Virginia Woolf’s Exploration of Bipolar Disorder in To the Lighthouse

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Dr. Amy Bade, Hope College

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Many scholars—from 1972 Freudian analyst Nancy Topping Bazin to 2007 social scientists Katherine Thomas and Marshall Duke—have speculated on the inherent motivations for Virginia Woolf’s many novels. Perhaps most especially in her 1927 novel, To the Lighthouse, Woolf’s unique writing style is often considered to have been a mere product of a female author confined by societal limitations and mental instability. Arguably a most important element in all of her writing, the intentional examination of Woolf’s mental disorder in her character development is often problematically overlooked. Even the respected theories of Gilbert and Gubar, which suggest that early women authors wrote to curb anxiety about societal limitations, neglect to remark on less gender-oriented, more objective endeavors to explore the underdeveloped models of psychological mental disorders, like Woolf’s alleged bipolar disorder. To the Lighthouse—particularly through the thoughts of its three main characters—shows an emergence of Woolf’s objective, scientific endeavor to understand that specific malady. By bridging the gap between what we now know as psychology and abstract literature when studying the novel’s characters, I submit that Woolf’s motivations in To the Lighthouse were more than just a product of her societal anxiety; the novel’s characters, in fact, became her attempt to make her contribution to underdeveloped 20th-century psychology and to explore the complexities of her own mind.

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