Deconstructing Trauma in Virginia Woolf’s ‘Mrs Dalloway’

Afflictions of life can be tormenting, surfacing as open wounds that bleed and maturing into scars so deep that serve as a grim reminder of events that necessitated them. This is precisely what Woolf endeavored to highlight in her novel Mrs Dalloway through the depiction of the physically as well as mentally scarred characters who are embroiled in traumatic experiences of life. This blog aims to illuminate “Mrs Dalloway” as a grim manifestation of trauma, either shaped by the character’s personal choices or as a repercussion of the Great War 1914. The blog will focus on the psychological determinants of Trauma with particular reference to PTSD.

Etymologically, the word trauma is linked with the Greek word wound. It is derived from a verb which means to impale. For Tyson it is a “painful experience that scars us psychologically and leads to behavioral changes”. Mrs Dalloway indeed is a trauma narrative that sheds light on variant forms of trauma afflicting the lead characters, Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Smith. PSTD is manifested in the characters of both Clarissa and Septimus though varying in contexts and degree. It is defined as a mental condition that is magnified by a terrifying incident. The symptoms include severe anxiety, flashbacks, nightmares and uncontrollable thoughts about the event.

Septimus is a WWI veteran who had fought valiantly in the war along with his commanding officer Evans. The two had to be together, quarrel with each other and were like two dogs playing on a hearth rug. However, Evans’s tragic demise during the war leaves Septimus devastated and coerces him into emotional repression. The war has made him see the potential for evil in man, the “darkness of man’s heart”. This abysmal state of emotional repression compels his sanity to cease and consequently he displays PTSD symptoms, as intrusion and numbing. Intrusion alludes to the permeation of the horrendous memories of traumatic experiences that effect one’s daily life activities. Septimus manifests intrusions in his delusions about Evans. At one point of time, while he sits on a bench in Reagents Park, he sees a man in grey actually walking towards him. It was Evans. But no mud was on him, no wounds, he wasn’t changed”. Numbing alludes to a plethora of emotional crisis including feeling alienated, strained relations with family members and having a pessimistic view of life. It is displayed by Septimus when “he stared at Lucrezia, did not see her and made everything terrible. She could stand it no longer”. It is his numbing that paves a path for his demise in the end.

Unlike Septimus who suffers from post war trauma, Clarissa’s trauma is a consequence of her choice to marry Richard Dalloway and her abandoning of a beautiful future with her former love interest Peter Walsh or friend Sally Seton. Throughout her life she has never been at peace with her choice of marrying Richard instead has contrarily “borne in her heart.. the grief the anguish”. She too displays the PTSD symptoms of intrusion and numbing. Intrusion in her case comes about as an invasion of her consciousness by memories of Sally and Peter. Though a lot of time has elapsed since her last meeting with Peter, yet she remembers his “eyes, his pocket-knife, his smile, his grumpiness” hence revealing the pertinence he held for her. Recurrent reminiscing of Peter by Clarissa reveals that he holds much pertinence in her life as compared to Richard, who rarely surfaces in her consciousness.

Numbing is exhibited by Clarissa in her avoidance of the optimistic experiences that connect her intricately to both Peter and her friend Sally. That is precisely the reason we see her come across as a “perfect hostess” who has abandoned her thirst for intellectualism and social reform as “she scarcely read a book now”.

Maya Angelou once remarked, “There’s no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you”. This blog highlights Woolf’s endorsement of this notion through the depiction of the traumatic lives of Clarissa, whose untold story is the declaration of her love for Peter Walsh, and Septimus whose agony is his incomprehensible emotional state. In both cases, society comes across as an instigator of their abysmal states.

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