Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway: PTSD and War Trauma
August 15th, 2022
Article by Ines Chargui
Photograph by Maya Heins
In the late 1920s, the Great War and its subsequent events were the cataclysmic upheavals that modernism, as a literary trend, featured to portray detached, alienated, and dysfunctional characters within a fragmented urban society. One of the most important modernist trends was the description of alienation and the sense of disillusionment felt by citizens of a rapidly changing and technologically advanced society, as well as the traumatic experiences caused by that. It is a literature of trauma par excellence, since it gave form and representation to different psychological conditions. Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway for instance, through the use of overlapping voices, puts in the foreground the psychological injuries suffered by victims of severe trauma, such as war, and its direct impact on soldiers. She depicts the story of Septimus Warren Smith, an ex-soldier who suffers from delayed shell shock caused by his time as a soldier, and follows his journey to work through and find meaning in his postwar life.
In Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf sheds light on the war trauma narrative and its “psychological damage [that] is aggravated by a culturally prescribed process of postwar reintegration that silences and marginalizes war veterans” whose experiences are epitomized in the character of Septimus Warren Smith, an ex-soldier who fought during World War I (DeMeester 649). Using the stream of consciousness technique, Woolf delves into the character’s thoughts to make the experiences more concrete and momentous. Suffering from delayed shell shock, Septimus’ suicide, signifies his failure to communicate his suffering and to fully recover, as his damaged psyche was not given any legitimacy and made septic by his culture and its treatment of postwar veterans.
From ‘irritable heart syndrome’ and ‘soldier’s heart’ that came to define the traumatic psychological injuries during the American Civil War, shell shock as a term, was invented during the first World War and “has served as a prism through which much of the cultural history of the 1914-18 war has been viewed” and “in some places became a metaphor for the nature of industrialized warfare, a term which suggests the corrosive force of the 1914-18 conflict tout court, and in peculiarly compelling ways” (Winter 7-8). Woolf’s modernist narrative delineates the damaged psyche of a trauma survivor and mirrors the fragmentation of consciousness and the disorder and confusion that a victim experiences in the wake of a traumatic event. Her use of the stream of consciousness technique covers the victim’s traumatized mind and his perception of time, as she intermingles between past, present, and future just like Septimus whose consciousness and memories are fragmented as he cannot relate to them chronologically and meaningfully. He suffers from delayed shell shock. His memories of the war were repressed for years, redirected and relegated to the unconscious for him to avoid displeasure. It is a psychic defense that happens in a situation of excessive stimuli that the subject cannot master and when his survival is threatened.
In his book Inhibitions, Symptoms, and Anxieties, Dr. Sigmund Freud explains how repression occurs in the mind of a trauma survivor. “In the experiences which led to a traumatic neurosis the protective shield against stimuli is broken through and excessive amounts of excitation impinge on the mental apparatus” (130). However, Jean Laplanche, a French psychoanalyst, calls this breaching of consciousness the “disqualification of normal defenses and a triggering of a virtually atopical kind of reaction on the part of the ego”. So in a traumatic repression, the victim does not remember the original event which caused that trauma as the memory of the event is redirected, and its impact is deferred due to the disassociation of the experience. The first event needs to be triggered by another event for trauma to be experienced. In the case of Septimus, “his traumatic war experiences shattered the cohesion of his consciousness and left it fragmented” (DeMeester 653), and the experiences he went through during the war were only triggered four years later, after the signing of the Armistice which ended hostilities between Germany and the Allies. The crime that Septimus pleaded guilty to and that left him traumatized, is killing and, particularly, the killing with indifference that he witnessed and also participated in, as “the war had taught him. It was sublime. He had gone through the whole show, friendship, European War, death, had won promotion, was still under thirty and was bound to survive. He was right there. The last shells missed him. He watched them explode with indifference” (Woolf 64), even though the people around him, mainly his wife and doctors, claim that he did not do anything wrong or beyond the war requirements and that he served with great distinction for his country. Moreover, the delayed shell shock that Septimus suffers from is due to a shattered sense of identity and his inability to integrate his identity as a veteran into his pre and postwar civilian identities. As Erik Erikson, a German-American psychologist, asserts, war damages the soldier’s ego identity, which is “[a] sense of identity [that] produces the ability to experience oneself as something that has continuity and sameness”; and thus, the soldiers’ lives “no longer hung together and never would again” (qtd. in DeMeester 656). After the war, Septimus became a changed man who no longer shares his pre-war beliefs and values, as he is marked with disillusionment and confusion. Even art and literature had no meaning or value for him. His postwar identity reinterpreted them in light of what he experienced while fighting for his country:
Here he opened Shakespeare once more. That boy’s business of the intoxication of language—Anthony and Cleopatra—had shriveled utterly. How Shakespeare loathed humanity—the putting on of clothes, the getting of children, the sordidity of the mouth and the belly! This was now revealed to Septimus; the message hidden in the beauty of words. The secret signal which one generation passes, under disguise, to the next is loathing, hatred, despair. Dante the same. Aeschylus (translated) the same. (Woolf 66)
Therefore, his participation in the war invalidated everything he believed in before he witnessed the atrocities and the level of destruction and evil that civilization is capable of. War should not be praised nor glamorized, as it affects humanity on direct and indirect levels. This point is illustrated with Wilfred Owen’s poem “Dulce et Decorum Est” in which he dispels the glamorized view of the war, stating:
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the forth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
Witnessing and experiencing the horror described by Owen in his poem, who also participated in World War I, Septimus could not find meaning in his war experiences and suffering. It is the realization that the suffering is meaningless, that is so unbearable for the sufferer. His traumatic repression is also characterized by his inability to feel pain. In fact, his sensual and emotional paralysis illustrates the numbing effect so characteristic of traumatic injury and the obstruction of grief that contemporary psychologists recognize in their war-veteran clients. He believes that “his brain was perfect; it must be the fault of the world then—that he could not feel. [...] it might be possible that the world itself is without meaning” (Woolf 65). This emotional numbing that Septimus suffers from is another symptom of PTSD, and it refers to a “diminished responsiveness to the external world” (qtd. in Schuman 58). Symptoms of emotional numbing typically involve markedly diminished interest in significant activities, feelings of detachment or estrangement, and restricted range of effect (Schuman 58). Septimus epitomizes these symptoms as Woolf uses the repetition technique to highlight the fact that “he could not feel” whether when his friend Evans was killed and he “far from showing any emotion or recognizing that here was the end of a friendship, congratulated himself upon feeling very little and very reasonably” or when he got engaged to Rezia (Woolf 64). “He could reason, he could read”, he just lost his emotional abilities (Ibid 65).
Furthermore, one can argue that, in remembering trauma, Septimus is an example of working-through. Unfortunately, he did not succeed in doing that and ended up committing suicide, for that his personal attempts to recover were met by opposition and neglect. According to Dominick LaCapra, there is a distinction between acting-out and working-through. Acting-out is the tendency to repeat something compulsively as victims of trauma have a tendency to relive the past, to exist in the present as if they were still fully in the past, with no distance from it. Working-through, on the other hand, is a kind of countervailing force. In this process, “the person tries to gain critical distance on a problem, to be able to distinguish between past, present and future. [...] it’s via the working-through that one acquires the possibility of being an ethical agent” (2-3). In Mrs Dalloway, the role of the ethical agent is illustrated in Septimus’ reconstitutive act and his awareness that communication will pave the way towards his healing from his trauma. Therefore, it will validate and give meaning to what he experienced, for he mutters, “communication is health; communication is happiness” (Woolf 69). War made him an “eternal sufferer”, “a scapegoat”, bound to “eternal loneliness” (Woolf 19):
He was deserted. The whole world was clamouring: Kill yourself, kill yourself, for our sakes. But why should he kill himself for their sakes? Food was pleasant; the sun hot; and his this killing oneself, how does one set about it, with a table knife, uglily, with floods of blood – by sucking a gaspipe? He was too weak; he could scarcely raise his hand. Besides, now that he was quite alone, condemned, deserted, as those who are about to die are alone, there was a luxury in it, an isolation full of sublimity; a freedom which the attached can never know. (68-9)
Despite the voices in his head telling him to kill himself, Septimus wanted to tell his story and to instigate social change and prevent the enactment of similar horrors in the future by sharing the truth and reality of war with those who can actually accomplish such change, politicians:
Septimus, was alone, called forth in advance of the mass of men to hear the truth, to learn the meaning, which now at last, after all the toils of civilization—Greeks, Romans, Shakespeare, Darwin, and now himself—was to be given whole to... . “To whom?” he asked aloud. “To the Prime Minister,” the voices which rustled above his head replied. The supreme secret must be told to the Cabinet; first that trees are alive; next there is no crime; next love, universal love, he muttered, gasping, trembling, painfully drawing out these profound truths which needed, so deep were they, so difficult, an immense effort to speak out, but the world was entirely changed by them for ever. (Woolf 51)
His attempts to work through his trauma, and thus be open about his soldier experiences, were met by resistance from his community because his testimony would jeopardize the community’s social equilibrium and order by challenging its fundamental cultural and ideological assumptions. This conflict between the war veteran and his community is reflected in the relationship between Septimus and his doctors, Dr. Holmes and Sir William Bradshaw. Rather than helping him recover from his own trauma, the doctors pushed him to deny and repress his postwar identity as well as the knowledge obtained during the war. They embody society’s attempt “to appropriate the trauma and codify it in its own terms” (qtd. in DeMeester 661) as they encourage him to accept the socially prescribed notion of warfare. Dr. Holmes’ advice, for instance, is to make him “take an interest in things outside himself” (16) and “notice real things, go to a music hall, play cricket—that was the very game, [...] a nice out-of-door game, the very
game for [him]” (19). As for Sir Bradshaw, he suggests conversion therapy and for Septimus to be isolated in one of those houses. In doing that, Bradshaw further alienates victims of trauma by secluding and hiding them away from others to see or encounter because they did not want to see or hear reminders of the war or its ultimate reality. The methods the doctors used to ‘cure’ Septimus were futile, as they only disrupted his process of working-through and therefore achieving full recovery. They robbed him of the opportunity to find meaning in life and further validated a social, cultural and political system that put aside and delegitimize veterans’ psychological injuries due to the war. This resulted in Septimus’ suicide, which constituted his refusal to conform and repress his experiences. As Clarissa contemplates after hearing about Septimus’ suicide:
Death was defiance. Death was an attempt to communicate, people feeling the impossibility of reaching the centre which, mystically, evaded them; closeness drew apart; rapture faded; one was alone. There was an embrace in death. (134)
In Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf drew attention to the returning soldiers and their postwar identities as she highlighted the effects of trauma. Following the story of Septimus Smith who suffers from shell shock due to his participation in World War I, Woolf portrayed the fragmented consciousness of a trauma victim and “the deep depression which the sufferer believes is only to be resolved by suicide” (Thomson 56). She also criticizes the social and political system that dismisses soldiers’ war experiences rather than offering them a safe space to recover from and overcome the horror they witnessed, illustrated in the doctors’ treatment of Septimus. Therefore, society is accused of pushing veterans to further repress their memories, as they disrupt their process of working-through their traumas.
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