The Lunatic Upstairs: Virginia Woolf and the Ethics of Institutionalization (Roundtable)


British / Women's and Gender Studies

Jessica Mason (SUNY University at Buffalo)

Maria Rovito (Pennsylvania State University)

Virginia Woolf’s work has critically engaged with the question of institutionalization and the confinement of Mad peoples, from the medical treatment of Septimus Warren Smith in Mrs. Dalloway (1925), to the question of madwomen’s spaces and meaning-making in A Room of One’s Own (1929), to Woolf’s own institutionalization in Burley House in 1910. As Woolf writes in a letter to her sister, Vanessa Bell, “However, what I meant to say is that I shall soon have to jump out of a window. The ugliness of the house is almost unbelievable—having white, and mottled green and red. Then there is all the eating and drinking and being shut up in the dark.” Indeed, as a figure of the madwoman within literature and culture, Woolf’s ethics of institutionalization can be analyzed through a variety of critical modes, ranging from feminist and disability theory to queer and crip studies. As madwomen throughout modern western history have been confined and silenced by the institution, new engagements in Woolf studies must question the nature of the asylum in Woolf’s life and work. This panel seeks to theorize and question Woolf’s ethics surrounding institutionalization and the asylum throughout her writing, including her fiction, essays, short stories, drama, and autobiography.
This panel will explore how Virginia Woolf’s work foregrounds an ethics of institutionalization for madwomen and Mad folx who are silenced by the asylum. What is the importance of reading the figure of the institution in Woolf’s work? How did the asylum and her own institutionalization affect Woolf’s life and creative output? Is it possible to create an ethics of institutionalization through the Woolf canon?