Trauma and Recovery in Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway
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Trauma and Recovery in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway

Modernist literature is a literature of trauma: in the 1920s, it gave form and representation to a psychological condition that psychiatrists would not understand for another fifty years. Virginia Woolf’s characterization of Septimus Smith in Mrs. Dalloway 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’s death is the result of his inability to communicate his experiences to others and thereby give those experiences meaning and purpose. By bearing witness to his experiences and suffering, Septimus could edify others about not only war but also human nature and the social and political institutions that emerge from and reflect that nature. Septimus’s war trauma, however, is perpetuated and its psychological damage aggravated by a culturally prescribed process of postwar reintegration that silences and marginalizes war veterans. To comprehend fully Septimus Smith’s tragedy, one must understand the psychological effects of trauma and the process of recovery. Furthermore, critics studying modernist literary forms can enrich their understanding by exploring recent discoveries in the field of trauma psychology, which reveal why modernist forms are so well-suited for depicting the traumatized mind but ill-suited for depicting recovery. [End Page 649]

The modernist narrative form of Woolf’s novel brilliantly mirrors the mind of a trauma survivor like Septimus. In fact, the modernist literary works written in the decade after World War I constitute a literature of trauma: their forms often replicate the damaged psyche of a trauma survivor and their contents often portray his characteristic disorientation and despair. Imagist poetry and the experimental novels of the postwar decade, for example, reflect the fragmentation of consciousness and the disorder and confusion that a victim experiences in the wake of a traumatic event. Trauma inevitably damages the victim’s faith in the assumptions he has held in the past about himself and the world and leaves him struggling to find new, more reliable ideologies to give order and meaning to his post-traumatic life. Like trauma survivors, the modernist writers suffered a similar loss of faith in the ideologies of the past and particularly in the literary forms that emerged from those ideologies. Their works depict in both form and content a modern age severed from the traditions and values of the past first by new discoveries in such fields as psychology, anthropology, physics, and biology, and later by the First World War’s unprecedented destruction, the magnitude of which revealed the pernicious potential of technological advancements originally intended to improve and extend life.

In her novels, Virginia Woolf demonstrates the power of the modernist literary form to delineate the psyche of a trauma survivor. Her narrative form preserves the psychological chaos caused by trauma instead of reordering it as more traditional narratives do. Psychiatrist Jonathan Shay describes how traditional narratives restructure the survivor’s fragmented consciousness: “Severe trauma explodes the cohesion of consciousness. When a survivor creates [a] fully realized narrative that brings together the shattered knowledge of what happened, the emotions that were aroused by the meanings of the events, and the bodily sensations that the physical events created, the survivor pieces back together the fragmentation of consciousness that trauma has caused” (188). The trauma story, before the survivor has structured it into a “fully realized narrative,” is a “prenarrative,” which “does not develop or progress in time” (Herman 174). By drawing her narratives from the characters’ prespeech levels of consciousness, Woolf created such a prenarrative in her novels and preserved the fragmentation of consciousness that occurs in the aftermath of trauma (Humphrey 2–3). At the prespeech level of consciousness, the character [End Page 650] has not yet attempted to order his fragmented thoughts into a sequentially arranged, communicable narrative.

Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness narrative form also corresponds to the trauma survivor’s perception of time. The survivor’s traumatized mind apprehends the traumatic event as ever-present, and his memories of the event often exist in the present consciousness as encapsulated images and fragments of thought that are...