Bipolarity in Woolf’s ‘Mrs. Dalloway’

“I feel certain I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. [..]” (Virginia Woolf, 1941)

With these sad, but intense words, written on a ticket, Virginia Woolf, a British writer, essayist and activist, gives her last farewell to her husband Leonard, just before leaving home, to arrive along the river where, shortly after, she would have let herself drown. Today we would have probably defined Woolf’s psychological disorder as a bipolar disorder and, a the end of her life, it seems there were also symptoms of psychosis. A remarkable literary propensity, an acute intelligence, an extraordinary sensitivity and the suffering derived from her being in the world made Virginia Woolf what she was and what she left us.

Virginia Woolf at Monk’s house

Among the whole production of the beloved English writer, the novel Mrs. Dalloway, published in 1925, is the one that deals with the theme of mental illness in the most direct and effective way. Woolf’s mental health influenced, at least from a structural point of view, the the novel’s ‘bipolar’ structure, which sees, in fact, the intertwining sensations, memories, points of view, perceptions and desperations of two characters, in particular, Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Warren Smith, his double and opposite ideal. Woolf herself, in the introduction to the novel written in 1928, was explicit in saying that Septimus was to be interpreted as Clarissa’s double. In the development of the Septimus character, Woolf drew on him, her own personal experience: the realism of this character, his almost tangible madness, is not the result of a fine narrative mimicry but a profound process of reminiscence and analysis of a disease that cyclically overwhelmed the life of the author. “Her own experiences of excitement and depression are woven into the book, giving authenticity particularly to the portrayal of the ex-soldier and his states of mind.” (Jean Thomson, 2004) The condition of Septimus on that day of June 1923, which will lead him to kill himself in the evening, is presented in the text as the result of a journey that began some time before, during the Great War. Septimus, like Woolf herself, is part of a cultural context that works strongly on the individual, forcing by community into well-defined forms, regulating life choices and feelings, eliminating those who do not conform and thus making even more pressure, that in this particular case brings him the protagonist to death.

From the early adolescence, the author suffered from manic-depressive crises, often coinciding with moments of stress. On two occasions, in 1904 and 1913, she attempted suicide. The first time by jumping out of a window, the second by ingesting an overdose of sleeping pill – the Veronal – which reduced her to a comatose state for a week. Following this last episode, she was locked into specialist clinics and kept in care for months. The therapies to which she has been subjected to are, in the perspective of today’s scholar and reader, comparable to real torture, especially considering the author’s personality. Woolf was forced to rest, without being able to read or write, transferred to Richmond against her will. Over the course of her life, Woolf was treated by many doctors, but without satisfactory results. The writer attributed these failures to their inability to listen to patients, both for a social issue that led them to diminish and marginalize psychiatric disorders, and for the actual lack of knowledge on the subject.

In the novel, these experiences and the denunciation of their ineffectiveness find an adequate representation in the two doctors who deal with the Septimus case, Dr. Holmes and Sir Bradshaw. In this merciless portrait, which presents them as judges in front of a defendant, where the ‘fault’ of the patient is to fall entirely on him, deemed inadequate to take the reins of their physical and mental health in their hands, as lazy or unable to find an adequate relief valve. “The book is not about how to treat states of mind. The doctors play their parts as unaware of the whole picture as the patient.” (Jean Thomson, 2004). Virginia Woolf maintained, over the years, a very critical attitude towards doctors who treated her and in general towards a health system that preferred to imprison those who do not understand rather than listen to their discomfort, using Mrs. Dalloway as a manifesto of mental health awareness.

Nicole Kidman playing Virginia Woolf in the movie ‘The Hours’

In reference to this, I would highly recommend watching Stephen Daldry’s ‘The Hours’, where the biographical story of a wonderful Virginia Woolf, played by the Oscar-winning Nicole Kidman, is combined by a modern version of Mrs. Dalloway, where Meryl Streep plays the part of Clarissa.

Published by Luigi Rapisarda

Luigi Rapisarda graduated in Communication Studies at the University of Turin. He is currently doing a master's degree in Comparative Literature. He did his Erasmus in Glasgow where he studied English literature, history of art, film and tv studies.