literature · Other stuff · Walking

The sensation of walking: a preface to observations on Walking in Frankenstein…

In the last blog, I discussed the links between walking and death in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. This was the first in a series of blogs examining walking in the novel, and I want to move on to how, in the novel, Mary Shelley is able to shift between walking as observational and as experience. Before I get on to this, however, I’d like to say something about how some novels depict walking, as a preface to what I’m going to say in the next blog.


Most of us take walking for granted.

It is a physical, tactile act; our bodies move, our heartbeat increases; we feel the ground beneath our feet and the air against our skin; we ascend and descend, all the time engaging the muscles of our legs to propel us forward. Depending on the amount of exertion, we perspire, become breathless, before we stop and rest to regain our energy.

In books and films, characters walk a lot. They walk and talk in the films we love – whether it’s Hollywood cool such as Reservoir Dogs, the cinema of Wim Wenders (Paris, Texas; Alice in the Cities) or the aesthetic beauty of Abbas Kiarostami’s slow cinema. They walk across deserts, cities and even the edgelands of south-east England (the films of Andrea Arnold, for example), and I’m sure you can think of many, many more films where walking seems to figure a great deal. Whole books have been written on walking (Lauren Elkin’s delightful Flâneuse, or Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust amongst many others); and philosophical treatises explain the socio-cultural signification of walking (Michel de Certeau’s Practice of Everyday Life). Think also of the literature of modernism: the celebrated walks of James Joyce’s Ulysses or Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway; the labyrinthine pedestrianism of Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy; the classic walks of Tess or Jane Eyre. And so on.



Photograph: Architectural Press Archive / RIBA Collections

But even when reading novels or watching films, we probably take walking for granted. It’s a syndetic link between one scene or another; it transports characters from place to place; it offers a backdrop to dialogue. In non-fiction texts such as travel writing, letters and nature writing, walking is often celebrated as a physical, sensory act, but even then the emphasis is upon the visual, auditory and olfactory experiences of external stimuli, not the effect of the walk upon the walker’s physical body. In novels, how often is our attention drawn to the experience of walking? Characters walk and talk; we pay attention to their dialogue. They walk and look, and we are drawn to what they observe. But what about the sensory experience? Why do some novelists draw our attention to the physicality of walking and not others? Is it to do with the journey, its context? Unlike the visual medium of film (although this is a sweeping generalisation), novels are able to conjure up all the senses, to immerse the reader in an embodied experience, at one with their characters. So why are so many walking scenes bereft of this sensual and sensory relationship between the body and the space through which it walks?

Descriptions of walking in literature falls within a continuum of observational walking and felt, sensory responses. Here’s Daniel Defoe’s non-fiction account from A Journal of the Plague Year:

One day, being at that part of the town on some special business, curiosity led me to observe things more than usually, and indeed I walked a great way where I had no business. I went up Holborn, and there the street was full of people, but they walked in the middle of the great street, neither on one side or other, because, as I suppose, they would not mingle with anybody that came out of houses, or meet with smells and scent from houses that might be infected.

The Inns of Court were all shut up; nor were very many of the lawyers in the Temple, or Lincoln’s Inn, or Gray’s Inn, to be seen there. Everybody was at peace; there was no occasion for lawyers; besides, it being in the time of the vacation too, they were generally gone into the country. Whole rows of houses in some places were shut close up, the inhabitants all fled, and only a watchman or two left.

Defoe joins the throng, walking in the middle of the road to avoid contamination from the afflicted. Whilst he comments on the ‘smells and scent’, there is no attempt to by Defoe to describe this sensory experience. More importantly, what about the overwhelming sense of being in a crowd? For Defoe, walking is mainly observational. Despite declaring that he wants to ‘observe things more than usually’ these observations are mainly visual. Could he have gone further? What about the feel of the (cobbled) streets beneath his feet? Whether he felt the throng of the crowd as something overwhelming and overpowering; the sensation of clothing against skin as he negotiates the plague-ridden streets in the middle of summer. These are, of course, decisions made by the writer and in literature, especially ‘classic’ novels the narrative impulse is strong, whereas in poetry the reflective instinct is often more dominant.

Dickens is that other great narrator of walks. This is Esther in Bleak House:

The way was paved here, like the terrace overhead, and my footsteps from being noiseless made an echoing sound upon the flags. Stopping to look at nothing, but seeing all I did see as I went, I was passing quickly on, and in a few moments should have passed the lighted window, when my echoing footsteps brought it suddenly into my mind that there was a dreadful truth in the legend of the Ghost’s Walk, that it was I who was to bring calamity upon the stately house and that my warning feet were haunting it even then. Seized with an augmented terror of myself which turned me cold, I ran from myself and everything, retraced the way by which I had come, and never paused until I had gained the lodge-gate, and the park lay sullen and black behind me.

Walking for Esther is bound up with mystery and legend; it is an act that threatens to bring to life the past itself. Here again, the walk is mainly observational, with some reference to scent and this time sound. The ‘echoing footsteps’ and ‘warning feet’ provides the reader with some reference to the physicality of walking but this is more an effect upon the environment rather than upon the narrator’s body. Perhaps the sentences structures, their multiple clauses, create a breathlessness that might be seen as the marriage of form and content, but this is not always explicit.

The modernists, of course, had other ideas. They walked, and as they walked they became consumed with their inner selves and their narratives became streams of consciousness, often replicating the aimless wanderings of their characters, themselves lost in an alienating post-war Europe. Here’s Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway:

She had reached the Park gates. She stood for a moment, looking at the omnibuses in Piccadilly.

She would not say of any one in the world now that they were this or that. She felt very young; at the same time unspeakably aged. She sliced like a knife through everything; at the same time she was outside, looking on. She had a perpetual sense, as she watched the taxi cabs, of being out, out, far out to sea and alone; she always had that feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day … somehow in the streets of London, on the ebb and flow of things, here, there, she survived.

And of course, Leopold Bloom in James Joyce’s Ulysses:

He crossed to the bright side, avoiding the loose cellarflap of number seventyfive. The sun was nearing the steeple of George’s church. Be a warm day I fancy. Specially in these black clothes feel it more. Black conducts, reflects (refracts is it?), the heat. … His eyelids sank quietly often as he walked in happy warmth. Boland’s breadvan delivering with trays our daily but she prefers yesterday’s loaves turnovers crisp crowns hot. Makes you feel young. Somewhere in the east: early morning: set off at dawn, travel round in front of the sun, steal a day’s march on him. Keep it up forever never grow a day older technically.

In these extracts, walking is punctuated and accompanied by moments of reflection, or existential angst, or philosophical meditation! Joyce’s extract in particular draws attention to the physical experience: the sun on his body, the possible folly of wearing a dark suit, the drowsiness induced by the heat. Walking is a means of staying alive, of being at one with the world and, with Bloom, of staying eternally young!

Of course, for everyone of these extracts there will be others that do focus on the physical experiences of pedestrianism. One of my favourite novels, Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy, makes explicit the connection between walking and identity. In this section, the narrator Quinn, posing as a private detective, is following another character around New York, Stillman, at the behest of Virginia Stillman, his daughter-in-law:

For two weeks this routine did not vary. The old man [Stillman] would wander through the streets of the neighbourhood, advancing slowly, sometimes by the merest of increments, pausing, moving on again, pausing once more, as though each step had to be weighed and measured before it could take its place among the sum total of steps. Moving in this manner was difficult for Quinn. He was used to walking briskly, and all this starting and stopping and shuffling began to be a strain, as though the rhythm of his body was being disrupted.

In this passage – and throughout the novel – walking is described in almost minute terms. Indeed, Quinn’s focus is so concentrated on Stillman that description of the city falls second to the detailed account of his movements. At one point, Quinn, in trying to map out the route, attempts a variety of ways of carrying a notebook. Auster describes the physical discomfort and awkwardness of attempting such a feat. Indeed, Auster eschews traditional observations and, at one point, his character Quinn draws a diagram which is a visual representation of his movements. Not only has walking moved beyond the observational, but it has drifted also into the symbolic. Auster’s protagonist therefore finally fulfils what Lauren Elkin suggests is the very definition of pedestrianism:

Walking is mapping with your feet. It helps you piece a city together, connecting up neighbourhoods that might otherwise have remained discrete entities, different planets bound to each other, sustained yet remote. I like seeing how in fact they blend into one another, I like noticing the boundaries between them. Walking helps me feel at home. … Sometimes I walk because I have things on my mind, and walking helps me sort them out.

So is there a historical shift in the novel and in literature from its early emphasis on walking as transportation, a means of mobility, and a vehicle for observation to being a means of reflection and a retreat from the horrors and anxieties of the modern world?

Last Friday, I walked something like 21000 steps, which, according to the app on my phone, was something like 8 miles. If I could be bothered to explore the finer detail of the app, it would let me know how many ‘steps’ I’d climbed and provides graphs to diagram the exact moments when I rested. There are apps that can measure your heartbeat as you walk and so you can arrive at a complete mapping of the data of your walk. This is the extreme, for what is missing of course from this ‘narrative’ is the sensory encounter with the landscape, the conversations I had, the delight in the beauty of the mild, early January weather. And of course this is what novelists and poets provide. Whether the journeys they describe are observational, reflective, or linger on the sensory and sensual delights of the world through which characters and narrators move; whether the walks are exploratory, demonstrative, purposeful, defiant, romantic, tragic, sinister or an escape from reality, the act of walking in literature is one that opens up worlds to us.

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