Diagnosing Septimus Smith in Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway
Length: 1424 words (4.1 double-spaced pages)
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Virginia Woolf’s novel, Mrs. Dalloway, features a severely mentally ill man named Septimus Smith. Throughout the novel the reader glimpses moments of Septimus’s dementia and how his poor frazzled wife, Rezia, deals with him. Septimus, who has returned from the war and met Rezia in Italy on his discharge, has a seriously skewed version of reality. He has been through traumatic events during the war, including the death of his commanding officer and friend, Evans. Upon his return to England he suffers from hallucinations, he hears voices (especially Evans’), and he believes that the trees have a special message to convey to him. Rezia attempts to get Septimus help by taking him to several doctors. Ultimately Septimus commits suicide rather than let the doctors get to him.
Based on the textual evidence it seems that Septimus Smith is afflicted with schizophrenia. According to the American Medical Association schizophrenia is characterized by apparently disconnected remarks; blank looks; sudden statements that seem to spring to the speaker’s mind; hearing voices (often hostile); having hallucinations; having odd physical sensations; creating fantasy worlds; and exaggerated feelings of happiness, bewilderment, or despair. Another symptom of schizophrenia can be becoming devoid of emotion to the point that it is impossible to connect emotionally with the individual. Some schizophrenics also develop what is called paranoid schizophrenia. Symptoms of this type of schizophrenia include constant suspicion and resentment, accompanied by fear that people are hostile or even plotting to destroy him or her. (Kunz 295-296)
Virginia Woolf’s first description of Septimus Smith immediately gives the reader the sense that Septimus is not mentally well. “Septimus Warren Smith, aged about thirty, pale-faced, beak-nosed, wearing brown shoes and a shabby overcoat, with hazel eyes which had that look of apprehension in them which makes complete strangers apprehensive too. The world has raised its whip; where will it descend?” (Woolf 14) The final sentence in this passage adds significance to the description of Septimus’s apprehensive look. Septimus is completely convinced that the world is ultimate evil and that it is out to get him. This is a prime example of fearing that people are hostile and plotting to destroy him which is a symptom of paranoid schizophrenia.
An example of Septimus having exaggerated feelings of bewilderment and despair comes on page 15.
“And there the motor car stood, with drawn blinds, and upon them a curious pattern like a tree, Septimus thought, and this gradual drawing together of everything to one centre before his eyes, as if some horror had come almost to the surface and was about to burst into flames, terrified him. The world wavered and quivered and threatened to burst into flames. 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) In this section we see that Septimus is unreasonably terrified of seeing the car with the notable personage in it. He also seems to think that the car has stopped because of him and that everyone is looking at him rather than at the personage in the car. He has this paranoid delusion that everything is happening because of him but he doesn’t seem to know exactly why.
Septimus experiences a moment when he believes that some entity is trying to communicate with him through a plane which is skywriting an advertisement for toffee. “So, thought Septimus, looking up, they are signaling to me. not indeed in actual words; that is, he could not read the language yet; but it was plain enough, this beauty, this exquisite beauty, and tears filled his eyes as he looked at the smoke words languishing and melting in the sky and bestowing upon him in their inexhaustible charity and laughing goodness one shape after another of unimaginable beauty and signaling their intention to provide him, for nothing, for ever, for looking merely, with beauty, more beauty! Tears ran down his cheeks.” (Woolf 21-22) A psychiatrist would say that Septimus had created a fantasy world, the inhabitants of which were trying to contact him. He is also experiencing a moment of exaggerated happiness. For reasons known only to Septimus the letters being written by the plane are a beautiful gift given to him by some unknown creatures, a gift just for him and this moves him to tears.
We get more insight into Septimus’s condition when Rezia begins to think about it on page 66. “He (Evans) had seemed a nice quiet man; a great friend of Septimus’s, and he had been killed in the War. But such things happen to every one. Every one has friends who were killed in the War… But Septimus let himself think about horrible things, as she could too, if she tried. He had grown stranger and stranger. He said people were talking behind the bedroom walls…He saw things too – he had seen an old woman’s head in the middle of a fern. Yet he could be happy when he chose. They went to Hampton Court on top of a bus, and they were perfectly happy. All the little red and yellow flowers were out on the grass, like floating lamps he said, and talked and chattered and laughed, making up stories. Suddenly he said, “Now we will kill ourselves”, when they were standing by the river…” (Woolf 66) We can gather from Rezia’s account of Septimus’s behavior that Septimus had at one point, before the War, been a normal enough man. After the War and the death of his friend, Evans, he became very strange and began to hear voices and see faces everywhere. He even began to think of killing himself.
Septimus comes to the conclusion that he has been set free and given three truths that he must share with the Cabinet. “…he 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 67). Septimus is once again hearing voices and hallucinating that he has the secrets which will save humanity and change the world.
There are many similarities between Septimus Smith’s mental illness and the real-life mental illness of Virginia Woolf. The most serious of these similarities is that both Virginia and Septimus eventually committed suicide. Another startling similarity is that Virginia once attempted to commit suicide in the manner that Septimus actually succeeds, which is throwing himself out of a window. Virginia also experienced moments were she saw and heard the dead much like Septimus Smith does, and she also exhibits exaggerated feelings of happiness much like Septimus does when he sees the skywriting as is indicated in a diary entry. “PS I've had some very curious visions in this room too, lying in bed, mad, and seeing the sunlight quivering like gold water, on the wall. I've heard the voices of the dead here. And felt, through it all, exquisitely happy.” (Ingram par. 2)
Though it would be dangerous to read the entire novel, Mrs. Dalloway, as an autobiography there are certainly some portions which seem to be strongly influenced by Woolf’s actual experiences. This seems most especially true of the subject of mental illness and suicide. Reflections of Woolf’s own suffering can be seen quite clearly in the mental anguish of the character Septimus Smith which she creates in Mrs. Dalloway.
Ingram, Malcolm. Beneath A Rougher Sea. http://www.malcolmingram.com/vwframe.htm.
Kunz, Jeffrey R.M. The American Medical Association: Family Medical Guide. New York, New York: Random House, 1982.
Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. New York, New York: Harcourt, Inc, 1953.