Freud and Woolf

28 Oct

A Comparison of “Screen Memories” and Mrs. Dalloway

In analyzing Mrs. Dalloway from a Freudian angle, Septimus Warren Smith provides the most obvious meat. He is a character suffering from shell shock, the very disease (or psychological disorder) that refutes the prevailing belief that hysteria is a women’s disease. Shell shock—now known as PTSD—gave more influence to Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis, and his other theories on the mechanisms of repression and conversion that occur unconsciously within the mind. We know that Woolf was more than just familiar with Freud’s theories—she was interested in them (publishing translations of some of his lectures), and indeed had struggles with her own mental health throughout her life. Smith’s role in Mrs. Dalloway demonstrates the broken or abnormal mental processes, which can be compared with the “normal” processes that other characters, like Rezia, Clarissa Dalloway, and Peter Walsh, possess—though it is my belief that Woolf tries to complicate the normal/abnormal binary. “Screen Memories” also helps illuminate instances in Mrs. Dalloway in which memories are recalled or formed.

Because Freud’s work is of a completely different kind as Woolf’s (one is an academic nonfiction work, the other is a novel), it will be more useful to take Freud’s ideas and the content of his piece to Mrs. Dalloway, rather than comparing the form of the two narratives. However, it should be noted that Freud’s work itself has an interesting form. Its narrative relies primarily on the ‘direct evidence’ of a conversation Freud had with a 38-year-old man (also briefly mentioning the case of a paranoid woman, 234, and also two cases in a work by the Henris). This conversation, ironically, is not a transcript of a recorded conversation but is rather reconstructed or “remodeled” from Freud’s memory (and probably notes), much like the screen memories he talks about, and is used as an argumentative device in rather the same way as Plato’s dialogues (245).

The idea of the potency (or “great pathogenic importance”) of a childhood or early memory occurs in Mrs. Dalloway in relation to several characters walking in Regent’s Park (220). This place serves as a trigger for Peter Walsh, much in the same way as Freud’s friend is “overwhelmed” by past memories upon returning for the first time to his birthplace in the countryside (239). Walsh has not been back to Regent’s Park for some time, having just returned from India: “Yes. As a child he had walked in Regent’s Park—odd, he thought, how the thought of childhood keeps coming back to me—the result of seeing Clarissa, perhpas…” Soon after, Woolf writes a dreamlike sequence as Walsh falls asleep next to a nurse, who herself provides a metaphorical and literal link to early childhood. In this critical sequence, Peter’s thoughts are a kind of dream or “reverie” (the concept of reverie as an unhealthy indulgence was popular in the Victorian era) are paralleled with Septimus’ thoughts that occur later, only feet away from Walsh in Regent’s Park (through repeated images, like trees and nature). Thus, Woolf is pointing out that the haphazard, disorganized, thoughts that we all have, for example, when drifting off to sleep or during dreams, are not too far from the thoughts of someone who is mad–and indeed, Freud views dreams as a way of expressing repressed thoughts in order to restore a kind of equilibrium within the mind. The teenage character of Maisie Johnson also provides a contrasting example to Peter’s reflections on his childhood: she sees the Warren Smiths and the narrator (now more omniscient, though focused on Johnson) that seeing Rezia and Septimus stuck out to her so much that “should she be very old she would still remember and make it jangle again among her memories how she had walked through Regent’s Park on a fine summer’s morning fifty years ago.” Thus, we get two sides of the same idea—the recollection and the ‘production’ of memories, so to speak. There is a sense also that the baby and child with the gray nurse are forming memories their own memories in Regent’s Park (the child, rather than being isolated, has a real interaction, bumping into Rezia).

Freud writes about how metaphor and figurative language can serve as a mechanism for the creation of a screened memory (245)—for example in the expression to “deflower” someone (243), in the German expression to masturbate (246), in the concept of a “bread-and-butter occupation” (241) and even with the color yellow itself (242). For Woolf, the nurse I mention earlier provides a sort of metaphorical link to childhood. Elsewhere in the story nurses are a stand-in for childhood—Peter, Clarissa, and Lady Bruton all have an “old nurse,” that they think of in relation to their childhood. Indeed, there is a presence of a “nursemaid” in Freud’s friend’s ‘dandelion memory,’ as well (238). Other images, like roses (referenced 40 times in Woolf’s novel), ocean or water imagery, trees, and others still, provide thematic links to both the different characters and parts of the complex web of London, but also links from the past to the present to the future, as they crop up in the thought processes of the many characters.

Freud compares “screen memories” to self-contained narratives, writing “I can assure you that people often construct such things unconsciously—almost like works of fiction” (242). Woolf, as a creator of fiction, consciously adds these sorts of elements from past memories (though they often remain unconscious to the characters who experience them), relying as “screen memories” do on symbol and metaphor, one as a literary device, the other as the “mechanism of mental processes” (239). Woolf concerns herself with the contrast between the symbolic and the literal, illusion and reality, abnormal and normal—consciously addressing Freud’s theories through the characters of Septimus Smith (and Sir William Bradshaw, the kind of man who would have been performing psychoanalysis) but also simply including elements that parallel the “screen memory” in the 38-year-old man’s case in fascinating ways.


2 Responses to “Freud and Woolf”


  1. Is thinking a conversation? And dreaming…? | Cool lady blog - October 29, 2013

    […] Freud and Woolf ( […]

  2. Is thinking a conversation? And dreaming…?It takes two. | How my heart speaks - November 15, 2017

    […] Freud and Woolf ( […]

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