7 Literary Characters Who Famously Refused to Get a Smartphone

There would be no online flower delivery service for Clarissa Dalloway

A rotary dial phone on a dark blue background
Photo by Pawel Czerwinski on Unsplash

I don’t own a smartphone, and never have. While this life choice has made me a happier, more productive person—I don’t know if I could have written my novel Last Resort with another distraction—it has also made me quite “out of the loop.”

Thankfully, like all losers and loners past, I’ve found solace—and some kindred souls—in literature. In fact, while rereading the classics, I was shocked to discover how many of my heroes have been courageous enough to make the same choice I have—and what good it did them. (You don’t have to be an 11th grade English teacher to know a motif when you see one.)

Here I count seven brothers and sisters in arms, my T9 trueloves, my prepaid partners, my flip-phone “fam.”

1. Ishmael

Mental health much? While I’ve never read Moby-Dick, I am very happy that Ishmael put himself first and unplugged—not a small thing for a guy who starts his whole spiel, “Call me.” According to SparkNotes, the only thing #trending in his life was “The Limits of Knowledge,” “The Deceptiveness of Fate” and “The Exploitative Nature of Whaling.” This guy spent some time on himself and it shows!

2. Frankenstein

I know, I know—Frankenstein’s the scientist, not the Monster. But did you know that neither had a smartphone? Pretty telling choice for a book about technology, huh? Even true Shelley stans forget that this wasn’t so in the first draft; in fact, in that version the Monster makes a cringe vlog series while hunting Victor in Geneva—and only asks for a companion to “cross-promote.” Not a bad idea!

3. Clarissa Dalloway

While Mrs. Dalloway could have just as easily hopped on TaskRabbit, she did all of her party prep herself. Plaudits! Most exceptionally, none of the characters at her big bash were allowed phones, which meant none of it ended up on Instagram. All the better to help remember the night for what really made it meaningful—a last, late act of communication from the now-dead Septimus. Talk about leaving someone on read!

4. Caleb Horowitz

The protagonist of my debut novel Last Resort has, famously, never had a smartphone. My copy editor thought I should explain why, but I never do! Something for the next generation of literary theorists to gnaw their little overeducated teeth on.

5. The plums in that famous poem

So sweet, so cold, and SO present. Good for you, plums. You know that the “juiciest” parts of life are the times we spend with each other, not scrolling. Hard to imagine plums having a smartphone anyway, given the lack of thumbs. Haha.

6. Jack “Binx” Bolling

The hero of Walker Percy’s novel The Moviegoer wasn’t totally averse to technology; hell, the guy was obsessed with talkies. But talk about restraint—he doesn’t even have a MoviePass account! While I admire Bolling, you can’t help but wonder: shouldn’t a character permanently alienated from his own life and bereft of meaning be at home, watching crime documentaries on Netflix? And shouldn’t a man who sees women as interchangeable and can’t connect on an intimate level be on Tinder? This one’s on the editor!

7. Hester Prynne

The heroine of The Scarlet Letter is famous for never giving in, even when the whole town turns against her. And by this I mean her not having a smartphone. After not being able to pull up a QR menu one too many times the town’s restaurateurs knit her a very ornate frock with the letter A, for Antediluvian. But when she successfully orders crab cakes at O’Donnelley’s, the town demands to know how she knew that was the night’s special. She replies that that’s the special every night, it’s the 1640’s, how often can a restaurant expect to mix things up, but the truth is much darker: She was dining with Dimmesdale, and he showed her the menu on his phone. Well, her special frock wears out in about a year or two, and this is when everyone else realizes they spend most of their waking hours trying to figure out subtweets, or reading about the off-camera lives of the hosts of The Great British Bake Off. So they forgive her for being right all along, and she accepts their apology under one condition: No more QR menus. Yes, of course, the townspeople laugh with closure, because menus were never meant to be read on an iPhone. The moral of the story is about cancel culture.

More Like This

Thank You for Calling the Writer Envy Helpline

If a writer you know on Twitter has written an entire book in the time it’s taken you to call this number, press 4

Jul 19 - Julie Vick

Twitter Fiction Turns a Fashion Show into Dante’s Inferno for the Modern Age

This Twitter Fiction Turns a Fashion Show into Dante’s Inferno for the Modern Age Ever wonder what a runway collection looks like in the Bad Place? Wonder no more

Feb 23 - Electric Literature
Thank You!