s choice of language forms, features, and ideas’. So it is not enough to just point out that Virginia Woolf had a strained relationship with doctors, you have to place that in the context of a bigger social problem.
A band 6 response would emphasise the character Septimus as a representation of misunderstood mental illness patients at the time, and Dr Holmes as a representation of the presumptuousness of doctors, and ignorance of mental health in early twentieth century. Those two characters are part of the composer’s choice of forms and features in the text which she uses to express her attitude towards problems of her social, cultural, and historical context.
Comparing texts and context: connecting Mrs Dalloway and The Hours
The following diagram shows how contexts and texts link together in your essay.
Module A requires you to consider how context shapes the representation of similar issues in two different texts. How does the tension between doctors and patients surface in the other text? The isolation of the mentally ill is transferred into the character of Richard Brown in Stephen Daldry’s The Hours. (The character of Virginia Woolf is a more obvious example, but because we want to tease out the differences between the representation of similar issues, Richard Brown is a better example.)
Stephen Daldry’s Richard Brown, (Ed Harris) like Septimus, represents the isolated patient struggling to gain control over his life amidst people who presume to understand what he needs. But the character Richard also highlights a problem specific to Daldry’s late twentieth century context: the stigma of AIDS victims in the 1980s and 1990s. Because the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s broke out in the gay community, many who had little understanding of homosexuality linked the disease with being gay. As being gay at the time was thought by many to be an “immoral” lifestyle choice, people who contracted AIDS were thought to have inflicted the disease upon themselves by behaving immorally.
The boarded-up apartment Richard has retreated into clearly demonstrates his isolation, and his scepticism of doctors and the standard of mental and physical health held by mainstream society, (shared by Woolf and her character Septimus) is reflected in his refusal to take his medication, and to eat Clarissa’s breakfast.
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