Reading Virginia Woolf's novel




                                                                    The Meanings of Madness


                                                                                                                 There is nothing in behavior that doesn’t have a

                                                                                                                                             cause. Sigmund Freud


  Nameless minor characters wander into and out of the scenes in Mrs Dalloway in a seemingly pointless manner. The same is true of dogs. Terriers. Chows, woolly dogs, shaggy dogs are as common as street people who populate the cityscape of London for, apparently, little narrative purpose. Yet dogs ambiguously “busy” with the park railings, apparently where they “raised their legs” (a term of art), may serve as symbols “of joyful eroticism and hopeless love,” hinting at canine society, puppy love, sexual behavior, and the “disarming playfulness” or “unsurprised gaze with which they received life” (Vanita 248, Eberly 24, MD 39). Even General Gordon, the hero of the Sudan, “with one leg raised,” adds an ambiguous touch to the picture. “Poor Gordon” (MD 77)

The canine cast of characters takes on importance, however, when the apparent madness of Septimus Smith comes into focus, again encoded in canine imagery. “It was horrible, terrible to see a dog become a man!” (MD 102). This serves as an early sign that Septimus is clearly troubled. Madness often parodies literary roles, here as a burlesque of King Lear; “but he would not go mad” (MD 33). His apparent hallucination, seeing a dog becoming a man as if it indicates the literal transformation of a dog into a man, suggests an ambiguous state of affairs; the language plays on the Bildungsroman cliché of the young man of Romance who is growing up, becoming a man. Since he is seen in Regent’s Park when the skywriting aeroplane writes smoke words in the sky, the language may actually be symptomatic; paranoid thoughts come to him, “They are signaling to me” with exquisite and unimaginable beauty, he thinks, as tears stream down his cheeks (MD 31). This is the sign of ironic fiction, the device of a story presented though an idiot mind, an ironic parody of the tragic situation (Frye 234).

Although “Dr. Holmes might say there was nothing the matter”(MD 33), it is the signifying dog as brilliantly conceived by Jane Goldman and its status as signifier in narrative terms, rather than its dogginess, which aids in marking “the boundary between literal and figurative,” as a “sliding signifier” in Septimus’s psychological status” (MD 33). The signifying dog used as a “multivalent figure whose referent is certainly not just a dog”  becomes rather a figure of motif when the signifying dog achieves the status of a defamiliarizing device (Goldman 100) .

  The canine associations of this man’s narrative are as taxing as they are obscure; nothing arrives ab ovo. He is introduced as he appears in London, clearly hallucinating. Yet the story of Septimus, a subplot for the discourse concerning Clarissa Dalloway’s preparations for her party, is a narrative saturated with references to preformed language; the motif opens as the tale of the hero. He is an outsider, the Young Man from the Provinces, “a pastoral figure,” in a parody of Romance (Frye 232). He is further characterized through the familiar Woolfian symbol of the room but as a person whose room figures a disordered state of mind, “a room he had come into when the family were away,” queer-looking but, wonderful, “but at the same time … how strange” (MD 126).

His personal appearance is introduced by way of an abbreviated mock blazon, a formal description of the hero prominent in epic literature. “Septimus Warren Smith, aged about thirty, pale-faced, beak-nosed … with hazel eyes which had that look of apprehension which makes complete strangers apprehensive too” (MD 20). There is no attempt to make fun of him through his narrative which develops into a “life in terms of bondage, prisons, madhouses,” a nightmare of social tyranny (Frye 238). The satirical aspects of his life, however, illustrate the dark side of a hero’s history. But for the very plainness of the hero, his tale might be seen as having the shape of the rise and fall of a great man. It is the tribute that irony pays to misfortune that compensates him for being very ordinary. In the party atmosphere of Mrs Dalloway he might, instead, have been the zany at the carnival.

The auspicious beginning of this nascent poet’s London career includes his crush on his teacher, Miss Pole ; his studies which might have included  Shakespearean content such as Romeo and Juliet, as  young lovers, include instead the love story of Antony and Cleopatra, middle-aged lovers. Thus, this first of several Roman contexts is established with the subtle emphasis on Shakespeare’s  Antony and Cleopatra (itself a sliding signifier: i.e. it is both a love story and an account of a double suicide).

Septimus has a father-figure, his employer Mr. Brewer,  “paternal with his young men” according to whose Delphic wisdom he is expected to “succeed to the leather arm-chair … under the skylight” (MD 129).  Most emphatically he can look forward to “a brilliant career” (MD 148, 154). Lodging off the Euston Road he has prospects for great success. His is a coming of age, like Pip’s, a young man of great expectations in a symmetrically shaped narrative. However, when he answers to the call of the war, as a would-be miles gloriosus, the “change” which he had perceived in the dog “becoming a man,” as above, is produced instantly – “he developed manliness” having gone “to save an England consisting of Shakespeare’s plays and Miss Isabel Pole”; but the War interrupts the budding intimacy between Miss Pole and Septimus (MD 130).

Instead, the War provides a new relationship between him and his officer Evans, male bonding in a homosocial context, introducing a second Roman frame; hardly a tussle between puppy dogs, it suggests wrestling gladiators in the Roman practice of staged violence. “It was a case of two dogs playing on a hearthrug; one worrying a paper screw, snarling, snapping, giving a pinch, now and then at the old dog’s ear; the other lying somnolent, blinking at the fire, raising a paw, turning and growling good-naturedly.  They had to be together, share with each other, fight with each other, quarrel with each other” (MD 130). The motif of the signifying dog again, in a literary role, serves as a deconstructed resumé of the famously erotic wrestling episode, imagery suggesting the refereed combat of Roman gladiators, the “Gladiatorial,” chapter 20 in D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love. A metaphor for an heroic contest between two warriors, the episode features two men in physical embrace, wrestling on “the carpeted floor” involving language with erotic connotations. The narrative in the reference involves sexually violent language such as “piercing” and “penetrating” that culminates in seeming to “drive their white flesh deeper and deeper” until one finally enters into the flesh of the other.

The turning point in this canine narrative arrives when Evans is killed in the war, for which Septimus congratulates himself “upon feeling very little” due to his newly acquired manliness, which leads to the repeated troubling admission “that he could not feel” (MD 130-133). When the War is over he meets and marries Rezia (The Innkeeper’s Daughter, a staple of Romance) in Milan. Here is the resumption of the mirror-imaged narrative of the hero’s life. Formerly lodging of Euston Road and now lodging off Tottenham Court Road he is finally seen sitting, as foreseen, in the leather armchair under the skylight but in the office of Sir William Bradshaw who has displaced Mr. Brewer as a figure of authority; and Septimus and his wife Rezia have returned to London where “Antony and Cleopatra had shriveled utterly” (MD 133).

Presently, the ironic blazon which began in the midst of a traffic jam resumes: “To look at he might have been a clerk, but of the better sort … and his eyes (as eyes tend to be), eyes merely” with “educated hands”, “loose lips”, a “sensitive profile”, “big-nosed”, supposedly an ambiguous portrait of a “half-educated, self-educated “ man (MD 126-127). He is like a clerk indeed, Chaucer’s clerk in a shabby overcoat (MD 20; Canterbury Tales, “Prologue” 290). He shares in several intertextual associations.

He is resolved to remain childless like the Roman poet Propertius who says that no soldier shall ever be born of his blood to Rezia’s chagrin (Propertius  Poems 2.7.13-14; (MD 135). Gradually he constructs himself as a victim of dog-like human beings, who “hunt in packs,” a monstrous quality which eventually becomes the signature of Dr. Holmes, “the repulsive brute with the blood-red nostrils” (MD 135, 139, 140-141). The memories of the dead Evans return, troubling him for the sin for which Human Nature, the epithet applied to Dr. Holmes, had condemned him to death; that he did not feel. He had not cared when Evans was killed” (MD 137). His mental condition, “the deferred effects of shell shock” according to Sir William Bradshaw seems consonant with the incoherent ravings he exhibits, joining the fictional company of Ophelia, Lady Macbeth, King Lear, and even Don Quixote in terms of madness (MD 279).

His incoherence consisting of delusions of grandeur and magnificent revelations might be justified however; “they were proud of him. He had won crosses” (MD 133).  Yet Bradshaw notes his “unsocial impulses” in spite of having “served with the greatest distinction” and having been promoted (MD 145). His effort to save England, however, has become a “messiah complex,” apparently having claimed he is Christ and has a message (MD 150). Septimus as the eternal sufferer, the scapegoat, introducing the birth of a new religion, merits a form of therapy in solitude “without friends, without books, without messages” (MD 37, 33, 150).

  Dr. Holmes, his first medical consultant who had said there was nothing whatever the matter, might have supplied some therapy rather than suggesting some “nice out-of-door game” like cricket, “the very game” (MD 37). It is an unfortunate choice of words, oddly emphasizing the importance of the game, had he not fastened his attentions instead on the feminine delights supplied by Rezia, “that charming little lady … quite a girl, a foreigner, wasn’t she?” (MD 139). Holmes clearly appears in the literary role of the Russian Doctor Zosimov, who like Holmes, is particularly interested in Raskolnikov’s lovely sister: “But what a delightful girl … almost licking his lips” (Dostoyevsky Crime and Punishment). Holmes becomes rather more personal concerning Rezia: “And what a very pretty comb, if he might say so, Mrs. Warren was wearing!” (MD 138-139). Septimus refused to see him, whereupon Holmes “had to give that charming little lady … a friendly push before he could get past her.” His hostility toward Holmes, “the damned fool,” is justified.

Septimus continues to think in terms of Dostoyevsky’s  Crime and Punishment when he is examined by the therapist, Sir William Bradshaw. “He had committed an appalling crime and had been condemned to death by human nature”; since he had not cared when Evans was killed, it is a foregone conclusion (MD 145). The interview takes the context of a court trial, a further reference to Crime and Punishment,  “But if he confessed … would they let him off?” with evidence derived from the “culprit,” leads Septimus to deduce his own guilt, but what was his crime? “He could not remember it”: “He had committed an appalling crime” and as punishment he is “condemned to death by human nature” (MD 148, 145). Roman gladiators who must fight against animals without weapons (the bestiarii) are typically convicted criminals, subject to execution. “But if he confessed? If he communicated? Would they let him off, his torturers?“ He only knows that punishment comes in the gladiatorial games; and “once you fall … human nature is on you” (MD 148).

These gladiatorial games are not the nice out-of-door games which Dr. Holmes, the brute with the blood-red nostrils, had in mind (MD 37). Here the imagery suggested is that of the lavish animal fights in the gladiatorial arena (demonstrations of martial abilities as well as corporal punishment for criminals in which the beast is the executioner). Thus, execution of Septimus the criminal is forthcoming. Consider the “manly amusements” in Walter Pater’s heroic Roman novel, Marius the Epicurian, chapter 14, when “a criminal who, like slaves and animals had no rights … had fallen into a pack of hungry bears.” Septimus was the criminal who had faced his judges. He had been condemned to death when his attempt to escape from people had already thrown him into the vicinity of animals at the zoo, “barking and howling” (MD 36). Now the public execution, the damnati ad mortem, approaches.

  Septimus is more consistent than he would seem when he compares himself to “those who are about to die,” an allusion to the famous gladiatorial salute in the Roman arena: Morituri te salutamus (“Those who are about to die salute you”), the Games suggested in the earlier gladiatorial link with Evans (MD 140). Further, with the gladiatorial Games being originally a funerary ritual to honor the dead and a third Roman allusion as well, they provide the obligatory funeral offerings of blood for the dead. The Roman site is specific.

When Septimus and his Italian wife are situated in Regent’s Park, “the country [Londinium] reverts to its ancient shape, as the Romans saw it” (MD 35). When Peter Walsh suddenly appears among the branches, a normal event gives way to the hallucinated manifestation of the deceased Evans, formerly without honors, lurking behind the trees. “It was Evans! But no mud was on him. No wounds,” alluding to the Roman version of the Trojan War citing the valiant warrior, Hector, like an apparition, returned from battle caked with mud and blood ((MD 105; Virgil Aeneid 2.388). The literary association places Evans in an heroic status which redresses the previous inability of Septimus to celebrate his life. “Evans was speaking. The dead were with him” (MD 140). Septimus, it seems, is to be the victim in the funerary ritual honoring the dead Evans. It is perfectly logical to Septimus. The public execution, the damnati ad mortem, now approaches with Rezia’s innocent exclamation, “Damn!” (MD 221).

The little phrase from Cymbeline, in the historically Roman province of Shakespeare’s romance, “Fear no more,” is an ironic caution reintroduced in the last moments of Septimus Smith while he hears “dogs barking and barking far away”; the irony is enhanced by the particularly emphatic reiterations emphasizes the phallic bananas on the sideboard, “bright yellow”(MD 211). His anxieties associated with Dr. Holmes, the cruelty of human nature against the fallen who would be torn to pieces, increase (MD 213).

After again echoing the fears of King Lear, “He would not go mad,” the mention, again, of the ominous, perhaps symbolic, bananas seems merely a casual observation in comparison since he would not go mad (MD 215; Shakespeare King Lear 1.5.46-47). Again, as he gradually loses his composure, he notes the bananas, the menacing presence of the bananas as an object of notice which suggests a threat perhaps to himself; he was alone, calling to Evans, remembering the threat posed by Holmes and Bradshaw (MD 220). One recalls that in Joyce’s Ulysses, Molly Bloom uses a banana as a dildo.

Having discontinued contact with Dr. Holmes, the Warren Smiths are packing to go for treatment at Sir William Bradshaw’s delightful house in the country where Septimus is to be taught how to rest. “When a man comes into your room and says he is Christ” among those “prophetic Christs and Christesses” who prophesied the end of the world, you order rest in bed (MD 149-150). Rezia is preparing his things while the scene returns to Dickens’s autobiographical Bildungsroman novel, David Copperfield; she echoes Mrs. Micawber’s famous oath of her complete fidelity, “they could not separate them against their wills”: “no one could separate them.”(MD 224).  Even though Septimus seems resigned to being shut up in Bradshaw’s delightful home down in the country, the arrival of Dr. Holmes, his bête noire, like Dr. Zosimov, disturbs his tranquility as the doctor pushes Rezia aside: “My dear lady, I have come as a friend” (MD 225). A degree of ambiguity emerges, whether the bananas now suggest a threat to Rezia (“that charming little lady”), or to Septimus. The preparations for incarceration exacerbate Septimus’s anxiety concerning the bananas (MD 211, 215, 220), a mockery of the Freudian phallic symbol which validates “Freud’s contention that the doctor is seen as a sexual menace” (Schlack 54).

  The bananas are the least of his pathological associations. Imagery of the Roman Games in the arena, “The fallen, he said, they tear to pieces” (MD 213), returns him to his ravings. Like a fallen gladiator in the Games, it seems that “Holmes and Bradshaw were on him! The brute with the red nostrils was snuffing into every secret place!” (MD 223). As Dr. Holmes, the man who has become the monster with the blood-red nostrils, approaches on the stairs, Septimus knows that “Holmes would get him” {MD 226). The final irony is that Dr. Holmes had overtly expressed his less than subtle interest in Rezia, “that charming little lady” instead: “He had asked her to tea” (MD 139). Perceiving what he misinterprets as his condemnation, the inevitability of death, Septimus offers it freely. “I’ll give it you” and the convicted criminal leaps to his death from the window. “So that was Dr. Holmes” (MD 228).

According to Northrop Frye, the insertion of the actual suicide of Septimus becomes a point of ritual death, a potentially tragic crisis for Clarissa Dalloway, the heroine, in the middle of her party; this brings the action “as close to a catastrophic overthrow of the hero[ine]” as possible, “the ironic parody of the tragic situation” (Frye 178-179, 237). The news which disrupts the spirit of levity Clarissa has created comes by the conventional messenger, Sir William Bradshaw and his wife. Clarissa has recalled “some poor wretch sobbing, she remembered, in the waiting room” in therapy; it is Septimus presumably, almost a recognition scene (MD 278). She thinks of Sir William Bradshaw, “a great doctor yet to her obscurely evil … capable of some indescribable outrage,” attributes more properly applied to Dr. Holmes (MD 281).

The death of the soldier plays into the pattern of literary imagery when Clarissa “sees” him on the spear-like spikes of the area railings below where he has fallen: “There he lay with a thud, thud, thud in his brain, and then the suffocation of blackness,” a canticle for Septimus derived from Siegfried Sassoon’s poem, “Repression of War Experiences”: “Why, you can hear the guns/ Hark! Thud, thud, thud – quite soft.” For Clarissa, “There was an embrace in death, ” a Romantic notion in which there is omission of much inconvenient data. Once more, the fragment of the dirge over the dead body of Imogen in Cymbeline comes back, “Fear no more the heat of the sun” to serve as a eulogy for the young man who had killed himself. And Dr. Holmes calls him a coward (MD 283).

                                                                                  Molly Hoff


                               Works Consulted

Coleman, Kathleen. “The Virtues of Violence: The

Amphitheater, Gladiators, and the Roman System of Values.” Lecture. Trinity University, San Antonio, Texas. November 12, 2009.

Eberly, David. “Housebroken: The Domesticated

Relations of Flush.” Virginia Woolf: Texts and Contexts. Eds. Beth Rigel Daugherty and Eileen Barrett. New York: Pace University Press, 1996: 21-29.

Ferrer, Daniel. Virginia Woolf and the Madness of Language.

  Trans. G. Bennington and Rachel Bowlby. London: Routledge, 1990.

Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism. Princeton:

Princeton University Press, 1957.

Goldman, Jane. “Ce Chien Est à Moi: Virginia Woolf

and the Signifying Dog.” Woolfian Boundaries. Eds. Anna Burrells, Steve Ellis, Deborah Parsons, and Kathryn Simpson. Clemson, SC: Clemson University Digital Press, 2007: 100-107.

Schlack, Beverly. “A Freudian Look at Mrs Dalloway.”

Literature and Psychology 23. 2: 49-58.

Seidl, Michael. “The Pathology of the Everyday:Uses of

  Madness in Mrs Dalloway and Ulysses.” Virginia Woolf: Themes and Variations. Ed. Vara Neverow-Turk and Mark Hussey. New York: Pace University Press, 1993: 52-59.

Vanita, Ruth. “Love Unspeakable: The Uses of Allusion

in Flush,” Virginia Woolf: Themes and Variations. Eds. Vara Neverow-Turk and Mark Hussey. New York: Pace University Press, 1993: 248-257.

Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. New York: Harcourt. 1925.