The Science of Conversion

One of the things that struck me most about Mrs. Dalloway was the way that Virginia Woolf critiqued society throughout the novel. I am interested in the way that Woolf did this specifically through William Bradshaw’s prescription of proportion (and conversion) as a treatment for illness. Once we discussed Bradshaw’s prescription for an illness I began to see it pop up all over the novel, specifically in female characters. What intrigues me though is that Woolf not only commented on women succumbing to conversion but also men.

The men in the novel played the part of the perfect English gentlemen, even Peter, though rash and seemingly immature, was a symbol of masculinity and empire, but there was one man though who does not fit the mold, Septimus. A few people in class brought forth the idea that Septimus, who was seemingly insane, was the only sane person in the novel. It seemed that he was the only person who was able to see society for what it was. As a result, he was labeled crazy. One of the lines that struck me that was used many times when the reader was in Septimus’ head was “for one must be scientific above all things” (Woolf 66). I did not know what to make of this line, but it appeared many times throughout the novel. Thinking about the prescription of conversion, this line makes me think that this is a reminder for Septimus to be rational. Many people often generalize women as emotional beings and men as rational beings who use facts to make decisions. Science is not based on feelings or intuition, but rather theories that are tested and then proven or disproven, making them facts. Even though Septimus told the reader that he had no feelings, I believe that he did. He felt guilty about his inability to feel sadness about Evan’s death, and he felt disgusted by the world and people around him. Septimus’ suicide was not caused by a lack of emotion, but rather a refusal to convert.

Woolf’s use of free indirect discourse makes the use of “for one must be scientific above all things” (66) even more interesting because I do not believe that it is Septimus’ thoughts. I think that in the multiple instances where this line is used that it is actually Woolf bringing her own authorial voice into the text. The lines before this interjection read: “Heaven was divinely merciful, infinitely benignant. It spared him, pardoned his weakness. But what was the scientific explanation (for one must be scientific above all things)” (Woolf 66). Septimus was contemplating complex things beyond the understanding of facts and science, and while he did express concern for a scientific explanation, I think it was Woolf’s voice that told the reader that men were expected to be rational and of course, scientific. The parenthesis used in this quote also make me believe that this is Woolf speaking to the audience because I do not think that Septimus would need a break in his own thoughts to explain what was expected of him. Thinking of Woolf as a voice that was commenting on society with her own voice made her critique of society more harsh and evident because she was being so forward.

Woolf’s critique on society and conversion was present throughout the text, but I think that readers should remember that the harsh expectations of society fell on men as well as women.

Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. Harcourt Inc., 1925.

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