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.