Failing to Cope

By Suzanne Reffel

One traumatic event can shape the course of an entire life. On the whole, humans are adept in their ability to cope with painful, taxing experiences; however, sometimes an experience is too traumatic and people fail to handle it healthily. “Throughout history, some people have adapted to terrible life events with flexibility and creativity, while others have become fixated on the trauma and gone to lead traumatized and traumatizing existences” (van der Kolk & MacFarlane 487). In her novel, Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf paints two contrary (yet parallel) pictures of this failure cope with trauma via two characters: Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Warren Smith. The novel illustrates how these characters use dysfunctional coping techniques and suggests that both Septimus and Clarissa exhibit detrimental symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), that society is partially to blame for this trauma and that their failure to cope ultimately leads to some form of self-destruction.

“Trauma is used to refer to a painful experience that scars us psychologically” and often provokes behavioral change (Tyson 21). Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as its name would suggests, happens when dysfunctional behaviors arise from trauma. PTSD arises when “people’s inability to come to terms with real experiences has overwhelmed their capacity to cope” (van der Kolk & MacFarlane 488). These traumatic experiences often have detrimental mental, physical and physiological effects on the people who experience them. Clarissa and Septimus often behave in an unusual (sometimes-irrational) manner; PTSD can be helpful in understanding this because it “has created an organized framework for understanding how people’s biology, conceptions of the world, and personalities are inextricably intertwined and shaped by experience” (van der Kolk & MacFarlane 488). Though neither character is specifically diagnosed with PTSD, this disorder can be applied to the novel as a tool for psychoanalytic analysis of these characters.

Septimus’ traumatic wartime experience is a common cause of PTSD. Septimus enlists as a soldier at the beginning of World War I and quickly befriends his commanding officer, Evans. The two men become very close; “It was a case of two dogs playing on a hearth-rug … They had to be together, share with each other, fight with each other, quarrel with each other” (Woolf 86).  Then, during the war Evans is killed and Septimus is devastated, but he refuses to acknowledge his emotional despair and slips quickly into emotional repression. Evan’s death is the traumatic catalyst that the emergence of Septimus’s abnormal behavior.

In contrast, Clarissa’s trauma is not the typical tragedy of war, (though she too suffers the loss of loved ones). Clarissa’s trauma stems from her choice to marry Richard (whom she does not love), thus giving up a future with her dearly loved Peter or beloved Sally. Clarissa’s reflections throughout the novel make her affection for Peter and Sally plain. Clarissa is taken with Peter and she claims that when she refused his proposal, “she had borne about with her for years like an arrow sticking in her heart, the grief, the anguish” (Woolf 8). Even though she refused him, in this admission is it evident that Clarissa once cared for Peter a great deal.

Furthermore, her feelings for Sally are even more powerful, perhaps the strongest sentiments expressed in the novel. Clarissa continues speaks of Sally with the passionately charged language reserved for a lover. “She seemed, anyhow, all light, glowing, like some bird or air ball that has flown in, attached itself for a moment to a bramble. But nothing is so strange when one is in love (and what was this except being in love?)” (Woolf 35). However, despite these powerful emotions, Clarissa decides to spend her life with Richard Dalloway. In doing so, she too endures the “loss of loved ones” in this decision and suffers the “trauma” of her choice.

Though their traumatic experiences differ, Clarissa and Septimus exhibit some of the same behaviors of in dealing with their pain. They both exhibit two symptoms of PTSD, namely intrusions and avoiding/numbing. Admittedly, Clarissa’s symptoms are, perhaps, less  manifest than those of Septimus. Septimus’ manifestations of these symptoms are more physically evident where as Clarissa exhibits the symptoms in a milder mental manner.

A key symptom of PTSD is that the memories of the traumatic experience intrude upon the person’s daily like and affect normal functioning. These memories bring with them the pain of the experience itself and force the person to relive the incident. “Years and even decades after the original trauma, victims claim that their reliving experiences are as vivid as when the trauma first occurred” (van der Kolk & MacFarlane 492). Septimus obviously exhibits this symptom in his delusions about his fallen friend, Evans. In one instance, while sitting on a bench in sunny Regent’s Park, Septimus sees Evans approach.

There they waited till the War was over, and now the dead, now Evans himself – ‘For God’s sake don’t come!’ Septimus cried out. For he could not look upon the dead. But the branches parted. A man in grey was actually walking toward them. It was Evans! But no mud was on him; no wounds; he was not changed. I must tell the whole world, Septimus cried (Woolf 70).

Septimus is completely overcome by these memories, to the extent that he feels that the delusion, not the park is the reality.

Clarissa does not suffer from such extreme delusions, however, from the start of this novel, her consciousness is invaded by memories of Sally and Peter. This is a peculiar obsession of thought. It is not Richard who crosses her mind when she looks out on the beautiful day; it is Peter. Flinging the window open, Clarissa is brought back to a memory of Peter.

‘Musing among the vegetables?’ – was that it? – ‘I prefer men to cauliflowers’ – was that it? He must have said it at breakfast one morning … it was his sayings one remembered; his eyes, his pocket knife, his smile, his grumpiness and, when millions of things has utterly vanished – how strange it was! – a few sayings like this about cabbages (Woolf 4).

Her memories of Sally are even more powerful. Clarissa retreats her attic and remembers Sally’s recklessness: smoking cigars, running naked through the halls of Bourton, and kissing Clarissa’s lips in the flower garden (Woolf 32, 34). Clarissa’s memories reveal that Sally a profound impact on Clarissa when they were young girls. Clarissa brings Sally home to her family and she reflects upon getting ready for dinner one evening. When she thought of Sally, “she could remember going cold with excitement, and doing her hair in a kind of ecstasy … and dressing, and going downstairs, and feeling as she crossed the hall ‘if it were now to die ‘twere now to be most happy” (Woolf 34-35). It is strange how the vivid, and intimate memories of Peter and Sally constantly resurface in Clarissa’s mind throughout the day; it is curious that she thinks about them much more than about Richard. Her intrusions are not as frightening or completely overwhelming as those of Septimus; however, they do invade her consciousness, forcing thoughts of Sally and Peter upon Clarissa’s mind.

Another symptom exhibited by both Clarissa and Septimus is that of avoiding and numbing. When individuals are traumatized they “generally start organizing their lives around avoiding having the emotions that these intrusions evoke” which can involve a numbing of these emotion (van der Kolk & McFarlane 494). Septimus does this from the moment that Evans is killed. “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” (Woolf 86). He continues in this manner to ignore the sadness and avoid the pain. In doing so he sacrifices his relationship with his wife, Rezia. Exasperatedly, Rezia declares that his emotional stoicism is too much, “for she could stand it no longer … Far rather would she that he were dead! She could not sit beside him when he stared so and did not see her and made everything terrible” (Woolf 23). Ultimately, Septimus’ emotional stupor costs him his life. It is because Septimus has chosen to disconnect himself from reality (to avoid emotional pain) that the doctors want to put him in a home; they want to control his emotions and regulate his life. He cannot bear to face this trauma and he won’t let the doctors make him face it; it is for this freedom to numb his emotions that Septimus kills himself.

Clarissa exhibits this symptom differently: by avoiding the positive experiences that are so intimately connected with Peter and Sally. This comes out most clearly in her abandonment of her intellectual quest for knowledge and social reform. Clarissa is encouraged to read and educate herself by Sally’s (and partially Peter’s) encouragement.

They sat, hour after hour, talking in her bedroom at the top of the house, talking about life, how they were to reform the world … The ideas were Sally’s of course – but very soon she was just as excited – read Plato before breakfast; read Morris; read Shelly by the hour (Woolf 33).

This hunger for knowledge is the polar opposite of the life that Clarissa pursued after marrying Richard. In one scene, Richard tries to discuss parliamentary matters with Clarissa, but “she cared much more for her roses than the Armenians. Hunted out of existence, maimed, frozen, the victims of cruelty and injustice (she had heard Richard say so over and over again) – no she could feel nothing for the Albanians, or was it the Armenians? but she loves her roses” (Woolf 120). Clarissa abandons all pursuit of knowledge. “She knew nothing; no language, no history; she scarcely read a book now, except memoirs in bed” (Woolf 8)., Essentially, she becomes the pretty, empty-headed wife – the “perfect hostess” – in order to avoid the pain of remembering Sally and the joyful pursuit of knowledge that Sally inspired in her.

Though the symptoms of PTSD are present partially in both characters, they clearly manifest themselves differently. Septimus exhibits the symptoms in an extreme and diagnosable manner, evident in his intense delusions, dangerous emotional stoicism and ultimate suicide. Admittedly, Clarissa probably would not be diagnosed with PTSD; however, she does exhibit milder forms of the symptoms that magnify in Septimus. In viewing Clarissa and Septimus as foils (as Woolf would suggest) this parallel behavior is an enlightening tool for critical analysis. It brings to light the idea that, though Clarissa seems more in control of her life, she is, in a way, as emotionally unstable as Septimus.

Finally, the representations of both of their “traumas” can be seen as a critique of society. The memories that “traumatize” each character are social institutions: war and marriage. Septimus does not go to war out of personal patriotism, but because society expected if from him. The same is true for Clarissa’s decision to marry Dalloway and give up pursuits of Peter or Sally. Society could never condone relations with either of them: Peter lacks the profitable success necessary for an eligible suitor, and Sally is of the same sex, and therefore off-limits. Ultimately, “sexual behavior is a product of our culture because our culture sets down the rules of proper sexual conduct and definitions of normal and abnormal sexual behavior” (Tyson 25). Just as society influenced Septimus’ decision to enter the war, society propelled Clarissa’s choice to marry Dalloway. Arguably, society and the societal limits placed on these characters are essentially to blame for the ‘trauma’ in the novel.

In summary, by exercising these dysfunctional behaviors, both characters manage to numb the pain of the invading memories. Both characters face very power traumatic experience in part because they are pressured into these experiences by society. However, avoiding the pain of this trauma comes at a price; that price is that both Septimus and Clarissa must sacrifice is their own selves in the process. Obviously, Septimus does this literally by killing himself, but Clarissa too loses something of herself. She kills the thinker inside her; she kills that part of her that delighted in learning. In so doing, both pay the price for failing to cope with their emotional pain.

Works Cited

Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today: A User-friendly Guide. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2006. 1-465. Print.

van der Kolk, Bessel A. and Alexander C McFarlane. “The Black Hole of Trauma.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. . Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004. Print.

Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. New York: Harcourt, Inc., 1925. 3-197. Print.

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