A primary way the effects of World War I are evident in Mrs. Dalloway is through the figure of Septimus Smith, a World War I veteran suffering from shell shock, or what we would call today post-traumatic stress disorder. A brave and sensitive man, Smith was deeply traumatized by his war experience, especially the death of his close friend Evans. The two are described as once close companions, likened to
two dogs playing on the hearth-rug.
Septimus suffers from survivor's guilt, is tormented by voices, and cannot find joy or a sense of place in the post-war world. He ends up killing himself, and in his torments represents the fate of thousands of traumatized soldiers.
While Septimus is a prominent example of the lingering and devastating effects of the war, the war is interwoven in almost casual ways into the experiences and thoughts of the various people whose minds we are given access to. For example, we learn of Mrs. Foxcroft, who was
at the Embassy last night still eating her heart out because that nice boy was killed.
This a reference to her son being killed in the war, a loss that hit many families and was still raw five years later.
Mrs. Dalloway thinks, as she crosses London shopping for her party, that
This late age of the world's experience had bred in them all, all men and women, a well of tears.
The experience she refers to is the pain of World War I, with its large loss of life with very little to show in return.
Other references to the war include the following:
Little Mr. Bowley, who had rooms in the Albany and was sealed with wax over the deeper sources of life but could be unsealed suddenly, inappropriately, sentimentally, by this sort of thing—poor women waiting to see the Queen go past—poor women, nice little children, orphans, widows, the War—tut-tut—actually had tears in his eyes.
The war is never far from people's thoughts, even if it functions in many cases as backdrop.