Reader Response Essay Draft 1
Through detailed descriptions and thought-provoking scenes, Virginia Woolf’s “Street Haunting: A London Adventure” evokes a feeling of escape, examines what defines our self identity, and explores what is truly beautiful. Woolf employs such vivid imagery that I felt as if I were the one who wandered London’s streets in winter. I experienced the liberating feel of escaping from your normal self, I saw the beauty Woolf finds in even the most unlikely subjects, and I struggled with her between surface appearances and the deeper connectedness she originally tries to avoid.
With the simple excuse of needing a pencil, Virginia Woolf escapes into the streets on an early winter night in London. She describes in great detail the many things she sees and the various things she experiences. She travels the streets of London simply taking in the obvious beauty of such a lovely night; emphasizing her desire to stay on the surface for a little while longer. She switches from a pure uncomplicated beauty to appreciation of that which is irregular or even ugly and exposes the beauty to be found in those things. This change in sights ushers in a new tone of thinking and connectedness that allows Woolf to imagine herself in the people around her and create a background for the different things that she encounters. These mental wanderings take place in areas such as the Thames River, a second hand book store, and a shop owned by a quarreling older couple. She seems to be developing an identity for herself in regards to her surroundings but in the end of the essay as Woolf returns to her house she realizes that identity is found in our wishes and wanderings as well as the reality of our life and familiar environment.
From the very beginning of the essay I sensed Woolf’s restlessness and desire to escape from, not only her familiar self, but also her conscious thought processes. Woolf’s need to leave what is ordinary and venture into the world outside herself is evident in her weak pretext for exiting her home and venturing thorough the streets of London. The fact alone that Woolf cites a pencil as her reason for wandering around on a winter night shows me how strong her inclination to elude normality is, but she carries this sentiment even further by applying it to her identity and mind. Woolf’s emphasis of the importance that darkness and winter have in her evening stroll made me realize that she was trying to evade her typical persona. In the second paragraph of the essay, Woolf explains “The evening hour, too, gives us the irresponsibility which darkness and lamplight bestow. We are no longer quite ourselves.” These sentences cause me to think that Woolf wanted to be someone other than her normal self, not only because she plainly states it, but also, because she gives a positive connotation to irresponsibility and seems to crave the cover that darkness and the unique air that lamplight create. I further connected with this idea of breaking away from your self towards the end of that same paragraph when Woolf paints a striking picture of our familiar selves emerging into the outside world. “The shell-like covering which our souls have excreted to house themselves, to make for themselves a shape distinct from others, is broken, and there is left of all these wrinkles and roughness a central oyster of perceptiveness, an enormous eye.” I can literally see Woolf slipping into the streets, shedding her old identity, and assuming the role of the detached observer. I identified with Woolf so much in this section because I have many times felt the desire to assimilate myself into a crowd and passively notice the things going on around me.
I found this similar urging to escape later on in the paragraph only this time connected to cognizance. Woolf expresses a wish to stay on the surface of things taking her surrounding in only at face value all throughout the first part of this essay. She describes her journey as “gliding smoothly on the surface” and voices a desire to “be content still with surfaces only”. Woolf seems to be working hard to elude her thoughts. This leads me to believe that Woolf wanted to evade her mind just as much as her self and normal environment. She depicts her observations in a way that is unconnected to thinking by mentioning that “the brain sleeps perhaps as it looks” and warning herself that “we are in danger of digging deeper that the eye approves.” In these ways Woolf is distancing her senses from her mind, further escaping the familiar.
Woolf’s plan to remain only on surface appearances begins to fade as the essay progresses. Originally Woolf expresses a desire to look at pure obvious beauty by saying “For the eye has this strange property: it rests only on beauty; like a butterfly it seeks colour and basks in warmth.” I get the feeling from this expression that Woolf is trying to make a distinction between what appeals to the eye and what appeals to our emotions. She later describes this method of observing beauty, however, in a way that gives it a shallow connotation. Woolf mentions that with “this simple, sugary fare, of beauty pure and uncomposed, we become conscious of satiety.” As I read this line I thought that Woolf was beginning to see the need for her conscious thoughts and was preparing to let them back in. This idea was further cemented when I recalled the line directly before this one in which Woolf remarks upon the shortcomings of passive sight. She says, “The thing it cannot do (one is speaking of the average unprofessional eye) is to compose these trophies in such a way as to bring out the more obscure angles and relationships.” Woolf begins to appreciate irregularity as beautiful and this change marks the emergence of her cognizant mind into her observations. After this switch, Woolf describes beauty in ugliness. She finds beauty in the foot of a dwarf and attributes a strange sort of grace to the walk of two blind men.
As Woolf begins to redefine true beauty, her detachment in surveillance melts. I think that this is because originally she was looking only at beauty that can be taken in at face value but as she switched her focus to the beauty found in ugliness she was required to react or at least think in order to understand its beauty. This evolution from surface beauty to hidden beauty stood out to me in another way as well. I felt a contrast between detachment and connectedness in Woolf as she describes the various things that she observes. She was able to stay detached from the “simple, sugary fare, of beauty” mentioned earlier because visual pleasure was the only thing it had to offer, however, the raw emotions of pain or humiliation found in the beauty of the ugly, deformed, and unusual draws us in and makes us feel. We are required to think when confronted with such things because there is great depth to the subject. Woolf shows us this ability to connect to pain in her description of the street crowd’s reaction to the shoe-shopping dwarf. After returning to her ugly self after her momentary glimpse of normality, the dwarf “started a hobbling grotesque dance to which everybody in the street now conformed,” and Woolf later reinforces that “all joined in the hobble and tap of the dwarf’s dance.” Woolf originally claims to desire detachment from her surroundings but finds later on that visual and emotional pleasures require a deeper look into subject matter and a connection to it.
I noticed a similar contrast between detachment and connectedness in Woolf’s morphing identity in regards to the crowd around her and her changing environment. The quote mentioned earlier about Woolf’s emergence into the streets of London, “The shell-like covering which our souls have excreted to house themselves, to make for themselves a shape distinct from others, is broken,” demonstrates the idea that our identities are altered when we leave behind the familiar things that define us. Instead of assuming her normal responsible identity in the crowd, Woolf adopts the position of a removed observer becoming “an enormous eye.” This forced detachment is, I think, brought on because of a lack of the familiar. When we no longer derive our true self from our familiar surroundings and those who know us, we automatically morph into the crowd’s perception of us. Woolf’s detailed scene with the dwarf demonstrated this theory. The dwarf was able to see herself as normal and beautiful when her feet were the center of attention and she was engaging in the familiar behavior of shoe shopping. However, when she returned to the streets and no one could see her perfect feet Woolf says that, “she had become a dwarf only.” It is as if Woolf is saying that, when the things that we love or know about ourselves are not apparent, then they cease to matter.
At the same time she is expounding upon this point Woolf is also explaining the antidote. Woolf shows us that by not limiting what defines our self identity to the familiar but by also allowing our desires and the experiences of others to shape our person, we can avoid being lost in the flurry of street- wandering in London. At first, Woolf limits herself to what can be gleaned in glimpses but eventually she lets herself imagine and think and in that context she truly finds meaning and pleasure. We see that it is our innermost thoughts and experiences whether real or imaginary that influence us most and that by finding our connection to the crowd we discover true freedom and escape. Near the end of the essay, Woolf emphasizes the importance of connectedness in our identity and experiences saying “And what greater delight and wonder can there be than to leave the straight lines of personality and deviate into those footpaths that lead beneath brambles and thick tree trunks into the heart of the forest where live those wild beasts, our fellow men?” Woolf encourages us to dig past surface appearances and find where we connect to our surroundings because it is only in this way that we achieve a true identity and effective escape at the same time.
“Street Haunting: A London Adventure” impacted me for several reasons. I was drawn into the story by Woolf’s brilliant depictions and identified with the open emotions she conveyed. Woolf’s exploration of true beauty stood out to me because I tend to deem things beautiful that are unique or have sentimental value over things that are perfectly visually pleasing. I felt like I journeyed alongside Woolf as she evolved from detachment in identity and observation to a more connected stance. Most of all, the theme of escape in Woolf’s essay spoke to me. I enjoyed seeing how Woolf struggled so hard to elude her thoughts only to discover their importance in the end. I felt as Woolf must have as she wandered the streets of London on that winter night while reading this essay. I banished my more analytical thoughts at the beginning of the essay in order to truly appreciate the beauty of Woolf’s descriptions, but, as the essay progressed, I realized that there was so much more to the scenes than what can be gleaned from near subconscious reactions. I had to slowly let in my perceptive thinking in order to fully understand the import of Woolf’s accounts and achieved a rich experience that I had not expected.