Mental Disorders: Mrs Dalloway

Felman (1975) defines madness as essentially a phenomenon of thought, of thought which claims to denounce, in another’s thought, the Other of thought: that which thought is not. Being a phenomenon in which patients present abnormal behavioural patterns, Mrs Dalloway’s concern with insanity is reflected through certain characters’ attachment to suicide and melancholy. This paper will explore the author’s depiction of madness in the novel as well as the reception of this particular phenomenon by society.

Foucault identifies the degenerate with having “numerous kinds of mental and physical ills” (p131). Madness is seen in the parallel characters of Clarissa and Septimus who present an unhealthy attachment to the past in the novel. Both characters complement each other in their reflection of the past with an omnipresent feeling of nostalgia. The onset of madness reveals itself when the feeling of nostalgia transforms into that of melancholy wherein the person suffers from the extremes of emotion: “some weakly broke down; sobbed, submitted” (p86). Septimus clearly reflects the consequences of melancholia which are more suppressed in Clarissa. As a war veteran, the psychological trauma experienced by seeing and inflicting death is consequential. It is the non-resolution of this trauma which leads to bouts of hallucination, “his friend who was killed, Evans, had come” (p119), and to moments of disconnection with the real world, “some things were very beautiful; others sheer nonsense”. Madness becomes a state of progressive degradation where a patient, when suppressed in isolation, begins to present symptoms of a worsening condition.

The method of treatment of doctors is here criticised since they were “master[s] of [their] own actions, which the patient was not” (p86). Instead of providing adequate treatment to the depressed patient, the treatment method aims more at isolating the non-conforming and stopping them from threatening civilisation from within (Dollimore, 136). Madness, being the sign of degeneration, isolates the sufferer from society since “the degenerate organism has not the power to mount to the height of evolution…” (ibid).

Madness is the result of atavistic qualities which depict the “re-emergence of a primitive past within the civilised present” (Dollimore, 136). Through Septimus, this reversion to a past self which becomes self-destructive is reflected. Dollimore refers to the degeneration theory to explain the social death with “exhaustion, disintegration and even self-destruction”.  It is this non-integration of the differentiated which Nordeau equates civilisation with that threatens the society from within.

Commenting on Mrs Dalloway, Woolf qualifies her work as a study of the “world seen by the sane and the insane side by side”. The emergence of such atavism in moments of mental weakness which relegates Septimus to the status of insane. Rather than suffering from insanity, I believe it is the lack of understanding that society holds regarding Post Traumatic Stress Disorder suffered by war veterans. Insanity, becomes merely the result of misunderstandings and a fear of decay in the context of urbanisation. Madness is explored through the traumatic memories of Septimus when he gets flashbacks upon hearing the roaring of a motor car. The issue of sending young people to the war zone as an act of patriotism for the country and isolating them when they return afterwards without the adequate care is here criticized. As such, insanity becomes an indirect man-powered incentive which is done in this endeavour towards progress rather than being simply a disease.

Despite being the ‘degenerate’, it is possible that more about the real world has been seen through war experiences rather than by the ‘normal’ people who are much more concerned about mundane issues. The issue of madness and difference should be then considered since as co-existing. Septimus is not mad. He faces rather what Berthold-Bond(1994) qualifies as an “unhappy consciousness” which consists of “grief and longing” and where “inner division and estrangement” is felt.