• The Polyphony Team

"This is madness": The Liminal Space Between Sanity and Insanity in Virginia Woolf’s 'Mrs Dalloway'

by Hana Jafar

Polyphony, Volume 1, Issue 1

First Published March 2019, Manchester


Abstract

This essay is a focussed close reading on the question of how Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs Dalloway dismantles and calls into question dogmatic and illiberal distinctions between the ‘mad’ and the ‘insane’. Rather than just stating that these terms and notions are socially and discursively constructed, I show in detail how the distinctive form and narrative technique of Mrs Dalloway focuses readers’ attention on the complex self-consciousness of the novel’s protagonists, and on the multifaceted, uncertain nature of the self in ways that complicate prevailing ideas of what it means to be sane, rational, and self-aware. Wider implications of this reading of Mrs Dalloway throws light on the importance of appreciating nuance, and the complicated nature of storytelling within narrative psychology and psychiatry, which can have a profound impact on future research into perceptions, diagnosis, and treatment of various mental illnesses and psychiatric conditions.



This essay is a focussed close reading on the question of how Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs Dalloway dismantles and calls into question dogmatic and illiberal distinctions between the ‘mad’ and the ‘insane’. Rather than just stating that these terms and notions are socially and discursively constructed, I show in detail how the distinctive form and narrative technique of Mrs Dalloway focuses readers’ attention on the complex self-consciousness of the novel’s protagonists, and on the multifaceted, uncertain nature of the self in ways that complicate prevailing ideas of what it means to be sane, rational, and self-aware. Wider implications of this reading of Mrs Dalloway throws light on the importance of appreciating nuance, and the complicated nature of storytelling within narrative psychology and psychiatry, which can have a profound impact on future research into perceptions, diagnosis, and treatment of various mental illnesses and psychiatric conditions.

Since the advent of modern psychiatry, the term ‘insanity’ has become obsolete from medical literature, but is still used in the courtroom to determine an individual’s culpability. According to Louis Sass in his book Madness and Modernism, this is because ‘madness’, often conflated with ‘insanity’, has historically been conceptualised as irrationality and a lack of introspective self awareness. (See note 1) Sass focuses on Schizophrenia, a psychosis within which an individual is prone to what Dr. Thomas Claye Shaw called ‘delusions or false ideas’. In his famous lecture to graduate medical students, ‘On the Mental Processes of Sanity and Insanity’, Shaw pointed to the paradoxical nature of the term, and the subsequent difficulty in defining it. (See note 2) Allen Thiher has argued that this difficulty lies in the fact that psychiatry has no universal theoretical model, and is subject to historical determinations of language, which are beyond human control. (See note 3)

Language transcends the limits of perspective, and plays an important role in defining insanity in Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs Dalloway. (See note 4) Woolf has long been known for her distinct narrative style and intense focus on the inner worlds of her characters. I will be using Sass’ understanding of madness as Psychosis, Shaw’s discussion of the paradoxical nature of insanity, and Thiher’s theories of selfhood and consciousness to argue that, in Mrs Dalloway, Woolf utilises focalisation, thought representation, and characterisation to blur the distinction between characters and behaviours that are explicitly, or otherwise, ‘insane’, and those that are more socially acceptable and ‘sane’.


Emil Kraepelin, prominently known as ‘the father of modern scientific psychiatry’, described insanity and madness as ‘an inner world’ (Thiher, p. 228). Interpreting this inner world, then, is a subjective experience for an observer. Virginia Woolf’s use of free indirect discourse might allow readers insight into the thoughts and feelings of her characters, yet the question of whether characters have insight into their own behaviour, a marker of ‘sanity’, is more elusive. Insight is conventionally defined in psychiatry as ‘a correct attitude to morbid change in oneself’ and agreeing with this definition implies agreement that schizophrenics, or the ‘insane’, lack true insight (Sass, P. 351). In some ways, Woolf’s characters Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Smith do lack insight. They are paranoid, afraid, and in denial that their preoccupations and delusions are far from reality. Septimus insists he has a ‘perfect’ brain despite seeing visions of Evans, his dead friend (p. 77). Clarissa is constantly preoccupied with ageing, dying, and whether people are trying to hurt or embarrass her. She is impulsive, often behaving ‘emotionally, histrionically’ (p. 43).

Vivid descriptions of her as she ‘sliced like a knife through everything; at the same time was outside, looking on’ suggests a simultaneous sense of interiority and exteriority, much like a narrative that shifts between the narrator’s perspective, and that of her characters (p. 5-6). Readers do not know who is speaking here: Woolf, acutely aware of her characters’ inner states, in spite of their ignorance; or Clarissa, being voiced through Woolf. Being ‘outside, looking on’ suggests a sense of dissociation between the mind and body. This dissociation is characteristic of what Sass terms ‘Dehumanisation’ or ‘Disappearance of the Active self’, and is not uncommon in descriptions of individuals suffering from a mental illness (Sass, p. 31). Comparing Clarissa to a ‘knife’, a sharp tool capable of splitting and fragmenting things that are whole, with relative ease, conveys an uncomfortable sense of unpredictable danger. Not specifying what constitutes the absolute ‘everything’ heightens this sense of danger, and brings into question whether the narrative really is providing insight to readers, let alone indicating whether it is possessed by the dangerous, unpredictable, and potentially ‘insane’ characters within.

Although chronic dissociation is characteristic of psychosis, Woolf shows that it can also be a tool that allows for a form of self reflexivity that is external to introspection. Much scholarly work on madness and insanity points to a lack of rationality and reason as an underpinning symptom, due to which the mad often believe that their delusions are real. Septimus considers this in thoughts that Woolf makes readers privy to, as he reflects on his state of mind. ‘He could reason; he could read. He could add up his bill; his brain was perfect; it must be the fault of the world then - that he could not feel’ (p. 77). Here, Septimus acknowledges that reason is an important element of sanity, suggesting some level of insight into the perception of those that are considered insane. However, he sees sanity purely as cognitive ability. A sense of uncertainty is felt as he reaches his conclusion, that it ‘must be’ the world’s fault. How sure is he, of his absolute assertion? The vague and nonspecific nature of the ‘it’ followed by the reason, almost as an afterthought, entertains the possibility that he may be lashing out, unsure of why he is distressed.

Septimus is, in a sense, correct in blaming ‘the world’. It is revealed to readers that Septimus has witnessed his friend Evans being killed in the war, and possibly has what was referred to as ‘shellshock’, and would be referred to today as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a product of world events, external to himself, and out of his control. Sass asks if madness might derive from ‘a heightening rather than a dimming of conscious awareness, and an alienation not from reason but from the emotions, instincts, and the body?’ (Sass, p. 4) Septimus’ inability to feel, his ‘alienation’ from his emotions, gives him a uniquely distanced perspective, a ‘heightening’ of conscious awareness. This brings into conflict the ideas that the ‘mad’ lack reason, insight, and awareness, considering that characters considered insane are exercising these very traits, albeit in ways that are unacceptable to society.

Sass argues that the ‘enshrining of reason’ can ‘splinter the unity and authenticity of the human being’, and that madness should not be perceived in terms of reason and rationality (Sass, p. 4). If we consider the idea that human beings have an ‘authentic’ sense of selfhood, then we risk forgetting that, like many of Woolf’s characters, human beings are multifaceted. Woolf’s characters are portrayed as having facets that often come into conflict with one another. In the opening of the novel, the narrator describes how Clarissa ‘had the oddest sense of being herself invisible; unseen; unknown. This being Mrs Dalloway; not even Clarissa any more; this being Mrs Richard Dalloway,’ (p. 8), setting a precedent for the viewing of characters, not as single beings, but parts of themselves. ‘Mrs Dalloway’ is described as having ‘charming manners’ and complying with rules of society - being a good hostess (p. 157). This, I would argue, is represented as the ‘sane’ part of her, visible to other characters who perhaps do not perceive her as delusional.


References to ‘Clarissa’ seem to appear more often when she acts ‘with a sudden impulse, with a violent anguish’ (p. 111). These are only a few examples in a pattern that one can identify with close reading, but Woolf herself, through Clarissa’s focalised lens, presents readers with the paradox that when her character is perceived as ‘Mrs Dalloway’, she becomes ‘invisible; unseen’. It can be argued that this means it is not possible to view only her ‘sane’ self, and that she does not identify with this part of herself, as it does not really exist, except in the minds of other characters. Despite tensions between the two parts of herself, and feeling ‘unknown’, Woolf also describes Clarissa looking in the mirror and seeing an image of herself as ‘pointed; dartlike; definite’ (p. 31). Is Clarissa/Mrs Dalloway the only character that can truly know who, or what, she is? There is a tension, then, between being able to put one’s finger on a character and label them as one ‘definite’ thing, and the idea that insanity, as Thiher argues, like any psychiatric concept, is subject to ‘language games’ and shifting definitions of the self (Thiher, p. 234).


When thinking, then, about how other characters perceive insanity, ‘language games’ become all the more relevant. A prominent example of this is Sir Walter’s refusal to use the term ‘madness’, and instead ‘called it not having a sense of proportion’ (p. 85). Woolf’s use of ‘madness’ suggests that the term existed and was very much in use, but deliberately not used by Sir Walter, who would have been concerned with offending the sensibilities of his genteel clients by calling them ‘mad’, as the term carried stigma. Woolf’s mention of one instead of the other, however, implicitly suggests that they were synonymous, even though ‘proportion’ is vague, and does not at all clarify the pathology or nosology of ‘madness’. Sir Walter - whom I would argue would have been a supporter of Kraepelin’s ‘scientific’ understanding of madness — prescribes, with no scientific basis, arbitrary amounts of rest, telling his clients they need to reach a specific body weight in order to restore ‘proportion’ to their lives (Thiher, p. 234). Woolf has both a direct and indirect opposition to this idea, calling ‘divine proportion’ his ‘goddess’, suggesting that characters like Sir William, appointed by society to make the distinction between sane and insane, obey a dogmatic and arbitrary approach to treating mental illness, exoticising and fetishising ‘proportion’ (p. 87).


Readers can sense anger in the narrator’s voice as she says ‘this is madness, this sense; in fact, his sense of proportion’ (p. 88) supporting Shaw’s notion that there is no such thing as ‘disorder’. ‘It is only our imperfect knowledge’, Shaw says, ‘of the way in which cause and effect interact which limits our forecast of what must happen by absolute necessity’ (Shaw, p. 211). Sir William lacks this understanding, which Woolf reiterates in her sardonic mockery of the term ‘proportion’, when she refers to Millicent Bruton as having ‘lost her sense of proportion’ for exaggerating (p. 95). Millicent is not deemed insane or mad by any of the other characters, and her exaggeration is harmless. In referring to a literal loss of a sense of proportion, Woolf highlights the ridiculous notion that an arbitrary concept can define whether an individual is in need of a psychological intervention. The brevity of this reference weighs heavily on the mind of a reader who has associated ‘proportion’ with madness, institutionalisation, and medical authorities like Sir William, who believe they have the answers to what it means to be ‘insane’.

Medical authorities are not only interested in labelling and defining characters like Septimus, but in controlling their behaviour. This control, I would argue, is what Shaw termed ‘new automatism’ which he describes as ‘the grinding influence of oppression’ that ‘maintains what is called "order" but what is really injustice [...] the tyranny of the strong over the weak’ (Shaw, p. 211). Sir William embodies this tyranny in claiming that if his treatments based on arbitrary values were to fail, he would resort to using his societal connections, and police force ‘which, he remarked very quietly, would take care, down in Surrey, that these unsocial impulses, bred more than anything by the lack of good blood, were held in control’ (p. 89). It is chilling to consider what it means to ‘take care’ of, and ‘control’ people, and the lack of specificity; the quiet stating of this fact suggests that measures were not meant to treat, or help these individuals. There is something sinister about being expedited away from London, hidden away from society, and any external accountability. Sir William’s understanding of madness, therefore, is based on eliminating ‘unsocial impulses’, reducing people down to how acceptable their behaviour is in accordance with preconceived notions about their bloodlines as the greatest determining factors. These factors, are, of course, not based on any scientific or medical understanding of an individual’s state of mind, and instead are a reflection of Bradshaw’s disturbing and oppressive elitism that serves only those who he deems his equals in society. The fact that this reasoning is not explicitly mentioned to the other characters or any of their families exposes an underlying knowledge that Bradshaw’s idea of ‘order’ is really injustice, and his abuse of power here could almost be seen as sociopathic, lacking empathy for anyone of ‘bad blood’.


This sinister sense of injustice at the hands of esteemed medical professionals is also characterised in Woolf’s focalised narrative through Septimus’ thoughts, as he explains that he feels condemned [...] to death’ for his ‘sin’, by ‘the repulsive brute, with the blood-red nostrils’, that he terms ‘human nature’ (p. 80-81). Septimus’ descriptions of ‘blood-red nostrils’ bring to mind a demon or monster of some sort, rather a human being. The stark contrast illustrated by the juxtaposition of ‘human nature’ with monstrous imagery suggests a greater contention: the idea that medical authorities; the likes of Holmes and Bradshaw, act under the guise of humane and well-intentioned help, yet are secretly monstrous, and are the very causes of Septimus’ madness. In his lecture, Shaw describes how limiting the expression of human nature means that ‘force has to be used and the nascent trend of excitement must be nipped in the bud by the law’. Interestingly, he makes the point that if a mad man (like Septimus) were to act in this manner, it would be considered unacceptable, ‘and yet [...] no one accuses the perpetrators of insanity’ (Shaw, p. 214). Woolf refers to Septimus’ inability to feel as a ‘sin’, alluding to the fact that these men, these ‘perpetrators’ act as deities operating under a rigid and dogmatic approach. Her use of the term ‘human nature’ in this manner highlights that Septimus’ pain and helplessness are attributed to what Shaw shows is a flawed understanding of how people are supposed to act, and behave, and an inclination to call them ‘insane’ for not fitting this mould.


David Rosenhan, who conducted an experiment to investigate whether it is possible to distinguish the ‘sane’ from the ‘insane’, asked the simple question: ‘Do the salient characteristics that lead to diagnoses reside in the patients themselves or in the environments and contexts in which observers find them? (See note 5) In this essay, I have argued that answering this question is difficult, for various reasons. Neither Clarissa nor Septimus can fit neatly into a box. Woolf’s focalisation exposes the contradictory nature of their behaviour and thought processes with expectations of the ‘insane’. Furthermore, multiplicity of character, shifting ideas of the self, and Woolf’s use of free indirect discourse blurs the line between various facets of characters, and between author and character, bringing into question whether there really is a static, objective reality or context within which to define ‘insanity’. The inhumane, illogical, and contradictory opinions of characters representing medical authority suggests that even they are unable to truly understand and distinguish between the two states, and in a different context, their behaviour might be considered ‘insane’.

References


1. Louis Sass, Madness and Modernism (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press,1992) pp.1-583

2. T. Claye Shaw, ‘A Lecture On The Mental Processes In Sanity and Insanity’, The Lancet, 179.4613,(1912), 211-215

3. Allen Thiher, Revels in Madness: Insanity in Medicine and Literature, (Michigan: University of Michigan Press,1999), p.224-277 in JSTOR, <http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.3998/mpub.16078.14>[accessed 15 March 2018]

4. Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway ed. by Jeanette Winterson and Margaret Reynolds, 3rd edn (London, United Kingdom: Vintage, 2000) All in-line references are from this edition of the text

5. David L. Rosenhan, "On Being Sane in Insane Places", Science, Vol. 179 (Jan.1973), 250-258

Polyphony, n. 
The style of simultaneously combining a number of parts, each forming an individual melody and harmonizing with each other.

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