To declare that the medical world did not have an astute understanding of mental illnesses during the early twentieth century would be an understatement. Mental illness was often ignored or treated improperly. Prescription drugs were not as advanced as they are now and the drugs that were prescribed for mental illness were usually sedatives to help one rest. In fact, rest was the solution given to many mental illness patients. The idea that resonated in the medical community was that rest was the factor that was missing in the lives of those who suffered from mental illness. The “rest cure” was when someone would be coerced out of their home away from the their loved ones and sent off to a deserted building set aside for rest cure patients in a secluded countryside away from the hustle and bustle of city life. Receiving ample secluded, isolated rest was viewed in the novel Mrs. Dalloway as having a sense of proportion. Proportion or balance in one's life would bring about peace and contentment. The great medical minds of the day decided that those with mental illness would benefit from isolation. Physicians thought and believed with great conviction that the lack of stimulation would promote tranquility of mind and eliminate stress. Unfortunately, all the rest cure did was exacerbate the situation.
In Mrs. Dalloway, Septimus Warren Smith suffered from a mental illness that the late twentieth century identified as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. However, in the early twentieth century, PTSD was merely shrugged off as shell shock or “moments of depression” as Dr. Sir William Bradshaw described. (97) Septimus suffered from PTSD because he served in World War I and fought on the side of the British. As a young man, he was an educated free thinker. He was self educated due to his poor socioeconomic status but was well read and infatuated with literature and art. He volunteered to fight for England and survived the war. However, his good friend Evans did not survive and because of that, guilt taunted Septimus daily. Flashbacks of the war plagued the mind of Septimus so severely that he would have unexpected outbursts and threaten to kill himself on more than one occasion. Dr. Holmes, Septimus's first doctor, did not appreciate the severity of Septimus's mental state. He simply wrote it off as Septimus being restless or having a bout with anxiety.
Dr. Holmes examined him. There was nothing whatever the matter, said Dr. Holmes...Why not try two tabloids of bromide dissolved in a glass of water at bedtime? (90)
Instead of trying to empathize and understand the plight of Septimus, Dr. Holmes prescribed a sedative to force rest upon him.
Dismissing Septimus's mental illness as mere restlessness was not even the worst crime that Dr. Holmes committed against him. Dr. Holmes also spoke to Septimus in a condescending way. He even audaciously spoke of Septimus's mental state as him being “in a funk” (92). Dr. Holmes was arrogant and certain in his misdiagnosis. He held on to his “forty years' experience...and Septimus could take Holmes's word for it.” (92). There were other instances of Dr. Holmes's patronizing demeanor towards Septimus. Another time was when Septimus was having a flashback and began to shout outbursts. When Dr. Holmes arrived in the room, he shrugged off the the outburst by trivializing them.
“Now what's all this about?” said Dr. Holmes in the most amiable way in the world. “Talking nonsense to frighten your wife?” But he would give him something to make him sleep. (93)
The condescension occurred not only because Septimus was ill but also because he was poor. As a soldier, he was thrown back into society in the lower class of imperialist England. Dr. Holmes and Sir William Bradshaw were wealthy physicians. Both were of the upper class. However, even within the upper class were areas of discord. Sir William Bradshaw even spoke of Dr. Holmes in a condescending manner.
Ah yes (those general practitioners! thought Sir William. It took half his time to undo their blunders. Some were irreparable). (95)
Mrs. Dalloway showed that a class struggle was prevalent during the early twentieth century in England. The small percentage of the population who were the elite were in charge of the larger percentage of the population who were the middle and lower classes of the English socioeconomic class system. Dr. Holmes and Sir William Bradshaw were a part of that elite group and Septimus and his wife Lucrezia were members of the larger group, the ailing lower class.
There were many references to oppression and authoritative control in the novel. The most poignant observations came from the thoughts of Septimus.
Once you fall, Septimus repeated to himself, human nature is on you. Holmes and Bradshaw are on you. (98)
Although Septimus was ill with PTSD, he was still able to form lucid thoughts. One thing he would refuse was the confinement to a home, especially a home ran by Dr. Holmes or Sir William Bradshaw. He did not want to undergo mental and physical subjugation. The thought of being imprisoned in a home under the strict orders of doctors who were cruel to him terrified and angered Septimus. Septimus was not about to acquiesce. Therefore, he did the one act that he could perform that would rebel against them. His suicide was larger than he. It was an act of resistance to a dictating authority, similar to the struggle of oppressed peoples. Septimus represented the other, the oppressed minority fighting against the powers that be, the elite, the colonizers, the conformers, the converters. The doctors represented the manipulative conquering body that sought to conform all nonbelievers to their way of life and trade in their illnessness, their sorrows, their poor socioeconomic conditions for proportion.
To prescribe isolation to one suffering from mental illness is similar to giving a suicidal man a rope. Many who suffer from mental illness simply want someone to empathize with them, give them a chance to speak freely and candidly about their inner turmoil. The high society elitists were ignorant of these needs and many lives were lost both literally and figuratively. The character of Septimus Warren Smith served as a representation of the traumatized soldier and Drs. Holmes and Bradshaw represented the cruel upper class society who simply wanted to marginalize and ostracize those who suffered even more. Having balance in life does appear right and just, but what balance consists of might vary greatly from person to person. It is accurate to surmise that life's tests can bring about strife, turmoil, heartbreak and anxiety. Although the activities of life might sometimes perpetuate stress, at other times those very things can cause contentment, self appreciation and self awareness.
Woolf, Virginia Mrs. Dalloway United States:Harcourt, 1925 pages 90-102