Woolf on the Physicians in Mrs. Dalloway:
An Examination of an Insufficient Critique
by Russell Magee
In a diary entry dated June 19 1923, Virginia Woolf wrote, “I want to give life and death, sanity and insanity; I want to criticize the social system & to show it at work, at its most intense.” Two years later, with the publication of her novel Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf would attempt to criticize the scientific understanding and subsequent treatment of mental illness. Many critics claim that through her characters Dr. Holmes, Sir William Bradshaw, and Septimus Warren Smith, Woolf makes a scathing critique of the medical and scientific community surrounding mental illness. However, instead of criticizing and making commentary on the medical community as a whole in regards to understanding mental illness, Woolf critiques the individual physicians, exposing discrepancies in their respective practices and revealing their ambivalence. These discrepancies are inherent to the physicians themselves and therefore do not depict the medical community at large. A critique of one or two figures does not equate to a critique of the system.
Woolf uses Septimus Warren Smith, the post-war veteran suffering from severe PTSD in the wake of the first World War, as a focal point for revealing the apparent lack of understanding regarding mental illness. At the onset of Septimus’s appearance, Woolf discloses two details that shed light onto Dr. Holmes’s dubious understanding of mental illness. She writes, “For Dr. Holmes had told her [Lucrezia] to make her husband (who had nothing whatever seriously the matter with him but was a little out of sorts) take an interest in things outside himself” (MD 21). The first detail is that Dr. Holmes, believing Septimus to be “a little of sorts,” undermines the severity of his illness, equating it to a simple case of confusion. Dr. Holmes downplaying Septimus’s experience appears an indictment of his own culpability. That a doctor should knowingly diminish the seriousness of a patient’s ailment is a criminal offense. However, in the second detail, Woolf reveals the sincerity behind Dr. Holmes’s conviction. Dr. Holmes’s prescribed treatment–“take an interest in things outside himself”–is a display of the courteousness inherent in a good doctor. Instead of refusing to treat Septimus, Dr. Holmes wants and tries to help him and Lucrezia. Woolf introduces Dr. Holmes as being a figure that will later foment Septimus’s death, but Dr. Holmes was only doing what was best.
Subsequently, Woolf juxtaposes Septimus’s worsening condition to the outward positivity of Dr. Holmes in order to convey the disconnect between patient and doctor. Septimus begins to see Dr. Holmes as “repulsive brute, with the blood-red nostrils” who is “on him” despite the fact that “Rezia could not understand him. Dr. Holmes was such a kind man…so interested in Septimus…[and] only wanted to help them” (MD 90). Woolf emphasizes the growing distance between Dr. Holmes and Septimus through the contrast of these associations. By connoting Dr. Holmes with amiability and kindheartedness while Septimus grows more indignant, Woolf aims to represent Dr. Holmes’s ignorance of Septimus’s condition, a lack of recognition of his own patient’s needs, and a lack of communication between doctor and patient. According to Woolf, Dr. Holmes, in spite of all his kindness, is an incompetent doctor. A doctor that lacks the recognition of a patient’s worsening condition is bad, however, it is even worse that a doctor is ignorant and positive in their ignorance. These are dangerous attributes in a doctor. However, these attributions do not and cannot extend to the scientific community at large. The relationship between one doctor and a patient is not universal, and as the distance between Septimus and Dr. Holmes becomes too wide, Woolf introduces a new doctor through which she attempts to critique the medical community.
The second formative character that Woolf uses as a means to expose and comment on the widespread ignorance regarding mental illness in the medical community is Sir William Bradshaw, the physician whom Lucrezia and Septimus consult after Dr. Holmes. Similar to Woolf’s depiction of Dr. Holmes, Bradshaw’s introduction contains many adulating details. Woolf writes,
“he had won his position by sheer ability…loved his profession; made a fine figurehead at ceremonies and spoke well–all of which had by the time he was knighted given him a heavy look…which weariness…increased the extraordinary distinction of his presence and gave him the reputation (of the utmost importance in dealing with nerve cases) not merely of lightning skill, and almost infallible accuracy in diagnosis but of sympathy, tact; understanding of the human soul” (MD 93).
Woolf includes this detailed passage not simply to paint the doctor as man very passionate about his profession, but also to reaffirm the magnitude of his medical qualifications; this is a man who knows what he is doing. This emphasis of Sir William Bradshaw’s medical prowess precedes a major reveal in the lack of understanding of mental illness and communication across the medical community. Divulging Sir William Bradshaw’s inner thoughts, Woolf writes, “Ah yes (those general practitioners! thought Sir William. It took half his time to undo their blunders. Some were irreparable)” (MD 93). That a renowned doctor would have to “undo” the mistakes of another doctor is critical evidence in the lack of communication between doctors, a misunderstanding of the diagnosis, which in turn spurs contradicting forms of treatment. While Dr. Holmes’s prescription for Septimus consists of activity, Sir William’s “was merely a question of rest…of rest, rest, rest; a long rest in bed” (MD 94). Woolf uses these discrepancies to critique the larger picture: that they would not have occurred had there been a better understanding and more communication within the science community. However, a claim based solely on these discrepancies is unsubstantiated because they exist only in the relation between the two doctors. It is unknowable if a different set of doctor would have yielded the same discrepancies. The claim is a critique on only the individuals.
Lastly, even Septimus himself does not escape Woolf’s critical eye. He is in fact the means by which Woolf reveals an ambivalence in both Dr. Holmes and Sir William Bradshaw that is to represent the medical community at large. The Oxford English Dictionary defines ambivalence as the “coexistence in one person of profoundly opposing emotions, beliefs, attitudes, or urges” (OED). Woolf substitutes “one person” with two: Dr. Holmes and Sir William Bradshaw; and raises the idea that perhaps it was not the doctors who were incorrect in their contradictory treatments, but rather the patient that was at fault for their discrepancies. Could it be that Septimus was the cause in the doctors’ differing treatments and not a lack of understanding on their respective ends? Septimus throughout the novel sinks deeper into delusion, becomes unpredictable, and by the end, he believes there is a conspiracy against him. Woolf writes, “So he was in their power! Holmes and Bradshaw were on him!” (MD 144). Septimus’s condition has worsened, and the patient that Dr. Holmes tended to was likely not the patient Bradshaw sought to treat. Septimus is an unreliable character, and therefore insufficient as means to foment critique on the issues within the medical community.
In her novel, Woolf founds her critique on insufficient grounds: examining the respective attributes of the two doctors, Dr. Holmes and Sir William Bradshaw, seeing how they differ, and then applying those attributions to the greater medical community at large is a generalization. A critique of an individual is not a critique on a system; a man is but a man, not an institution. However, in examining the two doctors, Woolf not only analyzes the discrepancies within their practices, but also reveals an ambivalence between the two doctors, a “coexistence” between their contradictory treatments. This ambivalence in turn spurs an analysis of the patient: that Septimus himself was in fact a large factor in the source for the doctors’ varying treatments because he was himself a varying patient. Similar in that the two doctors cannot represent the community at large, Septimus cannot represent all other patients, and therefore is insufficient as a mode in determining the infallibility of the scientific community in regards to mental illness. However, despite the insufficient evidence to support her critique of the medical community at large, Woolf, in Mrs. Dalloway, still raises important questions that poke through the “cotton wool” of ambiguity and shed light onto the hidden patterns behind it. Mrs. Dalloway is a subtle peek at the intricacies, inconsistencies, and irregularities that comprise one of the greatest arms of the social system: the medical community.
"ambivalence, n." OED Online, Oxford University Press, September 2020, Accessed 1 October 2020.
Woolf, Virginia, and Bonnie Kime Scott. Mrs. Dalloway. Harcourt, Inc. 1925. Edited by Mark Hussey, Harvest, 2005.