Monday, December 6, 2010

Presentation on Mrs. Dalloway by Lisa Lehrman

This blog was created for English 4833, The British novel.

The Case of Septimus Smith

Virginia Woolf's character Septimus Smith in Mrs. Dalloway (1925), is a war veteran who displays obvious symptoms of "shell shock." In WWI Septimus "went to France to save England" (86) where he developed manliness--becoming manly was one of the propaganda techniques used to lure young recruits. His good friend, Evans, was killed "just before the Armistice," and "Septimus, far from showing any emotion or recognizing that here was the end of a friendship, congratulated himself upon feeling very little and very reasonably" (86). This lack of feeling develops into an inability to feel at all.
Septimus suffers from hallucinations. He sees an old woman's head in the middle of a fern, and a dog become a man. His friend, Evans, who was killed in the war also appears to him in one of his hallucinations (70). All of his visions most likely stem from scenes Septimus witnessed during wartime. Woolf does not mention exactly what traumatic event Septimus witnesses. This is due to the fact that it is characteristic of "shell shock" victims to repress traumatic events. Septimus does not possess the capacity to realize how severe his condition of shock is.
A German messenger dog from WWI wearing a canine gas mask. This image could be the basis for the dog hallucination.

His young foreign wife, Lucrezia, is most severely effected by her husband's illness as she is his companion and caretaker. She observes multiple times that although his appearance had not changed, "...he was not Septimus now" (23). She witnesses him "talk[ing] to himself, talk[ing] to a dead man..." (65). She is embarrassed by his behavior and in her desperation takes him to two doctors: Holmes and Bradshaw.

Dr. Holmes tells Septimus and Lucrezia that there is nothing seriously the matter with Septimus, that he is only "a little out of sorts" (21). "So, you're in a funk," (92) he says agreeably to Smith. He accuses Septimus of "talking nonsense to frighten [his] wife" (93). Lucrezia, demanding a second opinon, takes her husband to see Sir.William Bradshaw, "the priest of science" (94). Bradshaw immediately sees that Septimus has had a complete nervous breakdown, with every symptom in the advanced stage (95). Williams, after his twenty minute appointment with Septimus, prescribes him rest, and sends him to a house in the country to rest "without friends, without books, without messages" (99).
Septimus is not given the therapy and support that one who suffers from "shell shock" requires. Instead he is told to get over his issues like a man, and that if he just rests he will become well. Consequently Septimus commits suicide to escape what he views as a corrupt world.

A Brief History of Psychological Trauma and "Shell Shock"

In the late 1800s French doctor, Jean-Matin Charcot used hypnosis to treat his patients with "hysteria" (neurological symptoms with no medical basis). Until Charcot, hysterics were thought to be malingering (faking); and were not taken seriously. Freud was a student of Charcot and he came to the conclusion that traumatic and upsetting events caused hysteria. Freud developed his unpopular, "seduction theory" which stated, "...the thesis that at the bottom of every case of hysteria there are one or more occurrences of premature sexual experience..." (Abnormal Psych worksheet). This theory was met with a "stony, universal silence," and was thus abandoned and altered to focus on intrapsychic conflict (id, ego, superego) around sexuality.

It was not till WWI that society was again confronted with the reality of psychological trauma. Mental breakdowns represented 40% of British causalities. These breakdowns were initially referred to as "Shell Shock" because they were believed to be caused by tiny hemorrhages or lesions to the brain. The problem with this was that soldiers who were never around explosions were developing "shell shock" as well.  Symptoms included: high levels of anxiety, uncontrollable muscle tics, or muscle rigidity, nightmares, flashbacks and hallucinations, all of which were formerly seen as symptoms of female hysteria, and associated with obstructed or repressed emotions. 
The video below is actual footage of a patients suffering from "shell shock." The most obvious symptom of the first man is his extreme muscle rigidity.

If the breakdown was a 'paralysis of the nerves', then massage, rest, dietary regimes and electric shock treatment were invoked. If a psychological source was indicated, the 'talking cure', hypnosis, and rest would speed recovery. The reintroduction of hypnosis severed as an emotional catharsis by bringing the repressed memories of the trauma to the surface, and thus restoring the victim's dissociated memory.
"In all instances, occupational training and the inculcation of 'masculinity' were highly recommended. As the medical superintendent at one military hospital in York put it, although the medical officer must show sympathy, the patient 'must be induced to face his illness in a manly way'" (Bourke, Shell Shock During World War I) . As with most mental illness social support is the best predictor of the patient's outcome. Sadly, many physicians were not educated on the topic of "shell shock" and treated their patients for the symptoms instead of the underlying problem, or even worse, figured the patients were malingering (faking) in order to escape their military obligations.

Works Cited

Bourke, Joanna. "Shell Shock during World War One." 15 October 2010. BBC. Accessed 6 December 2010.

eys, Ruth. "Traumatic Cures Shell Shock, Janet, and the Question of Memory." Critical Inquiry, Vol 20, No. 4, Symposium on "God" Summer, 1994. Univeristy of chicago Press. Accessed through JSTOR 29 November 2010.

Sandberg, David. Worksheet on Psychological Trauma. Abnormal     Psychology 4412 Class. CSUEB, Srping quarter, 2008.

"War Neuroses: Netley Hospital (1917), pt 1 of 5. 2 November 2009. Youtube video. Accessed 6 December 2010.

Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. Orlando, FL: Harcourt , 2009. Print.

All photos found through Creative Commons. December 6 2010.