The Hours And Mrs Dalloway Essay

Compare and Contrast how 'Mrs. Dalloway' and 'The Hours' Approach and Portray Issues of Mental Health.

AN. This is my A-level English coursework based on 'Mrs. Dalloway' by Virginia Woolf, and 'The Hours' by Michael Cunningham. It'll probably bore you to death but what the heck! For those with a morbid curiosity, I got 28/30 for this.

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One of the most important themes of 'Mrs. Dalloway' and, by virtue of it being a derivative text, of 'The Hours,' is that of mental health. The ways issues of mental health are presented are, almost universally, sympathetic and, in the case of the former, empathetic. The strongest symbols of this theme are Septimus and Clarissa in 'Mrs. Dalloway' and Richard, Laura (Mrs. Brown), and Virginia (Mrs. Woolf) in 'The Hours.' Most have problems which are very much the product of their time and we see the way in which people with such illnesses were (and in the case of Richard still are) treated for their malaise. Also of interest in these texts is the relationship between era and the illnesses suffered and the treatment given; across these two texts, the years 1923, 1949, and 1999 are represented.

The most explicitly portrayed mental illness is that of Septimus in 'Mrs. Dalloway' whose shell-shock (brought about by action in the First World War) seems to have brought about a plethora of other symptoms. The utter lack of comprehension and compassion on the part of his doctors partly draws from similar experiences Woolf suffered at the hands of her own doctor, Dr. Savage, and also the way in which shell-shock victims tended to be regarded at the time. As such, the theme is wider than just Septimus's manifestation of 'war neurosis' à la Freud. It also encompasses his treatment by the careless Dr. Holmes with his suggestions that Septimus play golf, eat porridge, and take bromide and the sinister Sir William Bradshaw who wishes Septimus to enter a 'rest' home and seemingly to undergo Orwellian re-programming. Bradshaw's stream of consciousness sections are especially revealing of the attitude of some doctors at the time:

'Health we must have; and health is proportion; so that when a man comes into your room and says he is Christ… …and has a message… …and threatens… …to kill himself, you invoke proportion; order rest in bed; rest in solitude; silence and rest; rest without friends, without books; without messages; six months' rest…' (Page 110).

This portrayal of Bradshaw's thoughts could well reflect Woolf's own experiences (and those of others) coming through to damn both the doctors who mis-treated patients suffering from shell-shock and those who did the same to patients suffering from more common mental illnesses. Woolf portrays doctors as being either useless, or indulging in sinister social engineering bordering on eugenics. One can contrast the way in which Septimus is treated with the way in which Prior is treated in Pat Barker's 'Regeneration' trilogy, which is also based on the experiences of patients with shell-shock, however, these patients are talked through their illness, something which was, in many ways, ahead of its time. The contrast between these treatments represents a controversy in medicine at the time, with some doctors advocating talking to shell-shock victims, and others simply locking them away in sanatoria. It is unlucky for Septimus that he has seen doctors of the latter rather than the former type.

Septimus's delusions are portrayed in Woolf's characteristic stream of consciousness style; the sentences tend towards the short and clipped, although, as with others in the book, they are interspersed with some longer, more complex ones.

'Once you fall, Septimus repeated to himself, human nature is on you. Holmes and Bradshaw are on you. They scour the desert. They fly screaming into the wilderness. The rack and the thumbscrew are applied. Human nature is remorseless.' (Page 108).

Here, we see a classic example of the way in which Septimus's thoughts are portrayed, the short, simple sentences, the labouring of the 'human nature' motif (apparently a common symptom of psychosis), and the bleak metaphors leading, on the downward curve of his emotions, to a bleak world-view. That Septimus's thoughts show him to be a helpless victim in this affair evokes a great deal of sympathy for him in the mind of the reader, when one contrasts this with the way in which the thoughts of the ostensibly 'sane and sensible' doctors do not move us in the slightest. We see how subtle and judicious is Woolf's use of stream of consciousness.

Septimus's equivalent character in 'The Hours' is Richard, a gay poet dying of AIDS in nineties New York. As with Septimus, Richard's situation is approached with nothing but sympathy although, unlike Septimus, there is no stream of consciousness narrative of Richard's thoughts. Richard's problems are portrayed solely through the view of Clarissa Vaughan, both through dialogue and her own thoughts and reminiscences.

It is interesting to note that both Septimus and Richard suffer from diseases which were (and are) not well understood by their contemporaries both lay and medical. Richard's treatment at the hands of the doctors is not, as far as we know, as ineffective and patronising as Septimus's; we never see him with his doctors and we never see memories of him being with them. It is perhaps, though, somewhat ironic that Richard commits suicide by throwing himself out of a window after taking the drugs his doctors have prescribed; this could well be a symbol of the impotence of the medical profession in the face of diseases such as AIDS.

Richard's mental illness itself is expressed to Clarissa in the two conversations of theirs that we see. He vividly describes his hallucinations:

'"I think of them as coalescences of black fire, I mean they're dark and bright at the same time. There was one that looked a bit like a black, electrified jellyfish. They were singing, just now, in a foreign language. I believe it may have been Greek. Archaic Greek."' (Page 59).

A notable contrast between this and the expression of Septimus's madness is that by and large, Septimus's syntax, being shorter and more clipped (as discussed above), is markedly different from Richard's; this could well be caused by the different media of expression, with Septimus's thoughts being portrayed through stream of consciousness, and Richard's through his dialogue with Clarissa. There is also the fact that Richard is not portrayed as being as outwardly insane as Septimus; it is very doubtful that Septimus would have been capable of so cold-bloodedly discussing his hallucinations with Rezia; this is probably because Septimus is portrayed as truly believing that they are real, whereas Richard seems to know that they are not. This is perhaps a mark of the comparative severity of the illnesses portrayed with Septimus seeming to be prone to more acute delusions than Richard.

Richard, as with Septimus, has been prescribed drugs by his doctor which have proved ultimately to be ineffective. However, Richard's illness has been diagnosed; we know straight from the horse's mouth what it is. With Septimus, Woolf does not give us a scene where he or Rezia is actually told what is wrong with him. Dr. Bing, Richard's doctor, whilst unable to help him, is not seen to be particularly incompetent or sinister as are the doctors in 'Mrs. Dalloway.' It would thus seem that doctors have become far more knowledgeable about and sympathetic to mental illness since 'Mrs. Dalloway' was written.

Overall, the major differences between the portrayal of the madnesses of Septimus and Richard are a result of the fact that Septimus's is portrayed directly whilst Richard's is portrayed indirectly. This means that we can see of Richard's only that which can be articulated by speech, as opposed to Septimus's where, due to the stream of consciousness narrative, we see his innermost thoughts. Both methods, directly, and through the eyes of one whom the afflicted person loves, engender sympathy in the reader and definitely hint at sympathy on the part of the writer as well. This more positive portrayal of madness in 1923 was very unusual as it had heretofore been regarded as something which one kept quiet; in 1999 as well, a sympathetic portrayal of an AIDS patient would also have been regarded as trail-blazing in some circles. These books are thus linked by the taboo subject matter with which they deal.

Taking a broader look at the subject, Richard's mother Laura, whilst not diagnosed with any medical condition, also has problems in this area. She is a housewife living the American dream in 1949 (the height of the American post-war boom). However, she is deeply unsatisfied which in turn renders her depressed and suicidal.

Laura's problems are presented more ambiguously than anyone else's; on the one hand, we feel sorry for her because of her incredible frustration, her depression, and her suicidal tendencies. However, there is the added factor of her child, whom we see as sad and almost unloved as a result of Laura's own problems. To hear Richie's heart-rending 'mommy, I love you' and to see Laura unable to react to show that his love is reciprocated make a huge dent in the sympathy which one would otherwise feel for her.

In a way, Laura is portrayed as being ahead of her time; she is not suited to the stay-at-home role of an American Dream housewife. The fact that she knows this is portrayed as leading her to guilt and frustration, and thence to contemplation of suicide. We, as readers, are meant to feel great sympathy with this aspect of her and her imprisonment without chains. Her 'escape' to an hotel room for a few hours, where she contemplates suicide to escape from her unfulfilling life, foreshadows her later desertion of her family and her actual attempt at suicide.

'She could decide to die. It is an abstract, shimmering notion, not particularly morbid… …By going to a hotel, she sees, you leave the particulars of your own life and enter a neutral zone, a clean white room, where dying does not seem too strange.' (Page 151).

At this point, Laura, trapped in a life she does not want and yearning for a way out, seems a pitiable figure suffering from mild depression. She too has her thoughts presented in stream of consciousness fashion, thus rendering the reader more likely to be moved to sympathy for her. However, Laura is also shown to be a three-dimensional character in that her depression and other factors render her inattentive of her son; when this is juxtaposed with Richard's tragic demise in the 'Mrs. Dalloway' sections of the book, one cannot help but feel a certain amount of anger against her for making Richard (old and young) so unhappy. It is an aspect of the tragedy in the book that Laura's frustration has made her incapable of loving Richard, and that in its turn has had a profound effect on Richard himself. Perhaps the most telling insights are Clarissa's at the end of the book:

'Here is the lost mother, the thwarted suicide; here is the woman who walked away' (Page 221).


'She [Laura] knows that she has been worshipped and despised; she knows she has obsessed a man who might, conceivably, prove to be a significant artist.' (Page 221)

These insights would seem to be both very deep, yet missing the fundamental factor of Laura's own illness. Laura, as a mother who can be 'worshipped and despised' is a very potent example of just what mental illness can do to families. The ambivalent feelings she creates are engendered both in the reader and in the other characters who know her. The portrayal of Laura's problems itself is fairly sympathetic (albeit permeated by subtle satires on American post-war consumerism), with the reader being easily led to understand why she has reacted as she has. However, in leading us to feel sympathy for Richard at the early loss of his mother, the reader's response to her behaviour is, it would seem, intended to be much more ambivalent.

Another interesting character to look at from the point of view of both texts is Virginia Woolf herself. As a character in 'The Hours' and the author of 'Mrs. Dalloway,' it is interesting to look both at her writing, and at Cunningham's interpretation and portrayal of her mental state at the time of writing the book.

Obviously, it is difficult to gauge totally Virginia Woolf's frame of mind when writing 'Mrs. Dalloway,' however, it can be seen that Septimus and Clarissa are, in a way, two sides of her which she has inserted into the work (her 'mad' and 'sane' sides). We know that at this time, Woolf was enjoying fairly good mental health, although, as in 'The Hours,' shewas forced to endure medically advised 'exile' in Richmond which she did not like. It would seem that Woolf's was outlook was fairly positive at the time of writing the book; the character who most resembles Woolf herself, Clarissa, unquestionably loves life, represented in the book by her penchant for giving parties. However, it would seem that Woolf's morbid thoughts were never very far from the surface, through Clarissa, she celebrates Septimus in death as much as in life:

'She felt somehow very like him – the young man who had killed himself. She felt glad that he had done it; thrown it away while they went on living.' (Page 204).

It is a testament to a multi-faceted nature that Woolf seems to have loved life and death at the same time, and to have celebrated both in her novel. This celebration of life and death comes across at different times in the 'Mrs. Woolf' sections of 'The Hours;' at the beginning, we see her suicide, and we see the dead bird and her reaction to it, but we also see her kiss Vanessa and plan her book. Cunningham's choice to portray her suicide at the beginning, and refer to it throughout the book, not only lends the book a certain symmetry, with Richard's suicide at the end, but also, as with other characters, leads to pity for Woolf in her predicament.

An aspect of Woolf's mental illness also evident in both texts is her aversion to food. This is explicitly explored in 'The Hours:'

'She reminds herself: food is not sinister. Do not think of putrefaction or faeces; do not think of the face in the mirror.' (Page 85).

This interior monologue is very revealing of the anorexic psyche. The disgust of food which underlies this quotation is made evident (probably unconsciously) by the graphic way in which Miss Kilman eats an éclair:

'Miss Kilman opened her mouth, slightly projected her chin, and swallowed down the last inches of the chocolate éclair, then wiped her fingers, and washed the tea round in her cup.' (Page 145).

Taken together, these two quotations speak of deep-seated mental illness on the part of Woolf, and it is doubtless this which leads her to portray the illness of Septimus so sympathetically; there is also evidence that Woolf took aspects of her own delusions and made them Septimus's and thus the book can give us a unique insight into her mind. Unlike the other characters, she was a real person and thus has left sources we (like Cunningham) can use to evaluate her mental state. It is difficult to know how she wished to present herself through the medium of her work, so we must base much of our actual judgement of her as a person on her Diary and other sources available as well as what we can glean of her mental state from reading her work. In 'The Hours,' she seems to be portrayed as a very strong woman, with the one weakness of her mental illness, one pities and respects her based on this depiction of her, and it would seem to be a justified reaction based on what we can extrapolate of her from 'Mrs. Dalloway.' Through the 'Mrs. Woolf' sections of 'The Hours,' we see Cunningham's fascination with the creative process, especially with relation to mental illness, the insight into Woolf's mind is believable and interesting.

Another brief depiction of mental illness (perhaps) that we get is from Mrs. Dalloway herself. Clarissa seems, on the surface, to be a perfectly ordinary and perhaps even boring society hostess, however, a central message of this book would seem to be that people are normally more than they seem. Clarissa, although in love with life, has morbid thoughts of death, including a graphic imagined first person view of Septimus's suicide:

'He had thrown himself from a window. Up had flashed the ground; through him, blundering, bruising, went the rusty spikes. There he lay with a thud, thud, thud in his brain, and then a suffocation of blackness. So she saw it.' (Page 202).

Clarissa's fundamental love of life can be seen when she buys her flowers, right at the beginning of the book:

'… As if this beauty, this scent, this colour, and Miss Pym liking her, trusting her, were a wave which she let flow over her and surmount that hatred, that monster, surmount it all; and it lifted her up and up…' (Page 16).

The first obvious contrast between these two quotations, apart from the diametrically opposite positions in Clarissa's mental cycle, is the differing syntax; when Clarissa thinks of death, the sentences become shorter, and less complicated, here, where Clarissa is experiencing a perfect moment, her sentences are long and complex with subordinate clauses. Clarissa, even in her mind, would seem to be more loquacious when happy. These two vastly different moods could be a reflection of Woolf's own humours.

As with other characters in 'Mrs. Dalloway,' Clarissa's thoughts are presented in the form of stream of consciousness narratives which, again, show us things through her eyes. Her fear of being the 'perfect hostess' and nothing more, and her insecurities about her daughter simply make her human when she may otherwise be in danger of becoming a parody of the British middle and ruling classes. One certainly has sympathy for her when faced with Miss Kilman and her fears of losing Elizabeth.

Overall, in both novels, issues of mental health are central. The afflictions of the characters are sympathetically portrayed by a mixture of stream of consciousness narrative, and dialogue. We also see the effect of the mental disposition of one character upon that of another giving us an opportunity to evaluate their relationships. It is clear that much of the source for these disorders is experience, direct or indirect.


Clarissa Vaughn remembers that she must buy flowers. She leaves her lover, Sally, cleaning the bathroom and dashes out of the house. As she steps outside, she admires the June morning and feels lucky to be alive. In good health at the age of fifty-two, Clarissa feels practically the same as she felt when she was eighteen and living in Wellfleet with her former lover Richard. She remembers stepping out of glass doors on a similar day, when Richard put his hand on her shoulder and greeted her by calling her “Mrs. Dalloway.” He chose this pet name because of her first name, Clarissa, and her destiny to “charm and to prosper” like the character in the Virginia Woolf novel of the same name.

On the street, Clarissa thinks about how Richard’s literary success will be cut short by AIDS. She feels badly for loving the beauty of the day so much that she can forget about Richard’s troubles for a minute. Clarissa is aware that she has a noncritical, romantic point of view, but she knows that if she were to express herself fully, people would perceive her as stupid for being so easy to please. Despite this awareness of the potential criticisms of others, Clarissa believes her capacity to enjoy things is the deepest part of her soul.

Clarissa will host a party that evening in honor of Richard’s award. As the hostess, she will have to ensure that the guests have a good time and that Richard gets through the evening without getting too tired. After the party, she will lead him uptown to receive the Carrouthers Prize for his poetry. As Clarissa waits at a stoplight, her neighbor Willie Bass catches sight of her and thinks about how she must have been beautiful at one point but that time has dragged her downwards.

As she walks through the park, Clarissa falls in love with every detail of the city. She loves the eternity of the city, the feeling that it’s been this way forever. Clarissa bumps into Walter Hardy. Walter’s lover Evan has been doing much better on his new HIV drugs, and as they chat Clarissa invites Walter and Evan to the party that night. Clarissa thinks sadly that if Richard were healthier, she’d have been able to have a fight with him about her having invited Walter, whom Richard thinks is shallow. Clarissa imagines what Richard would comment on if he could walk around with her.

Clarissa contemplates buying her daughter, Julia, a pretty dress but realizes that Julia would never wear it. As she looks in the window of a bookstore, she has a memory of a branch tapping against a window. The memory seems to come from a childhood vacation she took with her family to Wisconsin, and she realizes that her memory means more to her than any book that she could find in the store. Clarissa continues walking down the street and regrets not buying the dress for her daughter. Julia has been changed by her friend Mary Krull, and Clarissa resents Mary for turning Julia against her.

Before entering the flower shop, Clarissa notices that a movie production is filming on the street in front of the shop. As she walks in, she greets the owner, Barbara, and she drinks in the pleasures of the store. She feels guilty that she hasn’t become better friends with Barbara, who wants to be an opera singer and faced a close call with breast cancer the year before.

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