Document Type

Book Chapter

Publication Date


Publication Title

Dionysus in Literature: Essays on Literary Madness


133-147 pp.


The reputation of British writer Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) is now well established. Her brilliance as a writer is seldom contested, and her place in the literary canon is assured. Whether interested in literary traditions, textual studies, applied feminism, or postmodern theory, most scholars and critics admire what she had to say and how she said it. The variety, volume, and quality of her writings are impressive; her skill as a writer is seen not only in her eight novels but also in her essays, diaries, letters, short stories, biographies and nonfictional works A Room of One's Own and Three Guineas. A principal area of scholarly discussion and controversy in recent years has centered, however, on what she and her husband, Leonard Woolf, referred to as her periods of "madness." These scholarly discussions have been characterized by imprecise use of language, difficulties stemming from the lack of real knowledge (as opposed to guesswork} that prevails still in psychology, psychiatry, and psychoanalysis, and a desire to say the cause of her mental illness was predominantly this or that when it could have been any number of causes. Since no accurate diagnosis was made while she was alive due to the ignorance and/or biases of the doctors who attended her, the truth has probably slipped away. Therefore, it is important not to oversimplify and to admit that we can only speculate upon the various factors that caused her breakdowns, her suicide attempts, and finally her death. The causes overlapped and intertwined until it is probably impossible to isolate, to any meaningful extent, one from another. Furthermore, although the trauma of incest or bereavement may well have caused her mental illness, the bipolarity prominent in her aesthetic vision and philosophy could as easily have come from genetic factors. Certainly, bipolarity, characteristic of the manic-depressive experience and the larger category of bipolar disorders, does match with her perceptions of her parents' personalities (described in her autobiographical novel To the Lighthouse) and with her own ways of conceptualizing both life and art.

Original Publication Citation

Bazin, N. T. (1994). Postmortem diagnoses of Virginia Woolf's 'madness': The precarious quest for truth. In B. M. Rieger (Ed.), Dionysus in literature: Essays on literary madness (pp. 133-147). Bowling Green State University Popular Press.