As Big Ben strikes noon, Clarissa lays her green dress on her bed and the Smiths walk down Harley Street to Septimus’s appointment with the celebrated psychiatrist Sir William Bradshaw. Known for his tact and understanding, Sir William is gray-haired and has an expensive gray car. He ascertains that Septimus is in a state of complete physical and nervous breakdown within two or three minutes of meeting him. When Sir William asks Septimus if he served with distinction in the war, Septimus thinks of the war as a “little shindy of schoolboys with gunpowder.” Septimus tries to explain to the doctor that he has committed a terrible crime. Rezia protests that it is untrue, and the doctor takes her aside.
When Rezia admits that Septimus has threatened to commit suicide, Sir William prescribes a long period of bed rest in one of his homes in the country. Septimus will have to be separated from Rezia, though. Sir William prefers not to speak of “madness,” but rather of a “lack of proportion.” The son of a tradesman, Sir William never had time to read. He resents Septimus’s shabbiness, as well as his cultivation.
Sir William tells Septimus that everybody has moments of depression and that nobody lives for himself alone. He reminds Septimus that he has a brilliant career ahead of him. Septimus feels he is being tortured by human nature in the form of Dr. Holmes and Sir William. He tries again to confess his crime, but he cannot remember what it is. He stammers out the pronoun I, and Sir William tells him not to think about himself. Sir William is eager to end the consultation and says he will let them know about the arrangements between five and six that evening. Rezia thinks Sir William has failed them and that he is not a nice man.
Sir William’s philosophy of proportion involves prescribing weight gain and solitary rest. He secludes the mentally ill and forbids that they have children. His patients must conform to his sense of proportion, or he considers them mad. The narrator critiques Sir William’s theories. Conversion, or pressure to conform to social norms, masquerades as brotherly love, but in colonies like India and at home in London, conversion is actually a quest for power. Sir William is in the business of colonizing people’s minds. Lady Bradshaw lost touch with herself fifteen years ago, when her will succumbed to her husband’s. Now she takes pictures of decaying churches and occupies herself with various causes.
Patients occasionally ask Sir William if the matter of living or not living is a personal choice. Though he shrugs his shoulders when asked if God exists, Sir William adamantly believes that no choice exists between life and death. He champions the prospects of brilliant careers, courage, and family affection. If a patient’s “unsocial impulses” are out of control, he sends them away to a home. Sir William is greedy for dominion and impresses his will on the weak.
The link between Clarissa and Septimus intensifies with their respective actions at noon, a moment in which one character is very nearly the opposite of the other. Clarissa puts down her party dress, which is part of the front she puts on for society. Septimus, at the same time, is exposed to society as he enters Sir William Bradshaw’s office for his appointment. Septimus sees doctors as the embodiment of human nature, which he saw at its ugliest during the war. Both Dr. Holmes and Sir William are older men who probably did not see any of the war firsthand, but they—and others—believe themselves to be experts on Septimus’s condition. Clarissa, by mending and preparing the dress, will be able to navigate social situations smoothly. Septimus does not have, and does not want, Clarissa’s charm and ability, and he is at the doctors’ mercy.
Science has become a new religion of sorts and Sir William is referred to as a “priest of science,” indicating the power he has over his patients. Just as religious believers often try to convert nonbelievers, Sir William seeks to convert the mentally ill to his sense of proportion. He preys on people like a vampire, sucking their souls out until they are his obedient followers. His wife, Lady Bradshaw, was one of his victims. Lady Bradshaw’s hobby, taking pictures of decaying churches, represents the twentieth-century transition from faith in religion or God to faith in science or technology. When the ill consider that no god exists, they begin to wonder if their life and death are perhaps in their own hands, but Sir William insists that his style of life is in fact the only choice. Patients must convert to the world as Sir William conceives it or else be considered insane. This bullying technique suffocates patients like Septimus, who saw the horrifying results of blind conformity during the war.
The question of what the war was fought to preserve is never far from Septimus’s thoughts, and he suffers from the lingering uncertainty. Peter Walsh and Clarissa might see English tradition as noble and worth fighting for, but Septimus, the veteran, does not read meaning in the symbols of England, at least not conventional meaning. The grand car at the opening of the novel does not give him shivers of excitement, the way it does for the other spectators, but seems only to point to his guilt for not being able to feel. Septimus no longer knows what the war was for. This doubt suggests that the very foundation of English society, an oppressive class system benefiting only a small margin of society, is problematic. Sir William, however, is uninterested in discussing Septimus’s loss of faith in England and believes individuality is a sign of mental illness. He wants patients to convert, conform, and forget about themselves and any doubts they may have about the war or the empire.
In Mrs. Dalloway, Septimus, Clarissa, Peter, and Sally are all readers, while Sir William, Hugh Whitbread, Richard Dalloway, and Lady Bruton are all nonreaders. Whether a character reads or does not read is a fairly reliable indication of their values and priorities, and tensions often rise between the two groups. For example, Sir William, a nonreader, is hostile to those who do read, like Septimus. Sir William finds Septimus’s bookishness nearly as repulsive as his shabby wardrobe. He sees a probing of the soul as a sign of illness, and later Clarissa, Peter, and Sally will share Septimus’s instinctive dislike for him. An interest in words also relates to an interest in the soul. Readers, particularly Clarissa and Septimus, who enjoy Shakespeare are deeper characters who probe surfaces and look beyond a thing’s given or expected meaning.
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