The Great Novel of the Internet Was Published in 1925

Posted by on October 8, 2021 10:37 am
Categories: Everything Else

A glitching 1920s era woman.
Adam Maida / The Atlantic

In September, The Wall Street Journal published a report, based on leaked documents, describing Facebook’s awareness of the harmful effects one of its platforms was having on young people. “Thirty-two percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse,” the company’s internal research revealed. “Comparisons on Instagram can change how young women view and describe themselves.” Here, though, is another finding: Many of the same young people who spoke of Instagram’s degradations kept returning to the service anyway. It’s where their friends are. It’s where they’re expected to be seen. Instagram, in that way, is both a choice and not a choice at all—a trap saturated in the language of easy freedoms: Post, comment, like.

Such transactions are not limited to the digital environment. (“I’m sick of being perceived,” one woman said this summer, explaining why she would keep wearing her face mask outside despite relaxed CDC guidance on the matter.) But the internet has brought new acuity to the old experience of watching oneself being watched. People are negotiating new ways of being in each others’ proximity. That helps to explain the currency of a nearly 100-year-old piece of literature—a book, fundamentally, about a party.

Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf’s 1925 novel about a day in the life of a London society hostess, is enjoying a renaissance. This year brought a new edition of it, with a foreword by the author Jenny Offill. There’s also the recent publication of The Annotated Mrs. Dalloway, from the Oxford professor and critic Merve Emre; and Insignificance, which tells a Dalloway-inspired story from the perspective of a plumber; and The Days of Afrekete, which revolves around a dinner party and pays homage to Woolf’s novel; and Assembly, the electrifying fiction debut that has been called “a modern Mrs. Dalloway.” Essayists, too, have been revisiting the book, written in the aftermath of the 1918 flu pandemic, as a meditation on illness, as an insight into loneliness, as a reckoning with grief. “We are all Mrs. Dalloway now,” one writer put it, as it became clear that a plague would be yet another way that the past would repeat itself within the heedless present.

Dalloway’s ubiquity, in one way, is curious: This moment would not seem to be clamoring for a story about a rich white woman running errands. In another way, though, the book’s revival makes perfect sense. Modernism was a movement of resonant rupture. It grappled with war, sickness, institutional breakdown, individual despair, and the bleak notion that problems might be solved if people could only be persuaded to buy the right stuff. Its concerns are intensely familiar. But modernism was also a movement of exposure. It arose with the camera, and the motion picture. It was invested in finding new ways of seeing—other people, the world, the human soul.   

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Woolf funneled those ambitions into her story about a party. Using that ironic plot device—a celebration in a time of trauma—she explored the ideas that shaped her time: inclusion and exclusion, the public and the private, the consequences of mutualized surveillance. Dalloway suggested that consciousness itself could be made legible; that was its formal revolution. But part of the novel’s enduring power—one reason it is summoned as a source of wisdom in the age of the internet—is that it also recognized the limits of omniscience. Set within a London that might feel familiar to anyone who has spent time on social media, a place by turns communal, claustrophobic, creative, and cruel, the novel anticipated our like-laden panopticon. It highlights, in lyric and occasionally excruciating detail, what those young users of Instagram know all too intimately. “I feel seen,” goes a refrain of social media. It could be a claim of gratitude or violation.

Mrs. Dalloway’s plot is deceptively simple. Over the course of a single day in June, Clarissa Dalloway—middle-aged, posh, the wife of a Conservative member of Parliament—runs errands around London to prepare for the party she will be hosting that evening. The day is sparkling, banal, momentous. As Clarissa moves through it, she encounters strangers, acquaintances, family members, and, from a distance, an unnamed member of the Royal Family. She also reunites with people from her past: Peter Walsh, the man she might have married, and Sally Seton, the woman she might have loved. The city is full of people moving as an ecstatically amoebic organism. The book’s narrator describes it all:

In people’s eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motorcars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what [Clarissa Dalloway] loved; life; London; this moment of June.

I’d remembered Mrs. Dalloway through lines like that. I’d recall the liquid quality of its narration, the way its words weave people together so tightly that it becomes difficult to tell where one ends and another begins. Dalloway’s narration roves from character to character, alighting on one person and then another, swooping, rising, plunging, settling. (Birds are, fittingly, a motif in the book.) Woolf called that approach her “method.” She used it to imply a giddy fluidity between action and thought. Woolf was summoning the still-nascent field of psychology—its conviction that the mysteries of the mind might be made solvable—and applying it to literature.

When I reread Dalloway, though, in conjunction with Emre’s engrossing and clarifying annotation, I was struck not just by the book’s ingenuity but also by its humility. What stood out to me this time were the constraints Woolf applied to Dalloway’s storytelling: awkward dashes, arhythmic semicolons, harsh stops that obstruct the tendrils of the prose. The punctuation works as a kind of argument: Connection, the book suggests, has its limits. One’s ability to see and know other people has boundaries—even in fiction.

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Readers sometimes talk about Dalloway’s narration as a form of stream of consciousness, but that’s not strictly accurate. The book’s narrator isn’t simply plunging readers into the inner life of its characters, in the “yes I said yes I will Yes” manner of James Joyce and the other modernists Woolf was in conversation with in Dalloway. The narrator is also acting as that most contemporary of things: a gatekeeper. Dalloway controls readers’ access to its characters, parceling it out, limiting it, processing it through the third person. Free indirect discourse is the technical term for that approach; what it amounts to, over the course of the novel, is a story that doubles as an ongoing act of ambiguity. “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself,” the book’s famous first line goes; the second line, though, reveals what Woolf is really up to: “For Lucy had her work cut out for her.”

Whose thoughts are readers privy to as we’re thrown into their day? Are they those of Clarissa Dalloway, the hostess? Or are they those of Lucy, her maid? That the answer is both says a lot about why Dalloway, a century after Woolf wrote it, retains its allure. Everyone has a story, Woolf’s method suggests. The question is merely whose will be told and whose will be ignored.

That is also, as it happens, one of the core questions posed by the internet. What will result when people finally—revolutionarily—can be the authors of their own experience? Will the new access we have to one another encourage empathy, or foreclose it? Dalloway, a novel of ironized intimacies, anticipated these stakes. It acknowledges the double valence of two of the key value propositions of life in a digital world: seeing and being seen. “He made her see herself,” Dalloway’s narrator says of Peter’s effect on Clarissa. The reader can decide whether the perspective Peter provides is a gift or a curse.

Dalloway offers another treatment of ambivalent access through Septimus Smith, a traumatized veteran of World War I who has lost the ability to distinguish between the world as it is and the world as he hallucinates it. (“I want to give life & death, sanity & insanity,” Woolf wrote in her diary. “I want to criticise the social system, & to show it at work, at its most intense.”) The novel posits a spiritual tether between Septimus and Clarissa, strangers paired in a filamentous bond that connects them through their distance. Their stories converge only when Clarissa hears, through the discordant means of idle party gossip, that a man has jumped out of a window, killing himself.

“Somehow it was her disaster—her disgrace,” the narrator observes, as Clarissa takes in the news of the suicide. But again the claim of connection is suspect: How deeply, really, does she feel his loss, as she goes about hosting her party? In claiming his death as her tragedy, is she engaging in empathy, or theft? And in informing readers that Septimus’s suicide was “her disgrace,” is the narrator offering access to Clarissa’s inner world or simply summoning the glib omniscience so common in a digital world that can reduce people to characters?

The perspectives blend, teasingly. Third person and first person become indistinguishable. Authorship, spectatorship, the power dynamics of the gaze, one’s story as one’s currency—those contemporary ideas pulse through this century-old book, offering reminders that our challenges are novel but not, strictly speaking, new. Living through a paradigm shift is disorienting. But people have done it before.

Cities, whether ancient or modern, are their own kind of communications revolution. They require people to find new ways to see one another at scale. When Woolf composed Mrs. Dalloway, the flaneur had become a fixture of literature; “the crowd” had become a subject of scientific investigation; the sociologist Georg Simmel had observed that “to be a stranger is naturally a very positive relation; it is a specific form of interaction.” Crowds can be exhilarating. They can also be humbling. In London’s social network, Clarissa is entranced by the people she sees. But she also understands the limits of her own field of vision. “She would not say of any one in the world now that they were this or were that,” the narrator writes. The line is a moral for this moment too. On the internet, people are constantly exposed to one another. It does not follow that we fully see one another.

“History repeats itself. But do decades duplicate?” the AP asked earlier this year, in a story responding to predictions of “a new Roaring Twenties.” No, is the short answer. But the eerie resonances between Dalloway’s moment and our own—war, pandemic, entrenched inequality, betrayals that would lead to Lost Generations—help to explain why Woolf’s book is so ripe for revisitation. And for pointed revision. Soon after Emre’s annotated version of Mrs. Dalloway was published, Assembly, by the British author Natasha Brown, debuted in the United States. The novel, like Woolf’s, is intensely attuned to the power dynamics of storytelling. Like Woolf’s book, too, the plot is sparse, with a richness that comes in part from the way its taut moments vibrate with history.

But nothing about Brown’s novel is derivative or duplicative. Its narration, crucially, is entirely first-person. The novel has one protagonist—a Black woman, unnamed, who lives in London and works in finance—and one perspective: hers. She is preparing to attend, with her wealthy, white boyfriend, the party his parents are throwing on their estate. The gathering, for her, looms as a threat. “I will be watched, that’s the price of admission,” she says:

They’ll want to see my reactions to their abundance: polite restraint, concealed outrage, and a base, desirous hunger beneath. I must play this part with a veneer of new-millennial-money coolness; serving up savage witticisms alongside the hors d’œuvres. It’s a fictionalization of who I am, but my engagement transforms the fiction into truth. My thoughts, my ideas—even my identity—can only exist as a response to the partygoers’ words and actions. Articulated along the perimeter of their form. Reinforcing both their selfhood, and its centrality to mine. How else can they be certain of who they are, and what they aren’t? Delineation requires a sharp, black outline.

Dalloway is populated by people who look at one another without seeing one another; Assembly’s supporting characters suffer from deeper failures of vision. They condescend to the protagonist. They willfully ignore her. Assembly offers pointillistic details about her professional life, her relationship with her boyfriend, and her relationship with Britain; in doing so, it presents a world of atmospheric hypocrisies. It depicts the casual cruelties that are sometimes called microaggressions but that register as accumulative violence. Brown’s novel is a catalog of objectifications, an indictment of those who treat empathy as a slogan but too often fail to feel other people’s pain.

Assembly, like Dalloway, explores an ongoing collision between sanity and insanity; the insanity, in this case, is racism. And Brown’s version of a foil is contained wholly within the person of the narrator. The world around her claims to be full of possibilities, but it can be, instead, a grim patchwork of teasing constraints. The disconnect cleaves her, constantly—W. E. B. Du Bois’s double-consciousness, channeled with wincing detail. My thoughts, my ideas—even my identity—can only exist as a response to the partygoers’ words and actions.

Omniscience, in the universe of Assembly, is impossible. So is any ambiguity about the third-person gaze. Irony, Brown’s novel suggests, is a privilege enjoyed by the few—another way for people to say “I see you” even as they look away. But Assembly’s narrator reclaims what she can in a culture that clings to its fictions: She says she’ll tell her story herself.

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