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The many faces of loneliness in literature

More people are piling into Melbourne, hoping to make a home in what is apparently one of the world’s most liveable cities. Queues snake out of popular restaurants, and pedestrians push past each other on the footpath as they try to make their way across swarming city streets. But, loneliness is there.

I have three children, a husband, a close extended family and the inevitable friendships formed over almost 40 years of life, yet at times when I am alone, I can sense it hovering nearby.

As Orson Welles said, “We’re born alone, we live alone, we die alone.”

Loneliness, it seems, is part of the human condition, no matter how busy or sociable we might be. And, to a degree, perhaps this is a good thing, our loneliness reminding us that we are communal animals – an emotional pain that plays a similar role to the physical kind. Mostly, the everyday kind of loneliness is a mere nudge, or a shallow scratch. That little reminder to get out, share a conversation, an embrace, or a laugh.

But recently, I have encountered the loneliness of the former kind, which is heavy and solid, and not easy to cast aside. A chronic pain that a mere pill won’t fix.

Loneliness was at the heart of Our Souls at Night, a title which is itself a kind of ode to loneliness. The story is about two neighbours aged in their seventies, whose partners have died and children have long left. One day, the woman approaches the man to propose they share a bed for company. She is having trouble sleeping alone.

The two reluctantly embark on this exciting new lifestyle, both hardly containing their surprise at this respite from loneliness. The weight of their previous loneliness is evident in the obvious joy they experience in their new arrangement.

In Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, the title character has removed herself from society due to traumatic childhood experiences. While she tried to convince herself she was content with her isolation, her drinking problem reflected a deep sadness that was exacerbated by her loneliness. When she had a small taste of companionship, she got an inkling of what she had been missing. The reader cannot help rejoicing in the friendship which ultimately changes her life.

These books might ostensibly be about loneliness, but in many others, characters are on their own, struggling against their own challenges.

In The Choke, Justine is desperately alone, living with a grandfather who struggles to show love and stepbrothers who are attempting to find their own place in the world.

When she finally befriends a boy at school, the reader feels a sense of relief, heightening the loneliness that Justine feels when the friendship ends. Similarly, moments of love and affection that Justine experiences with her father are short lived, and counteracted by his brutality and the brevity of his and unreliability of visits.

Paradoxically, books about relationships or families often centre on the loneliness of the individuals within; the wife who makes an unwise choice of husband (The Painted Veil), the children who are ill-at-ease with their step-siblings (Commonwealth), the rejected daughter (People of the Book) and the mother who leaves her children behind in the search for a better life (Behind the Scenes at the Museum). In fact, it is hard to find a character untouched by loneliness.

In fiction, the lonely are not just elderly, bitter or unlovable. They are individuals tackling their own circumstances, their own lives, and walking along roads untraveled by another.

Fiction plays an important role in reflecting life and the human condition, and it is not too far a leap to imagine that these writers are accurate in their depictions of a loneliness that is pervasive, grinding and intractable. For, in reality, loneliness is a quiet but persistent presence for most, but sometimes much more.








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