In Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, the character Septimus Smith plays an integral role in showing how the war changes people, even those who were not directly involved. Woolf utilizes Smith’s character in a way that seems like a juxtaposition to the other characters; however, upon closer inspection, it is realized that Septimus is not as different from the others in the novel as one might think. By creating a character with PTSD caused by WWI, Woolf creates an outlet for the other characters to express their disdain for the war as well as their difficulty with understanding what is actually happening. In this paper, I will explore the character of Septimus Smith and his relationships as well as how they are affected by his illness. I will also look at the impact of the war on the characters of the novel and how the internal struggles of Clarissa Dalloway are exemplified through Septimus Smith.
Mrs. Dalloway is set in London shortly after the end of World War I and the main storyline involves Clarissa Dalloway, who is planning a large party for later in the day. The party, however, is only what the novel leads up to; rather, the main plot is comprised of various accounts from different characters throughout the span of one day and how they are all connected through the war. Septimus Smith, a WWI veteran, is struggling with what was colloquially known then as shell shock, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) today. Many thought that since the war ended, so did all the suffering that went along with it. The evils of war could no longer cause any damage. The war, however, never seemed to end for some, especially from an internal perspective. In Septimus’s case, the trauma never ended. He lived his daily life in his own world, hearing and seeing things that others did not. It is I who am blocking the way, he thought. Was he not being looked at and pointed at; was he not weighted there, rooted to the pavement, for a purpose? But for what purpose? (Woolf 15). Here, Woolf describes what is going on inside Smith’s head and how his paranoia seems to overwhelm his senses, especially when in public. He also startles easily and has difficulty paying attention to others, especially if they were not talking about what he was fixating on in his mind. The war never ended for him: it seemed as though it had just begun.
Septimus’s wife, Lucrezia, however, seemed to be affected more by his condition in certain aspects. Septimus had fought; he was brave; he was not Septimus now (Woolf 22). Through this quote, it is evident that she felt as though she had lost her husband and that the man whom she shared a home with was no longer the same man she married. In this sense, the war also directly affected her. She may not have fought in WWI, but she witnessed the war that Septimus was at with himself every day. This was supposed to be a sort of peacetime for Septimus as well as the thousands of other soldiers returning home from war. The war was not supposed to follow them home and continue to wreak havoc. This was sadly the case, though, for many soldiers. Lucrezia continued to drift from her husband throughout the day, but at the end of the novel when Dr. Holmes is going to take Septimus away for treatment, she realizes that she does still love him and does not want him to go. Even if they took him, she said, she would go with him. They could not separate them against their wills (Woolf 144). Here, it is interesting to see how Lucrezia comes to the realization that she actually does not want to be separated from her husband because he is still the person she married, regardless of the trauma he is experiencing. Lucrezia repeats this message to her husband three different times within two pages, and I think Woolf’s choice to include this repetition is significant because she is attempting to show us that Lucrezia does still love her husband and she does want what is going to be best for him. She knows, though, that sending him away to work with Dr. Holmes is not a going to prove beneficial, but she realizes this too late. Septimus commits suicide and leaves his wife not only to mourn his physical death but also his mental and emotional death.
Lucrezia Smith was not the only person to be affected by Septimus in Mrs. Dalloway. Dr. Holmes, Dr. Bradshaw, and Richard and Clarissa Dalloway were all affected by his illness or his passing in some capacity. Dr. Holmes was Septimus’s general doctor turned psychologist who saw nothing wrong with how he was behaving when he returned from war. He thought that Septimus was simply working too hard and needed some time to rest. While this could definitely have affected his mental state, overworking himself was not causing his PTSD. Lucrezia did not listen to Dr. Holmes, though, and sought out Dr. Bradshaw, a psychiatrist recommended to her by Dr. Holmes. Dr. Bradshaw did see that Septimus was experiencing difficulty in adjusting back into daily life in London. Sir William said he never spoke of madness; he called it not having a sense of proportion (Woolf 94). Though Dr. Bradshaw was well respected and knowledgeable in his field, it is interesting that he would only claim to see that Septimus has difficulty compartmentalizing what is important in his daily life when it is evident that Septimus is experiencing larger and more pressing issues. Nonetheless, he does so recommend that Septimus go away to one of his homes so he can learn to relax and ease his mind. However, Septimus sees no value in this. In contrast to Septimus, who experiences the worst of the war, Richard Dalloway sees the war as a triumph for England and all those who were involved. He does not witness the war firsthand, only through hearing what is happening with Septimus’s mental state, yet still does not see the destructive nature of war. Unlike her husband, Clarissa understands what it feels like not to belong and to feel oppressed by society. She is not allowed to work and desperately desires more out of her life, similar to Septimus who desires a peaceful life since returning from war yet cannot seem to become untangled from his racing thoughts. Though not directly affected by his condition, Clarissa and Septimus share more in common than meets the eye.
Throughout the entirety of Mrs. Dalloway, each of the characters seem to be struggling with something in their lives. Both Dr. Holmes and Dr. Bradshaw are tasked with diagnosing Septimus with a condition that few had ever encountered. Richard Dalloway is unsure of how to express affection and love towards his wife. Clarissa Dalloway is seemingly stuck in an unhappy marriage. All of these relate to an issue stemming from moral consciousness. We all desire to belong somewhere and we all want to feel like we matter, whether that is in society or a specific smaller group. Septimus Smith struggles with this specifically because he feels as though he does not belong nor can he ever belong to society again. His wife believes he is sick beyond repair and worries about what others will think rather than about the wellbeing of her husband. Clarissa Dalloway, though, understands what he is going through. The two are actually very similar, and at many times throughout the novel, the story cuts from Clarissa to Septimus, or vice versa, when they are experiencing similar situations. For example, prior to Woolf mentioning Septimus’s meeting with Dr. Bradshaw, she mentions that Clarissa laid down her green dress on her bed. Though they are seemingly unrelated events, their underlying meaning proves otherwise. Clarissa Dalloway is a socialite: she is of upper class status and is expected to act accordingly. However, she would like to work and do something meaningful with her life. Her husband, however, does not seem enthused by the idea. Thus, she puts on nice dresses and acts the part of a model wife. When she gets to take the dresses off, though, it is like a wall coming down and her true, vulnerable self shows. Similarly, Septimus must be vulnerable and open with Dr. Bradshaw if he would like to receive treatment that could prove beneficial. At the end of the novel, Clarissa finds out that Septimus has killed himself at her party and reacts in an unexpected manner. She felt somehow very like him the young man who had killed himself. She felt glad that he had done it; thrown it away (Woolf 182). Here, it seems as though Clarissa is saying that she is glad that he killed himself, but I do not believe that is the case. By throwing it away I feel as though she means she threw away his pain and could finally be at peace. Clarissa is constantly confronted by her unhappiness and desire for more in life, but she can do little to change anything. In this instance, I feel as if she thinks that at least Septimus was able to end his suffering and exist in peace, something that seems unattainable for her. Through Septimus’s illness, Woolf exemplifies the issues of Clarissa Dalloway and how the two are more similar than one might think.
Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway chronicles one day in the life of many people in London who all are connected through their suffering. The character of Septimus Smith embodies the lasting trauma felt by the war as well as the feeling of isolation from others during and after the wartime. Woolf creates his character to show how all people can suffer in varying degrees after the war and how the war simply does not end once a piece of paper is signed: the lasting effects are felt for years to come. Each individual in this novel is fighting an internal battle with something, but most specifically, Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Smith struggle the most. The two characters are related in ways often missed upon first glance; however, upon closer inspection, both characters show how it does not matter what you look like or what your economic status is: you can still feel alone in the world.
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