Mrs. Dalloway: [Excerpt]

Woolf, Virginia

doi: 10.1097/ACM.0b013e3181cd62b9
Medicine and the Arts

From Woolf V, et al. The Mrs. Dalloway Reader. Orlando, Fla: Harcourt, Inc.; 2003:279–283. Reprinted with permission from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (print) and from The Society of Authors as the Literary Representative of the Estate of Virginia Woolf (online).

Sir William himself was no longer young. He had worked very hard; he had won his position by sheer ability . . . loved his profession; made a fine figurehead at ceremonies and spoke well—all of which had by the time he was knighted given him a heavy look, a weary look (the stream of patients being so incessant, the responsibilities and privileges of his profession so onerous), which weariness, together with his grey hairs, increased the extraordinary distinction of his presence and gave him the reputation (of the utmost importance in dealing with nerve cases) not merely of lightning skill, and almost infallible accuracy in diagnosis but of sympathy; tact; understanding of the human soul. He could see the first moment they came into the room . . . he was certain directly he saw the man; it was a case of extreme gravity. It was a case of complete breakdown—complete physical and nervous breakdown, with every symptom in an advanced stage, he ascertained in two or three minutes (writing answers to questions, murmured discreetly, on a pink card). . . .

“You served with great distinction in the War?”

The patient repeated the word “war” interrogatively.

He was attaching meanings to words of a symbolical kind. A serious symptom, to be noted on the card.

“The War?” the patient asked. The European War—that little shindy of schoolboys with gunpowder? Had he served with distinction? He really forgot. In the War itself he had failed.

“Yes, he served with the greatest distinction,” Rezia assured the doctor; “he was promoted.”. . .

He had committed an appalling crime and been condemned to death by human nature.

“I have—I have,” he began, “committed a crime—”

“He has done nothing wrong whatever,” Rezia assured the doctor. . . . Her husband was very seriously ill, Sir William said. Did he threaten to kill himself?

Oh, he did, she cried. But he did not mean it, she said. Of course not. It was merely a question of rest, said Sir William; of rest, rest, rest; a long rest in bed. There was a delightful home down in the country where her husband would be perfectly looked after. Away from her? she asked. Unfortunately, yes; the people we care for most are not good for us when we are ill. But he was not mad, was he? Sir William said he never spoke of “madness”; he called it not having a sense of proportion. But her husband did not like doctors. He would refuse to go there. Shortly and kindly Sir William explained to her the state of the case. He had threatened to kill himself. There was no alternative. . . . If Mrs. Warren Smith was quite sure she had no more questions to ask—he never hurried his patients—they would return to her husband. She had nothing more to ask—not of Sir William.

So they returned . . . to Septimus Warren Smith “We have had our little talk,” said Sir William.

“He says you are very, very ill,” Rezia cried.

“We have been arranging that you should go into a home,” said Sir William. . . .

“Where we will teach you to rest.”. . .

“Impulses came upon him sometimes?” Sir William asked, with his pencil on a pink card.

That was his own affair, said Septimus. . . .

But if he confessed? If he communicated? Would they let him off then, his torturers?

“I—I—” he stammered.

But what was his crime? He could not remember it.

“Yes?” Sir William encouraged him. (But it was growing late.)

Love, trees, there is no crime—what was his message?

He could not remember it.

“I—I—” Septimus stammered.

“Try to think as little about yourself as possible,” said Sir William kindly. Really, he was not fit to be about.

Was there anything else they wished to ask him? Sir William would make all arrangements. . . . “Trust everything to me,” he said, and dismissed them.

Never, never had Rezia felt such agony in her life! She had asked for help and been deserted! He had failed them! Sir William Bradshaw was not a nice man. . . .

She clung to his arm. They had been deserted.

© 2010 Association of American Medical Colleges