Insanity/Sanity & Human Nature – Virginia Woolf & T.S. Eliot
This response paper will tackle themes related to the novel Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf, and the poem The Love song of J. Alfred Prufrock, by T.S. Eliot. In both works, the theme of insanity versus sanity is presented to the reader, and unique definitions of human nature are constructed through the portrayal of the protagonists/antiheroes.
In Mrs. Dalloway, many parallels exist between two characters: Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Smith. That these two characters most effectively represent the motif of insanity in the novel through their perceptions of the external world and the way they choose to interact with it. Clarissa and Septimus can be described as cultural aberrations; they often find themselves at odds with the norms and values adopted by early twentieth-century English society. Both have homosexual tendencies (considered to be taboo at the time) and feel a profound detachment not only from their respective spouses, but even their closest “friends.” This isolation is attributed when of Clarissa, Woolf writes: “She had a perpetual sense of being out, out, far out to sea” [Page 6]. The same image of being alone in a vast expanse is given to Septimus: “’I lent over the edge of the boat and fell down,’ he thought. ‘I went under the sea’ [Page 49]” Septimus feels as though he has witnessed death already (by fighting in the war) and that there’s no turning back. Thus the marginalization of these protagonists is established.
Insanity is also depicted by the fact that both characters interweave evocative imagination with reality to the point where they are close to losing touch with what is authentic. Clarissa is able to distinguish the difference when there are external cues that prod her on, but we find on numerous occasions that Septimus suffers unknowingly from these delusions, such as when he believes Evans is alive. Clarissa escapes this madness by hosting parties to stay busy and involved with people who can keep her grounded in reality. Septimus takes this a step further and escapes insanity physically by taking his own life. In his last moments, Septimus arrives at a condition of “excitement” and cries out that he “knows the truth” [Page 100]. He’s described as having a moment of clarity in the midst of the insanity. While it is incontrovertible that Septimus is deviant, one might be inclined to say that he’s one of the only sane characters in the novel: having a full awareness of the atrocities of war and being haunted by them is an expected response to trauma (at least, it is in today’s scope of psychotherapy).
When Septimus begins to experience the symptoms of “shell shock” (PTSD), his wife seeks the help of Doctor Holmes. The doctor is insistent that there is nothing medically wrong with Septimus. Septimus loathes Dr. Holmes and calls him “human nature.” Septimus says: “Once you stumble … human nature is on you” [Page 66], and this is repeated at several points in the novel, implicating that Septimus anticipates and dreads Holmes’s constant surveillance. Woolf also writes: “Human nature is remorseless,” [Page 70]. In this way, the author makes a point to show the unforgiving and didactic side of humanity. Dr. Holmes is a man in society who wields the power to dictate what is abnormal or insane. Septimus can only escape physically through death. Holmes represents the rigid social constructs and intolerance that Woolf associates with human nature. Her critique settles in well the modernist movement; deeming science an ideology instead of an exact Truth.
Blurred lines between sanity and insanity are presented in Prufrock. This dramatic monologue has a rambling incoherence, and this is the first thing to depict Prufrock’s movements in and out of his own mind. This is similar to the stream of consciousness style found in Mrs. Dalloway. The persona himself is a man of many ironies. He reflects on his unimpressive aesthetics (“hair is growing thin” and “arms and legs are thin”) and possesses a very distinct inertia to action. This is emphasized when Prufrock says that he spends his time thinking about: “a hundred indecisions,” and “a hundred visions and revisions.” Despite this, Prufrock compares himself to epic figures in literature or history (Hamlet, John the Baptist and Lazarus), and these are delusions of grandeur that are truly insane. Prufrock struggles with inconsequential questions like: “Do I dare to eat a peach?” He has no noteworthy accomplishments to his name: “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.”
The most important note that Prufrock makes about human nature is of disillusionment – the feeling of dissatisfaction following a realization that something is not as good as one believed it to be. The imagery in the poem is anti-romantic – enhancing this tone of disappointment – and the repetitions highlight the persona’s recurring anxieties. Overall, we don’t get the impression that Prufrock is a hero or even a villain; he is simply a failure. Finally, as in Mrs. Dalloway, Prufrock references the overbearing scrutiny of society through certain images in the poem. “Like a patient etherized upon a table,” and “pinned and wriggling on the wall,” highlight Prufrock’s powerlessness. He is unwillingly defined and discredited by the disparaging world around him, just as Septimus was.