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A Biographical Analysis of Virginia Woolf: The Impact of Mental Illness in Woolf's Life, Marriage, and Literature

Luke Holm earned bachelor's degrees in English and philosophy from NIU. He is a middle school teacher and a creative writer.

The impact of mental illness in Woolf's life, marriage, and literature.

The impact of mental illness in Woolf's life, marriage, and literature.

Biography: Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf was born Adeline Virginia Stephen on January 25, 1882, and died by suicide on March 28, 1941. Writing famous works such as The Lighthouse, The Voyage Out, and Mrs. Dalloway, she is considered one of the foremost modernist literary figures of the twentieth century. Born in London to Julia and Leslie Stephen, Virginia was one of four children. In James King’s book Virginia Woolf, he notes that “Virginia had mixed feelings about domestics. Like many members of the upper and professional classes, she had been born into a family which employed large numbers of servants” (King 231). Her confusion is later reflected in the characters of her novels, such as Clarissa Dalloway from Mrs. Dalloway.

Early Stages of Mental Illness

Throughout her life, Virginia was prone to nervous breakdowns. After her mother and half-sister died, Virginia experienced her first of several breakdowns when she was fifteen. At the age of twenty-two, following her father’s death, Virginia had her second breakdown and was briefly institutionalized. After her father’s death, Virginia moved to Bloomsbury with her siblings. There, she met a fellow writer named Leonard Woolf. “Virginia married Leonard Woolf in 1912, and in 1917 they started Hogarth Press which operated out of their home in London” (Gracer 1).

On the surface, Virginia and Leonard’s marriage was healthy and filled with love. However, when examined closer, Virginia’s instability put an enormous strain on the marriage’s overall success. “Her comfortable marriage did not assuage periods of depression, prompted by self-doubts and, to a lesser extent, world affairs” (Gracer 2). Leonard’s life was made difficult because most of Virginia’s life was lived in fear of her next mental breakdown. As Virginia attempted to make sense of her unstable situation, she did so partially through the characters in her novels.

Mental Illness and Woolf's Subsequent Breakdowns

When understanding mental illness, it is important to have a correct diagnosis of what the problem is. Mental illness was often vaguely defined and misdiagnosed throughout the twentieth century. Without a proper and specific diagnosis, the patient can become disillusioned from what their true predicament is.

Virginia was misdiagnosed at an early age. In Thomas Szasz’s book My Madness Saved Me: The Madness and Marriage of Virginia Woolf, he suggests that an improper diagnosis can manifest itself and become real within the mind of the beholder. In Virginia’s case, “When Virginia was a child, she was nicknamed 'the Goat.' When Virginia was thirteen, she was nicknamed 'Mad.’ Doctors examined her for madness and found it in her” (Szasz 4). This misdiagnosis of mental instability occurred often in the twentieth century and was eventually coined the term “neurasthenia.” Neurasthenia (nerve weakness) was a Victorian euphemism that covered a variety of vaguely recognizable symptoms, just as the term neurosis lumped together various disorders for much of this century” (Caramagno 11).

With a vague analysis of her mental instability, Virginia had a difficult time coping with her situation; she constantly lived in fear of her next mental breakdown. “Ascertaining just what Woolf did think of her illness is complicated by her doctor's inconsistent explanations of nervous disorders” (Caramagno 11). In many ways, Virginia was correct to fear the reoccurrence of her disorder. It later became understood that Virginia Woolf was manic-depressive throughout most of her life. “Manic-depressive illness is a recurrent illness. From 85 to 95 percent of patients who have an initial manic episode suffer recurrences of either depression or mania” (Caramagno 36). This depression was most likely triggered by tragic events that occurred early in her life, such as the death of her loved ones and a possible raping in her youth. Because of her depression, Virginia often isolated herself from the outside world–the world of fiction being an easier realm of existence for her to cope with her troubles in. One critic once said, “Virginia 'would take refuge in nervous stress' to escape her marital problems” (Caramagno 9). As she became more and more isolated, her depression grew more difficult on her husband Leonard.

Leonard dedicated much of his life to studying his wife Virginia. As a husband, he wanted to do all he could to aid in stabilizing her mental state. He soon figured out that while Virginia was writing a novel, she was sane and in the manic period of her manic-depression. However, soon after her novel was complete, she became depressed. In his autobiography Beginning Again, “Leonard saw the same phenomenon in Virginia, a discernible shift in mood from her usual perceptivity to impaired reality testing:

'I am sure that, when she had a breakdown, there was a moment when she passed from what can be rightly called sanity to insanity . . . In all these cases of breakdown there were two distinct stages which are technically called manic-depressive. In the manic stage she was extremely excited; the mind raced; she talked volubly and, at the height of the attack, incoherently; she had delusions and heard voices, for instance she told me that in her second attack she heard the birds in the garden outside her window talking Greek; she was violent with the nurses. During the depressive stage all her thoughts and emotions were the exact opposite of what they had been in the manic stage (Beginning Again 76)’” (Caramagno 34).

Even Virginia began to notice the patterns of her mental breakdowns. Noticing that in her journal she was prone to mental distress after completing a novel, she soon grew weary over her overall presence in daily life. “Virginia experienced what she called the 'occasional swing of the tail'—moments of sadness in which she reflected on just how extremely insignificant her position was in the world” (King 244).

To try and establish a well-balanced life for Virginia, Leonard continued to love his wife despite their struggle. “Whatever we may think of Leonard as a person, we must remember that it is not easy to live with a manic-depressive, who may, without self-awareness, in one mood judge a situation, desire, or destiny in ways that diverge considerably from a judgment made in some other mood” (Caramango 21). As Virginia grew older, it became even more difficult for her to cope with the depression in her life. The doctors who treated her gave her anxiety. The treatments they prescribed for her were unsuccessful and torturous. “On the morning of 27 March, a very agitated Leonard telephoned Octavia at home and asked her to see his wife immediately. Virginia would not answer Octavia's questions and only consented to remove her clothes for examination on one condition. 'Will you promise if I do this not to order me a rest cure?'” (King 620).

By the end of Virginia’s treatments, she could no longer cope with her normal life. “If Virginia lived a quiet, vegetative life, eating well, going to bed early, and not tiring herself mentally or physically, she remained perfectly well (Beginning Again 76)” (Caramagno 12). Aside from this sheltered existence, she had only her fiction. While Virginia wrote fiction, her fiction was played very close to the heart. She would often create certain aspects of her characters to portray the real thoughts and emotions of her own personal life. We find this out after Virginia’s death through characters such as Septimus Smith and Clarissa Dalloway in Mrs. Dalloway. Both characters portray the inner and outer turmoil that Virginia and her marriage were plagued with. This turmoil would eventually bring about her suicide.

On March 28, 1941, Virginia Woolf committed suicide. Putting “on her heavy fur coat in preparation for her walk to the Ouse . . . she loaded her pockets up with heavy stones . . . waded into the earth-green water” and “she died quietly but probably not gently, as her body struggled and then surrendered” (King 623). She succeeded in doing this after a failed first attempt. In her first attempt, her ‘fight for survival’ instincts took over and she was unable to achieve peace. “If Virginia tried to drown herself on 18 March, the attempt may have been unsuccessful because she wore a light coat and did not weigh her body down” (King 619). In her second attempt, however, she was successful. Virginia left a letter for Leonard stating that she feared she was going mad again. She has been hearing voices and she is unsure if she will recover this time. She said “she heard the birds in the garden outside her window talking Greek” (Caramagno 34). Among other things, she asked “Leonard to destroy all her papers” (King 621). Finally she ends in elation for her love. “Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can't go on spoiling your life any longer. I don't think two people could have been happier than we have been. V” (Wikipedia). Aside from King’s morbid depictions and Virginia’s final thoughts, she was quite ready for her death, “All her life Virginia had battled the forces of death” (King 622), and it was discovered that her end was quite elaborately planned.


Woolf Foreshadowed Her Own Death

In Mrs. Dalloway, the instability of both Virginia’s mental state and her marriage are reflected in a variety of ways. By juxtaposing examples from Virginia’s own life with her characters from the novel, I will discuss how the mental instability of a spouse affects the two marriages of Septimus and Rezia Smith and of Clarissa and Richard Dalloway.

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Virginia’s troubling end and eventual suicide are much like her character Septimus Smith from her novel Mrs. Dalloway. Virginia did not merely kill herself, “She carefully chose the time and circumstances of her death, very much in the manner of an artist imposing her will upon life. The ending of her life was very much in the manner of Septimus Smith in Mrs. Dalloway, where his suicide was 'defiance.' Death was an attempt to communicate . . . There was an embrace of death” (King 622).


Woolf's Reality Reflected in Fictional Characters

Virginia alluded to her ultimate plots through characters such as Septimus. Instead of manic-depression, Septimus had "shell shock." Virginia creates a shell shock victim for several reasons. First, the consistent talk of war in England was a large contributing factor to Virginia’s stress levels and mental instability. Second, like Virginia’s manic-depression, World War I shell shock victims were often misdiagnosed or lumped in with some vague description of a mental deficiency. Third, “The ultimate paradigm of the trauma survivor and hence modernist man [Septimus] emerged in the aftermath of the First World War—the shell-shocked war veteran. The severely traumatized war veteran, whom Septimus Smith epitomizes, embodies the essential characteristics of modernist man” (King 652).

During WWI, the term “shell shock” came into use. Soldiers who committed suicide, abandoned their station, or disobeyed orders were often diagnosed with shell shock. “Other symptoms include nightmares, flashbacks, trying not to remember the events that happened, being irritable or angry, not being able to remember certain events or the trauma, and feeling emotionally numb or detached from others” (Paolillo 2).

Shell shock is later termed “post-traumatic stress disorder” or “PTSD.” Christin Shullo states that these post-traumatic stress symptoms “are the type of mental illness that Virginia Woolf uses to make her comment about society and its treatment of mentally ill patients. She emphasizes the effect of the brutality of the First World War and the lack of effective treatment through Septimus' thoughts and experiences as well as those of his wife.”

Jean Thomson, author of Virginia Woolf and the Case of Septimus Smith, makes the claim that,

“As Woolf is not generally thought of as a writer who deals with the harsh realities of war or sex, it is startling to realize that she can so poignantly describe the effects of war experiences on social and personal mental health and relationships. The portrayal of Septimus Smith both as a generality of Smiths and as a suffering individual man makes him almost the Unknown Soldier, except that his violent death takes place at home rather than on the battlefield” (55).

Woolf’s ability to relate so closely to Septimus’ inner turmoil stems from her own personal mental health and relationship experiences. Through Septimus’ character, Woolf is able to make several significant claims. The first is a “social commentary about both the effects of World War I and the treatment of mental illness in early twentieth-century Britain. She uses the character of Septimus Smith and his suffering to illustrate to the reader the gravity of the situation in hopes that awareness would bring change” (Shullo). Second, Woolf could take experiences from her own life and display her troubled existence and marriage through the eyes of Septimus. Finally, Woolf uses Septimus Smith to be a foreshadowing characteristic of her own demise in events to come.


Woolf's Social Commentary Through Fictional Characters

Malpractice, misdiagnoses, and a general distrust for doctors are seen quite similarly in Woolf’s life as it is in Septimus’. A journal article titled “Trauma and Recovery in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway” states, “Septimus Smith illustrates not only the psychological injuries suffered by victims of severe trauma such as war but also the need for them to give meaning to their suffering in order to recover from the trauma. Septimus' death is the result of his inability to communicate his experiences to others and thereby give those experiences meaning and purpose” (DeMeester 649). Like Woolf’s neurasthenia, Septimus’ shell shock encompassed a vague realm of war-related injuries and afflictions. Not until the 1890s did a true understanding of PTSD come about, and, with it, an insight into the lives of those who had it. Insufficient knowledge on the subject led to vague claims and questionable treatments.

When we first meet Septimus, we find him sitting in Regent Park with his wife Rezia. Rezia is contemplating a diagnosis Dr. Holmes provided to explain her husband’s peculiar attitude. Rezia is confused about Septimus’ perception of life. She feels as though her husband is being weak when she thinks “it cowardly for a man to say he would kill himself . . . ” (Woolf 23).

Rezia is not alone in her misunderstanding of her husband’s mental illness. In an essay by Megan Wood, Wood states that, “Psychiatric treatment was very much in its infancy at that time, medical staff had limited methods of treating the symptoms of ‘shell shock.’ . . . they blamed pre-existing mental illness, a weak constitution, or lack of character” (2-3). These psychiatrists reinforced opinions, held by high-ranking military personnel, that it was ‘cowardice’ and ‘weakness’ that led to ‘shell shock’, not the stress of war itself.

With an unclear grasp on the situation, Rezia and Septimus are unable to fully communicate their experiences with those they love. They are unable to find the source to Septimus’ madness and are therefore unable to establish a well-defined goal when attempting to cure his ailment. “For she could stand it no longer. Dr. Holmes might say there was nothing the matter . . . ‘Septimus has been working too hard’–that was all she could say to her own mother . . . Dr. Holmes said there was nothing the matter with him” (Woolf 23).

As a cure, Dr. Holmes suggests “to make [Septimus] notice real things, go to a music hall, play cricket—that was the very game . . . for her husband” (Woolf 25). Septimus’ inability to cope with normal life suggests a deeper and more troubling trauma than what Rezia experiences. “Holmes's advice to Rezia to get Septimus to look at ‘real things, go to a music hall, play cricket,’ suggests that such conventional activities are more representative of reality and truth than what Septimus experienced and learned in war” (DeMeester 661).

Through Septimus, Woolf’s skeptic acceptance of doctor-prescribed treatments is also apparent. Woolf sees doctors and their treatments in a similar way that she views human nature—brutish. Dr. Bradshaw’s “rest cure” is quite similar to cures Woolf was prescribed by her own physicians. An article by Karen Samuels speaks about the mistrust Woolf and Septimus faced because of their illness:

“Social distrust is described by Shay as an indicator of the most complex forms of PTSD because it tends to prevent people from getting and retaining treatment. Social distrust is the expression of a world view that Shay refers to as, “the expectancy of exploitation for other people’s advancement” and results from the experience of having lost friends or seen them maimed because individuals in powerful positions ‘went by the book’ instead of looking at the details of a particular situation and choosing a common sense solution” (7).

Woolf is looking at doctors through Septimus’ eyes. “Dr. Bradshaw stands for her as a complex symbol of everything she detests” (Rachman). Like Woolf’s own life, Septimus became overwhelmed by the distinction between true and altered realities. His disarray eventually led to complications within his marriage.


The Impact of Mental Illness on Woolf's Marriage

As seen in Woolf’s own life, mental illness creates a hard and challenging impact on marriage. In a study done with Israeli POWs, “Findings support the view that marital problems of former POWs are related to PTSD” (Paolillo 4). For Rezia, like Leonard with Virginia, maintaining a balanced mental state in Septimus took large portions of her time. “To love makes one solitary, she thought” (Woolf 23). By taking examples from her own life, Woolf better creates the character Septimus and the relationship he holds with Rezia. Because of Septimus’ situation, Rezia must suffer a difficult marriage, much like Leonard did. Even though their marriages were difficult, their counterparts are loved ones, “Nothing could make her happy without him! Nothing” (Woolf 23). Woolf can embody such an image because she lived it herself. Instances such as when Septimus listens to a bird “sing freshly and piercingly in Greek words how there is no crime and, joined by another sparrow, they sang in voices prolonged and piercing in Greek words” (Woolf 24) come directly from Woolf’s own experiences of mental instability.

Woolf Foreshadows Her Own Suicide

Finally, Woolf uses the character of Septimus to allude to eventual plans for her own life and suicide. After the anxiety and anticipation of another rest cure, Septimus jumps out his window and meets a quick end. Woolf uses this form of suicide because she too once thought of committing suicide by jumping out a window. In one of her journal entries, Woolf marvels at such a quick and abrupt ending with the ground rising up quickly and the body making a sudden stop. Septimus’ death is a statement of the toll that the war left on young men in England and of the toll that the war left on Woolf. The suicide was not lived out in fear; instead, it was an understanding of different and limited perceptions that came about because of the war and because of mental illness. Septimus’ death was an escape from prison, something Clarissa had trouble achieving.

Although Clarissa and Septimus never meet in the novel, their paths do cross and the fate of one greatly impacts the other. It can be said that Woolf embodies both Septimus and Clarissa, however, Septimus is often seen as Clarissa’s double.

“We know from a statement made by Virginia Woolf herself that in the original plan for Mrs. Dalloway there was no place for Septimus, and that Clarissa was intended to commit suicide at the end. Subsequently the story of Septimus was introduced and it is he, as Clarissa's double, who commits suicide. Obviously Virginia Woolf brought in Septimus not so much to state his own case as to enhance that of Clarissa, to bring to the surface something buried deep in her own life” (Rachman).

In Mrs. Dalloway, Clarissa Dalloway represents the fine line between sanity and insanity. This was a line that Woolf teetered back and forth upon throughout most of her own life. It is almost as if Clarissa is Woolf’s past self. “This is the emotional history of Virginia Stephen masking itself as the fiction of Clarissa Dalloway” (King 356). Clarissa, like Woolf, is a woman who enjoys her life and marriage but who is troubled by an eminent outcome that she foresees in her future.


Woolf's Ultimate Realization: Death as Defiance

Clarissa Dalloway is created by Woolf’s ability to understand and represent the party scene. "Virginia's heightened sense of what she called the 'party consciousness'—the desire to commemorate publicly family, friendship, and joy in life—became part of the fabric of Mrs. Dalloway" (King 335). As a character, Clarissa is meant to demonstrate much of the superficial views Woolf held herself as a young woman. Because Clarissa grows up rich and pampered, she doesn't need to worry about troubling things such as manic depression or shell shock. However, Clarissa is not immune to mental instability.

Throughout the novel, Clarissa often questions if she is truly happy with her life. Like Septimus' dichotomy between war and civilized society, Clarissa is torn by two views of how her life has progressed. On one hand, she could have married Peter Walsh; she may have been very happy with him in her life. On the other, she is married to Richard Dalloway. Richard is not as deep or insightful as Peter, but he represents a safety net that Clarissa finds appealing. In either situation, she sees her eventual outcome to be like the old woman whose window is across from hers. "The old lady is isolated but faces her existence stoically; presumably, she will die in the near future at a time determined by her body. Like Clarissa, the old lady is aware of the persuasive force of death, but she chooses life" (King 357).

Even though Clarissa experiences minor pains such as headaches and anxiety questioning the true purpose of her life, her true mental illness is not an innate part of herself. Like Woolf, Clarissa is often seen resting or caught up in affairs that pertain to superficial situations such as parties and evening dresses. Clarissa experiences a brief mental breakdown when she learns of Septimus' death from Lady Bradshaw. "She did not know Septimus, but the idea of death and its connection with Dr. Bradshaw disturbs her deeply. She goes into the little room adjoining the rooms where the party is being held. Here Clarissa experiences what for us, in the book, is her second moment of vision, of truth" (Rachman). For Clarissa, death became "defiance. Death was an attempt to communicate; people feeling the impossibility of reaching the centre which, mystically, evaded them; closeness drew apart; rapture faded, one was alone" (Woolf 184).

Here it is Septimus' mental illness that affects Clarissa in such a way that it can be made profound, but somehow, "it was her disaster--her disgrace" (Woolf 185). The ultimate realization Clarissa came to was a result of the young man who killed himself. When Clarissa retires to imagine the ground flashing up to Septimus at the moment of his death, the artistic and social elements of Woolf's character blend. All along Clarissa worried if she made the right choice or not when she married. In the end, she realizes that her choice ultimately does not matter. She is alone in the world; she realized the vanity which she has created throughout her life through parties and appearances. After her realization, she "Fear no more the heat of the sun . . . She must go back to them. She felt somehow very like him—the young man who had killed himself. She felt glad that he had done it; thrown it away. He made her feel the beauty; made her feel the sun" (Woolf 187).


The Realization of Being Truly Alone

In conclusion, by ending with defiance in the face of death, Woolf displays her own view of life, her meaning in it, and the role that death plays. Just as Clarissa's neighbor prepares for bed alone, Woolf realizes that ultimately she is alone in the world. Throughout her entire life, she struggled with this concept. By the end of her life, she has accepted it by making use of fictional scenarios and characters within her novels. In Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf relates her own manic-depressive life and chaotic marriage with the characters of Septimus Smith and Clarissa Dalloway. In it, Woolf suggests that misdiagnosis often caused harsher situations for those mentally ill. Marriage became a task the couples struggled with instead of being a road easily travelled. Ultimately, though, Woolf's goal was to put meaning on her life and the struggle she endure throughout it. Woolf finds meaning and alludes to it at the end of Mrs. Dalloway with Clarissa Dalloway. Death is defiance. It is finally accepting yourself in the midst of all else. It is accepting your life and the path that it has taken. Through Woolf's fiction, life begins to take on a whole new meaning.

Works Cited

Caramagno, Thomas C. "Manic-Depressive Psychosis and Critical Approaches to Virginia Woolf's Life and Work." PMLA 103.1 (1988): 10-23.

Caramagno, Thomas C. The Flight of the Mind Virginia Woolf's Art and Manic-Depressive Illness. New York: University of California, 1996.

DeMeester, Karen. "Trauma and Recovery in Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway." Project MUSE 55.3 (1998): 649-67.

Gracer, David M. Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway. Piscataway, N.J: Research and Education Association, 1996.

King, James. Virginia Woolf. New York: Norton & Company, 1995.

Paolillo, Jason D. "The Effect of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder on Veteran Soldiers’ Mental and Everyday Life." 1-8.

Rachman, Shalom. "Clarissa's Attic: Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway Reconsidered." Twentieth Century Literature 18.1 (1972): 3-18.

Samuels, Karen. "Post-traumatic Stress Disorder as a State of Liminality." Journal of Military and Strategic Studies 8.3 (2006): 1-24.

Shullo, Christin. "Mrs. Dalloway: A Social Commentary by Virginia Woolf." Associated Content. 11 Apr. 2008.

Szasz, Thomas S. "My madness saved me" the madness and marriage of Virginia Woolf. New Brunswick, N.J: Transaction, 2006.

Thomson, Jean. "Virginia Woolf and the Case of Septimus Smith." The San Francisco Jung Institute Library Journal 3rd ser. 23 (2008): 55-71.

"Virginia Woolf." Wikipedia. <>.

Wood, Megan. "Shell-shocked: The trauma of war." 1-5.

© 2017 JourneyHolm


JourneyHolm (author) on February 07, 2018:

I agree, Robin. Someone once told me to think of the mind and mental illness as a spectrum. They said we all lie somewhere along that spectrum, it's just that some are more radically inclined toward one disposition or the other. Thanks for the read :)

Robin Carretti from Hightstown on February 07, 2018:

The mind is so deep many people are wrongly diagnosed with mental illness or other diseases Virginia Wolf was an interesting read how the mind can collapse so many illnesses out there we need to have better cures

JourneyHolm (author) on December 01, 2017:

Thank you both for taking the time to read and review this article! Jay, I appreciate the resources. As always, I'll check them out. Flourish, thank you for your kind comment. This reminded me of my college lit classes as well. Ah, the good old days :)

Jay C OBrien from Houston, TX USA on December 01, 2017:

This is a great and detailed article on Woolf and mental illness. I would like to share two articles on mental illness.

FlourishAnyway from USA on December 01, 2017:

This was exceptionally well written and keen analysis of her work. It takes me back to my literature classes in college. Fabulous work.

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