Rewriting the Emasculation of WWI Soldiers from Damaged Men to Heroic Soldiers in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and Robert Graves’ Goodbye To All That

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. 

First edition of Mrs. Dalloway found on Google Images

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

First edition of Goodbye To All That found on Google Images

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.

BP #6

Works Cited

Graves, Robert. Good-bye To All That. New York: Random House, 1998.

Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. London: Penguin Books, 1992.

Emasculation of Soldiers post-WWI

Image is WWI propaganda poster from the Imperial War Museum

I am fascinated by the emasculation of men—particularly soldiers—that occurred in post-World War I Britain. Though right now I am looking at Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway as my primary text, there are other options such as Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier which I may choose to focus on instead.

One document that directly relates and supports the claim of “emasculating soldiers” is the War Report of 1922Report of the War Office Committee of Enquiry Into “Shell Shock”. This report has pieces from both parliamentary and medical officials in Britain in 1922. The entire purpose of the report is to denounce the claim that ‘shell shock’ was both real and a disease that the WWI veterans were suffering from. The report moves from the various written beliefs of military, parliamentary, and medical officials such as Dr. William Aldren Turner and General Gilbert Mellor. Moreover, this report explicitly frames the expectations of men within this time period—they are meant to be both stoic and repressive by nature. The report makes statements such as “a man instinctively masks his emotions almost as a matter of routine” (The War Office Committee, Squadron Leader W. Tyrrell, 30) to support its further claims that shell shock is “the exhaustion of nerves” similar to “hysteria” and indicative of “cowardice”. However, the report goes further to state that “cowardice should be regarded as a military crime to be punished when necessary by death” (The War Office Committee 139). It incites fear in its male readers, for they are acutely made aware of the strict social expectations for their sex. The idea of “masculinity”, particularly British “manliness” is central to this report, and is useful to me in that it clearly defines expectations of men and the post-war British mindset towards nervousness—i.e. shell shock.

An article, which relates to the aforementioned report, that I am also interested in is Tracey Loughran’s Shell Shock, Trauma, and the First World War: The Making of a Diagnosis and Its Histories. This article looks at ‘shell shock’ and ‘trauma’ through both literary and historical approaches to understand shell shock and how aspects of the disease have has come to be known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Broken into four separate sections, the article maps how the shell shock has been perceived, how it came to be, how it was perceived during and after the war, and finally how it has evolved to eventually be legitimized and classified as an actual disease. The article specifically mentions the academic journal The Lancet and its 1915 publication which first used the term ‘shell shock’. More importantly, the mention of this British medical journal includes reference to the academic psychologist Charles Myers, who is frequently mentioned throughout the War Report of 1922. Dr. Myers was the first to publicly oppose notions that shell shock was ‘treatable’ and simply just a manifestation of ‘cowardice’. In this way Loughran’s article elucidates a history of the disease, and its perception that is necessary for my research.

The two documents overlap in their content, and in the way that Loughran’s directly speaks to the notions propagated in the War Report of 1922. Though I am curious about how the disease developed to eventually gain legitimacy, I am more curious about the perceptions of nervousness—specifically shell shock—during and directly after WWI. Indeed, these two sources are not literary, but I believe they hold importance to my research, as they situate themselves directly within the nervous disorder and its historical context. My aim is to use these two sources as a means of supporting my analysis of my primary text—be it Mrs. Dalloway or The Return of the Soldier—so that I may demonstrate how the emasculation of soldiers through nervous disorders like shell shock came to be.

I began this process researching “male hysteria” but I have come to realize that this is more a side-effect—almost a result—of the strict guidelines of “manliness” set out and reinforced by officials of Britain during and post-WWI. Nervousness and anxiety, mainly through manifestations of shell shock in literature, were debilitating to masculinity because anxiety was perceived to be inherently feminine. This idea is supported in the War Report of 1922 and similar documents, which have potential connections to the idea of the ‘stoic’ man that is present even today. Though I want to stay specifically within the early 19th Century, these sources are very applicable to the contemporary construction of “manliness” in and outside of literature. Going forward, I hope to find more literary sources to support my ideas, and not rely so heavily on the sociological, historical, and medical sources I have found.


BP 5

Works Cited

The War Office Committee. Report of the War Office Committee of Enquiry into “Shell Shock”. London, 1922.

Tracey Loughran. “Shell Shock, Trauma, and the First World War: The Making of a Diagnosis and Its Histories.” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, no. 1, 2012, p. 94.

Masculinity and the Public Self

As individuals, we are all the products of the circumstances we were raised in. For Okonkwo, the protagonist of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958), these circumstances are that of his clan in Umuofia, and his childhood home, headed by Unoka – who is notably irresponsible and lazy. However, attributing all of Okonkwo’s behaviors and actions to the environment he was raised in, overlooks the nuances of his decisions and diminishes his agency. In “Narrative Techniques of Things Fall Apart,” Solomon O. Iyasere argues that Okonkwo is not simply the product or embodiment of his clan’s values, but that both the clan and Okonkwo possess more intricacies than such a reading would allow the reader to have (371). Instead readers must understand the clan as both a rigid structure that is attempting to maintain “serenity, harmony, and communal activities,” and a group of individuals who can hold “personal doubts and fears” about the traditions they uphold (Iyasere 372-374).

Private Or Public Directions On A Signpost

As a result of this desire to maintain peace, Iyasere argues that the clan must find balance between masculine and feminine attributes (Iyasere, 380). He presents the death of Ozoemena, “a willed response to her husband’s death” after a long life together, as the “symbolic dramatization of the union between the masculine and feminine attributes essential in a great man” (380). Okonkwo is unable to reconcile the feminine and the masculine within himself – as a result of his father’s extemely feminine actions – and therefore creates a public self which is violent, immovable, and inherently masculine (Iyasere 380). His public self commits the murder of Ikemefuna, even though the boy calls him his father, while the private, feminine, self, runs to the aid of Ezinma (Iyasere 379-380). Later his drive for violent solutions is what leads Okonkwo to take his own life (Iyasere 385).

The inflexability that results from his insistence on masculine action – in this instance, the destruction of the Christian church – is evident in the moments before Okonkwo leads his clansmen to meet the District Commissioner. Directly beforehand, Okonkwo addresses his fellow leaders:

“Okonkwo warned the others to be fully armed. ‘An Umuofia man does not refuse a call,’ he said. ‘He may refuse to do what he is asked; he does not refuse to be asked. But the times are changed, and we must be fully prepared’,” (Achebe 109).

This speech demonstrates the rigid expectation he holds for his fellow men, by saying “an Umuofia man” must behave in a certain way. Locating the type of man and masculinity within the clan reinforces a sense of superiority that their actions must attempt to live up to.This is not a “white man” or a Mbainto man, but an “Umuofia man,” and that distinction means something. Using dialogue to present this moment, when the narrator could have described the interaction instead, draws attention to the fact that this is Okonkwo’s perspective. It is one man’s opinion. It also demonstrates Iyasere’s idea that Okonkwo will uphold rigid lines of masculinity in public. In this scene, Okonkwo is addressing five other men, in a matter related to the potential well-being of the clan. He is performing in the public sphere and must therefore project an image of strength.

While our protagonist is upholding rigid masculinity through his verbalized expectation of men, this moment complicates Iyasere’s reading of the text. Okonkwo presents the expectation that his fellow men respond to the request of the District Commissioner for a conversation, but through parallel structure declares that, “he may refuse to do what he is asked; he does not refuse to be asked” (Achebe 109). In his public self, Okonkwo is demonstrating flexibility. There is no expectation that a man must respond to the requests of another hostile man with violence, or a stern hand. He may respond how he chooses. While Okonkwo presents expectations for conduct, this final response is one that only the individual can make – just as he may follow his rigid definition of masculinity, while acknowledging that his decisions are his alone to make.



Achebe, Chinua. “The Text of Things Fall Apart.” Things Fall Apart: Authoritative Text, Contexts and Criticism, edited by Francis Abiola Irele, W.W. Norton & Company Inc, 2009, pp. 3-117.

Iyasere, Solomon O. “Narrative Techniques of Things Fall Apart.” Things Fall Apart: Authoritative Text, Contexts and Criticism, edited by Francis Abiola Irele, W.W. Norton & Company Inc, 2009, pp. 370-385.

Image courtesy of

An Abundance of Yams: Symbols of Masculinity, Power, and Wealth

Throughout Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, there is much symbolism that is used to discuss various themes. Examples include non-violent folklore representing femininity and the egwugwu symbolizing Igbo culture. Additionally, one vegetable frequently appears in the novel as a symbol to the point where one begins to expect it to be mentioned in every other sentence. This is of course the African yam, a cornerstone of Igbo culture, as well as a symbol of masculinity, power, and wealth in the story.

It is no coincidence that the African yam is constantly mentioned in a cultural story that takes place in Igbo society. The yam is described as being “a staple of the Igbo diet” that “requires sustained effort to cultivate; the various phases of their growth mark the progression of the year among the Igbo, hence their centrality to the culture” (Irele 5). Thus, this description helps give us some information on why yams are often brought up in Things Fall Apart. But aside from providing the Igbo people with food and a sense of time, the yam serves as a sign of a man’s capability as a worker, provider, and proper masculine figure.

African yams in a market

The connection between the yam and masculinity is first seen with Unoka, Okonkwo’s father. Unoka was known as being weak and lazy, with most of these negative personality traits stemming from his inefficiency as a yam farmer. To overcome his crop failures, Unoka approaches Agbala the priestess. But when Unoka lists out all of the necessary steps that he has undertaken, Agbala screams, “You, Unoka, are known in all the clan for the weakness of your matchet and hoe. When your neighbors go out with their axe to cut down virgin forests, you sow your yams on exhausted farms that take no labour to clear. They cross seven rivers to make their farms; you stay at home and offer sacrifices to a reluctant soil. Go home and work like a man” (Achebe 12). This outburst from the priestess clearly indicates that working hard in the fields to plant yams is the “manly” way of life while Unoka’s easy way out is not.

In addition to masculinity, cultivating yams symbolizes wealth and power. Because of Unoka’s failures, Okonkwo is forced to fend for himself and provide for his family. To overcome these issues, Okonkwo decides to approach “a wealthy man…who had three huge barns, nine wives, and thirty children. His name was Nwakibie and he had taken the highest but one title which a man could take in the clan. It was for this man that Okonkwo worked to earn his first yam seeds” (Achebe 13). This passage introduces Nwakibie, a man of wealth and power thanks to his many barns of yams. Nwakibie was able to earn powerful titles and riches because of his success with yams, hence why Okonkwo selects him as the person to earn yam seeds from. In doing so, Okonkwo asserts himself as a person who has access to good fortunes.

Achebe makes it clear that it is not the physical activity of farming that makes someone a wealthy, powerful man but specifically the growing of yams. This is demonstrated when the story mentions how hard Okonkwo’s mother and sisters had to work because of Unoka’s laziness: “His mother and sisters worked hard enough, but they grew women’s crops, like coco-yams, beans and cassava. Yam, the king of crops, was a man’s crop” (Achebe 15 – 16). We therefore see that there is clear distinction between “feminine” crops and “masculine” crops and how working hard in the yam fields proves how difficult and different it is from growing other crops.

By planting his own yams, Okonkwo proves himself to be a man. This is because growing yams is not easy and that by working hard to plant a “man’s crop” and provide for his family, he is able to show off his masculinity. The acquisition of more yams also symbolizes Okonkwo’s path to wealth and power since he is able to live comfortably unlike his father. All of these factors show how the African yam is a major symbol in Things Fall Apart and how something seemingly simple such as a vegetable can have various layered meanings.


Works Cited

Achebe, Chinua. “Things Fall Apart.” Things Fall Apart: A Norton Critical Edition, edited by Francis Abiola Irele, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2009, pp. 5 – 16.

Image of yam market: