Septimus and Blanche: Victims of Patriarchal Culture
Septimus in Mrs. Dalloway and Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire are interesting fictional characters who suffer from mental illness in the 1920s. Septimus' illness stems from his wartime experiences while Blanche's illness stems from her position as an oppressed woman under patriarchy. In a sense, patriarchal society has produced both illnesses because exploitation of others, war, and oppression of women are characteristic of the patriarchal system. Both Septimus and Blanche have separated themselves from painful reality and have created a new, less painful unreality for themselves. In this essay we will compare Septimus' illness to Blanche's by investigating their symptoms, the influence of patriarchal culture on their concepts of manhood and womanhood, and the situations leading to exacerbation of their symptoms.
At the end of World War I, Septimus has all the symptoms of shell shock, later called battle fatigue, and currently called post-traumatic stress disorder. "He went to France to save an England which consisted almost entirely of Shakespeare's plays and Miss Isabel Pole in a green dress walking in a square." In other words Septimus went to war for personal reasons rather than political. He seemed to be fine, a good soldier and a hero, until the war was over; then, he discovered he had lost all feeling. Today we know that loss of feeling allows people to survive in violent situations that would otherwise be too terrible to endure, such as prolonged child abuse, cruelty in a concentration camp, or several stints in active combat. Numbness allowed Septimus to see his friends, including Evans, die without losing his own ability to function. Afterwards, however, he can't turn it off. He wants to feel again, but doesn't know how.
In the patriarchal view of what a "real man" is, shell shock is unmanly; there is a stigma attached; thus, he has to hide his trouble. He cannot discuss his difficulty or shame with anyone. Untreated, his symptoms get worse. He passes judgment on himself, blames himself, and begins to see evil everywhere. All the weakness, frailty, and ugliness of the human condition begins to take on huge importance and presses in upon him. Eventually, he listens for voices outside of himself to guide him because he has lost all trust in himself. He thinks, for example, that skywriting is directed in a secret code to him personally. He believes he hears his dead friend Evans speaking to him, but it is from within himself that the messages emanate.
Blanche, on the other hand, has been raised to believe that women are objects to be owned and admired, cared for and supported by men. Without a man, a woman is worthless. Women are only beautiful when they are young. Once their breasts sag, their faces wrinkle, and weight accumulates, they are no longer desirable or marriageable, no matter how talented or amusing. This cultural belief leads to Blanche's obsession with her appearance. She is past youth, a "fading beauty," and in her panic is "searching for a protector." Like Septimus, Blanche functions well until a crisis occurs. She loses the house and her job in Mississippi just before the story opens. Now she has no means of support. She must make herself beautiful in order to attract a man to take care of her. Like Septimus, she has to hide her difficulty and pretend it doesn't exist. This requires deception -- keeping the lights low, for example, to hide her age. She lies to make things seem the way she thinks they ought to be. Everything takes a turn for the worse when she starts to lie even to herself.
Both Septimus and Blanche are doing their best to adapt to the requirements of their gender roles. Although Septimus is in England and Blanche in the American South, they both feel societal pressure to conform to patriarchal standards. One of the characteristics of a patriarchal society is that masculine and feminine roles are strictly defined. Men are supposed to be independent, unemotional, courageous, and strong. Women are supposed to be helpless, emotional, frail, and pure. Septimus starts out as a sensitive, emotional poet who depends on his beloved Miss Isabel Pole to teach him Shakespeare, lead him through literature, encourage him, and guide him. This is not society's picture of an independent, unemotional, masculine man so perhaps Septimus…