Date of Award


Document Type

Open Access Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)



First Advisor

Karla Alwes


“Insanity is purely a disease of the brain…The physician is now the responsible guardian of the lunatic, and must ever remain so.” Sir John Charles Bucknill (1897)

Mental illness has consistently been and continues to be a subject that is viewed as taboo by society, especially when it comes to diagnosing a patient. Instead of acknowledging a person’s actions, thoughts, and words, society continually disregards mental illness as something that is negative and to be feared. The fact that this area of medicine can be difficult and distressing makes it all the more important to continue research. It is true that people in this field are constantly working to normalize the impact of mental illness. However, those who do not understand or who fear the subject may be prone to missing important societal implications that stem from the treatment of those with mental disorders. For this reason, novels like The Waves and Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf are especially important in bringing to light the varying treatments of the mentally ill. Through the struggles of Rhoda and Septimus, Woolf explores the striking difference in treatment of mental illness between male and female patients and the repercussions of these actions during the early 20th century. Women authors are more likely to commit suicide on account of mental illness. Virginia Woolf is one of these talented females who became overwhelmed by the pressures of society, her own mind, and the failure of her mental “guardian.” In order to truly understand the issues that Woolf faced, one must delve into her life, her letters, and her stories. Literary critics have done just that, some focusing on her illness, while others have decided that this is not a major influence in her works. One critic, Thomas Szasz, disagrees with the idea that Woolf was suffering from mental illness: she was told that she was mad, others defined her as ‘mad.’ No one at age thirteen has the information or power necessary to rebut such a ‘diagnosis,’ to reject the mad role. Tragically, she never made a serious attempt to do so. On the contrary, she embraced the role and made playing it an integral part of her life strategy—to her profit as well as her peril (16). This argument is interesting, as there is still research to be done considering children and their malleability or ability to define themselves apart from society’s expectations. However, to completely disregard what many have seen as Woolf’s mental illness as nonexistent or insincere leads to a problem similar to what Woolf is warning readers about in her novels. Without proper attention and care, without someone taking their differing behavior into account, those with mental illness will more than likely experience worsening symptoms. The reader can also look to Woolf’s own diaries to find that Szasz’s interpretation of mental illness is not entirely true. She writes, “Also my own psychology interests me. I intend to keep full notes of my ups & downs, for my private information. And thus objectified, the pain & shame becomes at once much less” (qtd. in Caramagno 35). Through this expression of Woolf, the reader learns that she did not share all of what she was experiencing with those around her. Her words refute the idea that she used the role of mentally ill to profit or as any kind of strategy; instead it was something she was suffering and trying to minimize, yet learn from. If we as readers are to accept that Woolf was indeed afflicted with something more than attention seeking, then it is easy to see the nature of what she was facing through her life stories. She was consistently wary of her doctors, once stating “I am discharged cured! Ain’t it a joke?” (qtd. In Trombley 81). Being mistreated and misunderstood by her psychiatric doctors, Woolf used her writing to analyze this issue through her characters. Rhoda, from The Waves (1931), is an introverted character who shows signs and symptoms of the illness melancholia. Septimus Warren Smith, from Mrs. Dalloway (1925), returns from war with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), or “shell shock” as it was known in the 1920s. Through the struggles of these two characters, Woolf explores the increasing social visibility of men’s mental illness by the medical field, while women experienced the exact opposite. The similarity in expression of psychological illness in Rhoda and Septimus provides for a telling analysis of the differences in the medical field’s handling of cases between the sexes. While the field of psychiatry was growing during the twentieth century, Woolf suggests in her novels that there was a lapse in understanding, social awareness, and treatment when it came to illnesses experienced by women.