Study Guide

Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf in Disability Studies

Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf

Hey! We're no longer in the realm of horror! So, okay, Mrs. Dalloway isn't gothic, but it sure isn't your straightforward, run-of-the-mill story. Mrs. Dalloway is straight-up, no-holds-barred stream-of-consciousness writing.

Mrs. Dalloway, in other words, isn't messing around.

And this rigorous stream-of-consciousness style combines with a storyline that makes it irresistible to disability studies folks for a number of reasons. First, it's one of the first modern novels to deal deeply and seriously with "shell shock," or what we would now call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

And alongside that are storylines that deal with both physical illness—such as heart disease severe enough to become terminal—and other mental illnesses (in the 1920s, when Mrs. Dalloway was written, these disorders were known by such names as "hysteria" and "neurasthenia," but we would today likely classify them as bipolar, mood, and anxiety disorders).

Mrs. Dalloway consists of two parallel storylines: that of the title character, Clarissa Dalloway, and her unlikely counterpart, Septimus Warren Smith.

The two characters never meet and their life experiences couldn't be more divergent. Clarissa is a well-bred, upper-class woman approaching her golden years. She has lived a life of comfort and esteem.

Septimus is a working-class bloke and a young veteran of that terrible war, WWI. He has endured the deprivations of poverty and has had to struggle to attain an education and a career.

But here's where it gets interesting: despite being polar opposites in class, gender, and life experiences as a whole, both Clarissa and Septimus know what it is to suffer in body and mind. Clarissa is recovering from a mysterious ailment that may be heart disease but may also be psychiatric in nature (the text is never clear, so we are left to wonder how real the separation of body and mind that we seem to take for granted actually is).

Septimus, likewise, is even more tortured. Suffering from "shell shock" (PTSD) brought on by his experiences in the war, Septimus hallucinates, he has delusions of grandeur, he experiences abject terror at threats that are not there, and he has, as a result, become completely incapacitated. The "promising career" that he had begun to forge before the war is now obliterated. He sits and talks to ghosts from the battlefield while his beautiful bride waits and watches for his recovery.

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