Summary and Analysis The Doctors


The Smiths are still here in the park and, by bringing Peter to the park, Virginia Woolf provides a seemingly chance link between the two narrative threads of the novel — Clarissa's story and Septimus' story. Peter does not speak to the Smiths, nor they to him; in passing, they merely observe one another. The linking of Clarissa to Septimus, via Peter, is frail but Virginia Woolf is structuring each world — Clarissa's and Septimus'- linking them as if by chance. Later in the novel, again as if by chance, the two worlds will collide: Septimus' death will intrude upon Clarissa's party.

Up to now, Virginia Woolf has incorporated interior monologues, scenes from past and present, brief conversations, and lyric interludes into her narration; there have been few passages which could be called directly expository. Midway in her novel, however, she inserts this long section dealing with Septimus Smith — why he is insane and how his wife deals with his insanity. During the first half of the book, Clarissa (and Peter, to a lesser degree) has been stage center and the Septimus scenes have seemed only distant, distilled echoes of the lonely Clarissa-Peter situation. Virginia Woolf has pieced together the riddle of Clarissa's isolation very artfully, but she deals differently with Septimus' situation. We are told starkly what Septimus did before the war and his madness is not explained in depth. One might naturally think that the techniques used to tell Clarissa's story might lend themselves more readily to exploring Septimus' insanity but Virginia Woolf makes a reversal. This insane situation is described almost clinically and Septimus' insanity becomes all the more horrifying thereby.

The war destroyed Septimus Smith: Virginia Woolf makes this point clear. One of the first things that we should be concerned with is what, exactly, was destroyed. Before the war, Septimus was absentminded, or at least he did not care enough about social amenities to observe them. Like Peter's playing with his pocketknife in public, Septimus neglected washing his hands. These are small matters but Virginia Woolf's style is sparse and suggests by these hints that each of these men had a streak of the rebel in him. Peter was a romantic, open, adventurous man; Septimus was a poet. He stammered, lectured on Shakespeare, did not take care of his health, kept irregular hours, and had a wistful, poetic love affair with a Miss Pole. He was thoroughly undisciplined. To his employer, he appeared to have a serious lack of manly, commercial initiative.

It was the war which, in the opinion of those who knew and worked with Septimus, made a man of him. Yet Septimus had no real grasp of what he was doing when he volunteered for the war. Virginia Woolf insists that Septimus Smith's England was not the England of most soldiers. His England existed only in literature. It was not to save an economically and politically distressed island that Septimus went forth to war.

Septimus himself, for a time, became proud of his manly nonemotional reaction to military carnage. He faced death and did not flinch: this was what it meant to be a mature man. Before the war, Septimus had been a disciple of literary romance; during the war, he was converted to the popular romance of the brave, undaunted hero one sees on recruiting posters. Ironically, the war did not metamorphose Septimus into a man: the war emasculated Septimus. It left him in horror of himself. He was a tragic casualty — a walking corpse because he could not care any longer what happened to himself or anyone else. His capacity for compassion was destroyed and he is very conscious of what has been lost.

The paragraphs Virginia Woolf devotes to Septimus shimmer. The broken pieces of his intellect and imagination turn like a mobile of wind chimes, changing colors, turning, reflecting whatever brushes them. He and Rezia are as different as a wildly abstract painting and a primitive domestic scene. Rezia is at a loss to know why her English husband is so complex; all she wants is a happy home and babies. Thus she calls in the doctors. As a simple person, she believes that there must be a simple solution to Septimus' problems.

The doctors in this scene are monstrous. Virginia Woolf is bitter in her portrayal. One, Holmes, is a professional ignoramous and a lecher; he is a smiling villain. He thinks Septimus cannot really be ill because there is no germ. But he continues to treat him because he enjoys ogling Rezia. If Holmes is ineffectual, however, Sir William Bradshaw is even worse. He recognizes that Septimus is on the verge of a nervous collapse but he is eager to experiment with Septimus. Ironically, he is an unfeeling doctor, the very worst type to help Septimus. He does not really care about Septimus, and yet Septimus' concern about his own inability to care has driven him insane. Bradshaw, like the soldiers Peter saw drilling, is an example of what rigid discipline can produce. He meticulously trained himself, crossed social class barriers, and emerged inhuman — full of platitudes, stock optimism, sterile knowledge, and an aggravating sense of inferiority. Bradshaw wants power; he demands that his patients be absolutely submissive. Ironically, Rezia brought Septimus to the doctors so that Septimus' alienation could be cured; she is even more alienated from her husband when the scene ends and soon the doctors will demand that Septimus be physically separated from her.

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