Mrs. Dalloway | Study Guide

Virginia Woolf

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Mrs. Dalloway | Section 9 (Septimus's Back Story and His Visit to Dr. Holmes) | Summary

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Summary

Rezia sees the same old woman that Peter does. She pities the woman and wonders where she'll sleep at night. She and Septimus walk to visit a new doctor, Sir William Bradshaw. Rezia is optimistic that Bradshaw can cure Septimus. The narrator then tells Septimus's story. He once was an aspiring poet—unable to afford higher education, he's self-educated from public libraries. Because of a family conflict, Septimus left his home in Stroud at a young age and went to London. There he met a Shakespeare scholar named Miss Isabel Pole and fell in love. Miss Pole lent Septimus books and encouraged his literary ambitions. Septimus took a job as a clerk, and his boss, Mr. Brewer, thought Septimus was talented and would be promoted to a higher position easily, if he stayed healthy.

But the war changed everyone's plans, including those of Septimus. He volunteered for the Army to save an idealized version of the England he loved. He did well in the military and received promotions, attracting the praise of his commanding officer, Evans. The two men developed a deep bond—common among soldiers dealing with the atrocities of war—until Evans's death in Italy, just before the Armistice that ended the war. Septimus, in the same battle, survived. He felt indifferent to Evans's death at the time and realized later, to his horror, that he could no longer feel anything—only occasional fear.

He married cheerful young Rezia, a hat designer in Milan, and brought her back to England. But he couldn't share Rezia's enjoyment in life. Septimus, now an admired veteran, returned to his clerkship. He found the writings he used to enjoy now seemed to chronicle hatred and despair. Disgusted with human nature, he now refuses to have a child with Rezia, who badly wants one. Rezia, distraught, took Septimus to see Dr. Holmes. When Dr. Holmes insisted that nothing was wrong with him, Septimus felt "there was no excuse," and he had no choice but to die. Septimus refused to see Dr. Holmes again.

Dr. Holmes still believes Septimus can make himself better, if he chooses, by getting a hobby and deciding to enjoy life. One day during Holmes's visit, Septimus called out for Evans, shocking Rezia. Dr. Holmes gives up on Septimus and encourages him to see Bradshaw instead.

Analysis

Peter sees possibility in the old woman; Rezia sees both despair and hope. When Rezia wonders where the old woman will go at night, she is thinking of the uncertainty and bleakness of her own future. Like Peter and Clarissa, Rezia has a desire to connect to strangers, but her desire is more concrete; she wants not just communication but actual help. She wants a normal, long life for her husband as well as a house and a motorcar.

Septimus's history explains why he went to war, where his dream of literary England was permanently changed. If things had gone differently (if the war hadn't happened, or if he hadn't been "sickly" and predisposed to mental illness), he might have been a famous writer or a successful clerk. He worked hard and distinguished himself at several jobs; why didn't he succeed? Throughout the novel, Woolf mentions the veterans from World War I and the lack of support they have received since their return. Dr. Holmes does not recognize that Septimus is suffering from shell shock (what is now called post-traumatic stress disorder) and claims Septimus has control over his thoughts and actions when he is in fact suffering from severe trauma. The backstory echoes the theme of living a life over again, as Clarissa wants to do. Septimus imagines himself to be special, but he's one of many: many Smiths, many veterans, many clerks. No one will read his notes and poetry unless "the story of [his] struggles [has] become famous." The narrator hints at the possibility that Septimus's memory will indeed survive, while foreshadowing his death. Woolf implies each life is important, famous or not.

Isabel Pole's green dress recalls Clarissa's green dress—the color of nature and fertility. Her choice of play for Septimus to read, Antony and Cleopatra, is a bleak one, reinforcing a pessimism that was cemented for Septimus in the war. (Woolf's details of the minor damage done by the "prying fingers" of the war reflects its effect on ordinary citizens who didn't fight.) Septimus chooses Rezia because she represents optimism and happiness; she creates and craves beauty. The images of hats contrast starkly with the war imagery in the previous paragraph. Even his female muses, Rezia and Isabel, can't save Septimus from trauma.

Woolf is not direct about the romantic nature of Evans and Septimus's relationship, but their primal and vivid connection like "two dogs," coupled with Evans being "undemonstrative" around women, may indicate the two were lovers. After five years of marriage, "the business of copulation was filth to [Septimus]," despite Rezia's desire to have children. Septimus's despair seems normal after the war horrors he has seen and experienced. But he's cynical about the books he used to love. He is also not able to transition back to normal life. Septimus is convinced he's the only one who's sane. His horror at seeing the troops, a "maimed file of lunatics," contrasts with Peter's respectful vision of the young military. His numbness and lack of feeling, his disproportionate responses to situations (not being upset at Evans's death, but seeing him constantly afterward), are common symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Dr. Holmes's condescension toward both Septimus and Rezia indicates that shell shock was not taken seriously at the time.

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