Mrs. Dalloway: a Study of Suicide in the Virginia Woolf Novel

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“Holmes was coming upstairs. Holmes would burst open the door… So that was Dr. Holmes.” (Woolf 149-151)

This passage from Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway portrays the view of mental illnesses at the time of Woolf’s life. The character of Dr. Holmes is used to show Woolf’s negative opinion of so-called professionals and the ineffective practices used to treat mental illnesses. In this passage, Woolf uses repetition of terms, little plot build-up, and changing perspectives to help illustrate her meaning.

“Holmes would… Holmes would…Holmes would” (149). The repetition of this term shows Woolf’s opinion of psychiatrists in her time. Psychiatrists would simply take those who demonstrated symptoms of shell-shock, or post-traumatic stress disorder, and other mental illnesses, and apply their own methods of “healing” them, often by disregarding the actual problem and just sending them away to rest. Mrs. Dalloway is set just after World War I, and many veterans returning suffered from shell-shock. The doctors did not want to help their patients; they wanted instead to force the suffering people to be locked away in homes away from people. Septimus’s doctors act in this way. Holmes marches up the to take Septimus away from Lucrezia. “Holmes was coming upstairs. Holmes would burst open the door” (149). The repetition of “Holmes would” helps to show Septimus’s, and by extension, Virginia Woolf’s, opinion on psychiatrists. Holmes is seen negatively to readers through Septimus’s eyes. By using the term “Holmes would”, Woolf is showing Holmes as the villain. He is a powerful man that will do as he pleases with Septimus’s life. Holmes will not consider what Septimus wants, because Septimus is not, in Holmes’s mind, in proportion with the rest of society. “Holmes would” shows power, but power in a negative way. By repeating the term over and over again, readers know that Holmes is not meant to be seen positively. Woolf uses the repetition to establish her negative view of psychiatrists, as they did not try to help patients, they simply locked them away from society.

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Septimus’s suicide is rather unexpected. Woolf does not provide any major revelation or breakthrough in Septimus that leads to his death. When he starts deciding how he’ll do it, readers may not even pick up on what he plans to do. The first thought of suicide in the passage is Septimus thinking of “Mrs. Filmer’s nice clean bread knife” (149), but deciding against it. The passage is not clear of what he is deciding against at this point. His thoughts continue through his possible methods of suicide: “The gas fire…Razors…There only remained the window” (149). At this point, readers are more aware of what will happen, but the lack of contemplation from Septimus may be confusing. For many, it is hard to see Septimus committing suicide at this point because things were great in his life just minutes prior to his jump. He even realizes that “he did not want to die. Life was good” (149). This sudden suicide is used to shock readers. Woolf uses Septimus’s suicide to shock readers into realization of mental illness. Septimus’s decision on what method of suicide does not help readers understand what is happening until it is too late – too late for the readers, Holmes, and Septimus. Septimus “flung himself vigorously, violently down on to Mrs. Filmer’s area railings” (149), ending his life. Nothing major happens before Septimus’s death. It’s suddenness is used to show how strong and unpredictable mental illnesses could be, as Virginia Woolf experienced her episodes. Woolf was able to sense when an episode of depression was approaching, and many times, there was very little to trigger one. Woolf uses her own experiences to write Septimus’s character, and her use of text in this passage shows the sudden nature of mental illness and suicide.

Mrs. Dalloway is famous for the unique style in which it is written. Woolf creates tunnels between her characters and jumps from mind to mind. This passage is told through the minds of Septimus, Lucrezia, and Mrs. Filmer. The reader begins with Septimus as he decides his method of suicide. The story is then seen filtered through the minds of Lucrezia, followed by Mrs. Filmer. After Septimus’s death, Lucrezia is in shock. She does not fully see what has happened, and she does not react how someone would act upon seeing his or her husband’s death – she even smiles as she says, “He is dead” (150). Her thoughts are cloudy and run together. As she falls asleep, the story jumps to the mind of Mrs. Filmer. From Mrs. Filmer, readers see the story from an outside character that disagreed with Holmes’s practices just by how he handles Lucrezia. Mrs. Filmer believes that “married people ought to be together” (151), and Lucrezia should be with Septimus, but, instead of helping Lucrezia, Mrs. Filmer “must do as the doctor said” (151). In this way, Holmes is again seen as the villain, and now he is seen in this way by an outside character with no prior opinion of the man. By jumping around in the minds of different characters, Woolf shows the different inter-workings of the human mind. Each character has a different reaction to Septimus’s death, and each Woolf shows readers the possible reactions by getting inside their minds.

Septimus’s suicide scene is repetitive, sudden, and uses Woolf’s writing style that shows the thoughts of many. By doing this, Woolf creates a scene that is more than just a suicide – it is an important view of Woolf’s own mental state. Woolf’s depression is shown through the mental state of Septimus Smith.

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