I read Mrs Dalloway in college and thought it was the worst. I knew I should care that Clarissa’s character was a commentary on the sexual and economic repression of women, but unless I was being disagreeable—one bespectacled boy who always sat in the front had lots to say about The Patriarchy and little understanding of his role in it, evidenced by his frequent description of characters as “bitchy”—I didn’t think much of Clarissa. I wasn’t interested in her stupid party, and it went completely over my head that Clarissa totally had the hots for Sally Seton, which might have at least piqued my interest.
I vaguely recognized, on some level, that the mental illness discussed in idle chatter at Clarissa’s party was something I should relate to, but I didn’t. I couldn’t get past my boredom with the whole thing, and the professor’s enthusiasm for Virginia Woolf was off-putting.
A plump, almost corpulent woman, great of bosom but short in stature, this professor wore a lot of darkly colored velour lady-suits and had a perfect bowl of uniformly gray hair. She wore small, rose-tinted glasses and I don’t think I ever saw her eyes the entire semester. She was pleasant enough but not kind, taking little interest in her students except as vessels into which she poured her keenness for Woolf. I felt a little guilty for disliking her, especially because I worried that my distaste was due in part to my desperation to never, ever be so fat.
“Anyone can be an asshole,” I told myself, justifying my aversion to Professor So-and-So by drumming up annoyance with what you’d describe in a doctor as poor bedside manner, “Just because you’re fat doesn’t mean you’re not an asshole.”
I know. I was the asshole. I’m getting to that.
In my defense, I was nineteen, maybe twenty. I look at pictures of myself from that time and can now distinguish that I was quite thin, though I would never have described myself that way at the time. I was always worried about the muffin top I now realize I didn’t have, or the pockets of fat on everyone’s inner thighs unless they’re an ultrarunner, which I had (and have) no ambition to be.
Far be it from me, at age nineteen, to make out the irony as I railed against The Patriarchy in class but found the professor insufferable because she didn’t measure up to my societally-imposed standards of professorhood or womanhood or whatever. I had bigger things to worry about, like whether I was getting fat and was my roommate going to bring another dude home on Friday night and had I taken my Prozac today.
It’s amazing, the connections I wasn’t making.
It wasn’t until we read The Hours and I realized that Woolf had filled her pockets with stones and walked into the River Ouse to drown that I thought maybe I hadn’t taken her nearly seriously enough.
There was some deep darkness there that I hadn’t been interested (mature?) enough to recognize, either in the novel or in my own self. I’d like to say I read Mrs Dalloway again and apologized to Professor Whatsername, but if you’ve read this far you probably know that didn’t happen.
I continued to write fine-but-not-great papers, identifying major themes and occasionally even showing some mild insight, but not having much of anything groundbreaking to say. At the end of the semester she gave me an A anyway, which is how I know I was right and she really didn’t care.
That period of my life, in addition to writing sort-of-decent papers and oversleeping for those dreaded 8 a.m. classes, is sort of blurred by the same depression and poor self-image I struggled with in my late teens and throughout much of my early adult life. Because I was still essentially a child, I spent a lot of time thinking about my feelings and self-medicating with probably about the same quantities of drugs and alcohol as my peers, though for reasons less healthy than your standard experimentation.
It wasn’t until I finished reading novels and writing uninspired papers and graduated that I discovered what I’d been missing.
That summer, I went on my first backpacking trip. After three weeks, much of it at high altitude and all of it with a 40-plus-pound pack, I reentered civilization lean and somewhat hairy. I was covered in bumps and scrapes and bruises. It wasn’t the kind of beauty Cosmopolitan and its cohorts had taught me to idolize, but it was the best I’d ever felt. I could live out there for twenty-four days, miles from the nearest trail, farther from the nearest road, with everything I needed on my back. To say it was empowering would be a gross understatement of my newfound self-efficacy.
I’d like to say I never had to take Prozac again, or that I haven’t sat on my couch and cried for no reason since that summer, or that when I really get inside my head all I have to do is go to the mountains. Anyone who’s felt those pangs, that gnawing feeling inside your head that tells you over and over again that you’re not good enough can attest that hiking around until you’re too tired to care anymore doesn’t always cut it. But it’s a start.
So, having sufficiently navel-gazed and provided a real-life connection to a novel I thought was a drag, this is my apology to Professor Whosit. I’m sorry I was too wrapped up in my own internal torture, which I say without sarcasm or irony, to give a shit about a novel that could very well have inspired me, had I chosen to engage in it. In short, I’m sorry I was the asshole.
I re-read Mrs Dalloway last year, and you know what? I still thought it was boring.
I read it in a grubby apartment in Wasilla, where my memory of Woolf’s tragic end reminded me that probably an Alaskan winter isn’t a good idea for someone who struggles to keep the sads at bay. Still, it wasn’t a total bust. It reminded me that all the best writers are at least a little touched, which gave me hope that I, too, might someday write something worthwhile.
More importantly, Mrs Dalloway prompted me to go outside, because at some point I was too bored to keep reading. An Alaskan winter is not, in fact, the place for someone who takes her Prozac inconsistently-at-best, but there’s a reason I keep coming back.
“Chin up, little buffalo,” my mom always says when I bemoan my lot in life, which I shouldn’t because I have it pretty good. As I stand at the foothills of perhaps the loveliest and most terrifying mountains on the planet, it’s hard not to.
I guess we all need a reason to keep moving.