My thesis will look at the literary representation of the mental disease ‘shell shock’ in post-World War I Britain. Throughout World War I soldiers—who were the epitome of British masculinity—returned home and began demonstrating symptoms of trauma that closely resembled hysteria. This shook the country, as Britain was already struggling to regain power in Europe, let alone re-masculinize its men. In 1915, these hysteric symptoms exhibited by British soldiers were referred to by psychologist Charles Myers in medical journal The Lancet as a new disease he termed ‘shell shock’. This new disease carried many different connotations, yet that ‘shell shock’ associated hysteric symptoms—a form of nervousness which is inherently female—with the war—something strictly male—is perhaps the most important. During and directly following the war, British Parliament attempted to recover the country’s stoic patriotism by claiming all mental diseases related to the war, namely ‘shell shock’, were both false and examples of cowardice. In doing this, the British Parliament—and thus, those in power in Britain directly following the war—reasserted the gendering of nervous disorders, and shaped how masculine identity in Britain is repressive and stoic “by nature”. It was by this method shell shock became a way in which WWI veterans were systematically emasculated. WWI literature, on the other-hand, became the way of unmasking truths about the suffering veterans—namely their experiences and the reality of their trauma, and re-aligning these veterans with their stolen masculinity. It is within this overlap that I would like to base my thesis. My aim is to look at how and why exactly soldiers were emasculated—what did Britain gain?—and how WWI literature attempted to essentially rewrite the experiences of WWI soldiers so they were no longer viewed as ‘damaged’ and therefore ‘lesser’, but instead ‘heroic’ and worthy of virility.
The first text which I would like to look at is the epitome of WWI literature, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs.
Dalloway. This novel was originally published in 1925 in London, though it is set in June of 1923. The novel follows the intersecting stories of Clarissa Dalloway—an upper-class housewife and socialite—and Septimus Warren Smith—a shell shocked WWI veteran. While Clarissa goes about her day preparing for a party she is hosting that evening, Septimus struggles to stay in the present, often going in and out of wartime hallucinations. While Clarissa goes about her chores debating the importance of her role in upper-class Britain, Septimus’ story comes to an end when he commits suicide jumping out the window of an psychiatric institution outside London. The two stories, seemingly have nothing to do with one another, and yet they intersect at Clarissa’s party where the news of Septimus’ suicide—which is marked as cowardly and insane by the doctor present—is the hush
ed gossip amongst the elite party-goers. The remainder of the novel follows Clarissa as she ponders over Septimus’ death and what brought him to carry out such a final act.
Woolf’s novel, aside from being a classic, is a forthright social critique on post-war British society. The majority of the story is told from the female perspective—Clarissa and Lucrezia (Septimus’ wife)—an arguably purposeful tact done by Woolf to create distance from the war. There are key moments within Woolf’s novel where post-war society and the enforced repression of the war are evident—Septimus’ relationship with his doctor being one. Moreover, Woolf incorporates various parliamentary proceedings into the conversations of the elite upper-class at Clarissa’s party. Finally, Woolf ultimately uses her female protagonist to re-assert and re-unite Septimus with his masculinity at the end of the novel, and thus rewrites the emasculation of Septimus, who represents all shell shocked WWI veterans.
Above, I have briefly outlined how I wish to use this text. Woolf’s novel is a complex social commentary which includes multiple references to various reports and medical practices of the time. Moreover, it is a strongly feminine text in that the majority of the narration is confined the perspective female characters. I want to further analyze this to understand how Woolf uses this to rewrite experiences of the war. Towards the end of the novel, Clarissa states he
r admiration for Septimus’ bravery, which while it plays into a gendered power dynamic, nevertheless re-paints Septimus in a heroic light, as opposed to the damaged man he had earlier been labelled as.
The second text I am looking at is Robert Graves’ war memoir Goodbye to All That. This
autobiography, first published in England in 1929, follows Graves’ upbringing to his entry and further experience fighting for Britain in the war—particularly in the trenches. Graves begins as an eager and patriotic young man, determined to prove himself and to make his country proud. However, as the war progresses, Graves begins to lose friends and is injured in combat, qhich brings him quickly to realize just how disillusioning the war was. Moreover, Graves comments not just on the absurdity of war, but also on the differences of class within the war—being that Graves was a middle-class man as opposed to the upper-class of Woolf’s novel. Finally, Graves traces his journey after the war, until the point of the book’s publication, commenting on the senselessness of British bureaucracy, and his experience of shell-shock after the war.
As Graves’ text is a non-fiction novel, I would like to further analyze the story and descriptions Graves gives. Moreover, as a large portion of this text takes place during the war, specifically during combat, I would like to see how masculinity is constructed and commented on throughout the war. Particularly as Graves was a shell shocked soldier, I would analyze his account of the war and look for ways in which he reclaims, or perhaps over-exaggerates, his masculinity in and out of combat. The fact that this text is an autobiography does scare me slightly, simply because there is a slight grey area surrounding the narration of the text—how much is constructed in comparison to how much is authentic, and how would I argue for one or the other? It is nevertheless, that this novel is written by a war veteran who experienced the trauma of WWI and the resulting social emasculation from the effects of his mental health first-hand, which have lead me to choose this novel as one of my primary sources.
Ultimately, I think I want to use both of these texts, and put them in discussion with one another. I have struggled to narrow down my primary sources—originally I wanted to omit Mrs. Dalloway, and instead look at Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet On The Western Front, Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier, or Rudyard Kipling’s short war stories. However, after much thought, I found that Mrs. Dalloway was too important of a WWI novel to ignore, and the other fictional works listed above were not as explicit in their social commentary as Woolf’s was. I have been pretty set on using Goodbye to All That as it isan autobiography—and thus an undeniable, non-fictional account of a veteran’s WWI and post-war experience. By putting the two texts in conversation, I hope to demonstrate how literature was used to rewrite the emasculation of shell shocked soldiers amongst other social commentaries. I am nervous, however, as I realize there are various complex issues which are intertwined in my research, and I am admittedly worried as to how I will navigate them in a succinct manner. Some of these complex issues include the history of WWI itself, the stratification of social classes in Britain during and after the war, the historical, medical, and political “legitimacy” surrounding mental disorders, and finally—perhaps most importantly—why and how mental disorders came to be stigmatized as feminine ordeals. In using a fictional classic alongside an autobiographical account, I hope to analyze the differences in war writing amongst a male and female author, as well as the how both go about changing the perceptions of shell shock from emasculating and damaging to traumatic but heroic.
Graves, Robert. Good-bye To All That. New York: Random House, 1998.
Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. London: Penguin Books, 1992.