Loneliness in Art and Storytelling

Edward Hopper was a master at depicting loneliness with paint. The sense of isolation is achieved with colour and composition. Eyes don’t meet, or not at the same time. Body language is closed off. Figures are small inside vast spaces, their heads far from the top of the canvas, They gaze from windows as if longing for connection. Edward Hopper did not call this emotion ‘loneliness’, however:

Why did Hopper not want to talk about loneliness? Perhaps he wanted to avoid conflating ‘loneliness’ with ‘isolation’ and in this he was right, as shown by more recent psychological research.

There is only a weak correlation between social isolation (not seeing others) and loneliness, so we don’t necessarily need to fear becoming lonely.

Holly Walker
Edward Hopper (American, 1882 – 1967) Solitude, 1944. Even a house can look lonely.
Edward Hopper, Automat, 1927

“Liverpool Art & Illustration – markmyink” has this to say about Hopper’s Automat painting:

Automats were open at all hours of the day and were also ‘busy, noisy and anonymous. They served more than ten thousand customers a day.’ Moreover, the woman is sitting in the least congenial spot in the entire restaurant for introspection.

‘They were clean, efficient, well-lit and – typically furnished with round Carrera marble tables and solid oak chairs like those shown here – genteel.’

By the time Hopper painted his picture, automats had begun to be promoted as safe and proper places for the working woman to dine alone.

Another artist who similarly depicts loneliness is O. Louis Guglielmi. The painting below includes a girl playing alone, an empty chair on a balcony and a street mostly devoid of decoration.

O. Louis Guglielmi, South Street Stoop, 1935.
O. Louis Guglielmi, South Street Stoop, 1935.
When I go to the MOON illustrated by Leonard Weisgard, 1961
When I go to the MOON illustrated by Leonard Weisgard, 1961
Loneliness is dangerous, Ed Vebell, 1955
Loneliness is dangerous, Ed Vebell, 1955. The accent colour of red separates the woman from her background. Another woman also wears red. This could be her, but it’s not. Seeing another version of herself only heightens the sense of loneliness. ‘Heightens’. She’s standing on a precarious balcony.

Alain de Botton doesn’t like the concept of ‘single’ versus ‘in a relationship’. He instead prefers to think of ‘connected’ people and ‘disconnected’ people. This makes more sense because you can still feel lonely even when ‘in a relationship’. Simply having people nearby doesn’t quell loneliness; it really is all about connection.

John Knapp-Fisher (1931 – 2015) Figure in the Street

A CATEGORISATION OF LONELINESS

Not everyone means the same thing when talking about loneliness. At The Spinoff, Holly Walker uses the following categories:

  1. EMOTIONAL LONELINESS: related to the lack or loss of an intimate other
  2. SOCIAL LONELINESS: feeling unconnected to a wider social network, such as friends, family, and neighbours
  3. EXISTENTIAL LONELINESS: related to a feeling of lacking meaning and purpose in life.

A good example of a story about existential loneliness: Taxi Driver. Tagline: On every street in every city in this country, there is a nobody who dreams of being a somebody. I believe this particular type of ‘loneliness’ is connected to the feeling that no one is paying attention to you. In stories it frequently leads to a character doing something for attention.

On the subcategorisation of social and emotional types of loneliness, a paper entitled “Who are the lonely? A typology of loneliness in New Zealand” breaks social connectedness into four different profiles. One of its authors spoke with Jim Mora on Radio New Zealand:

  1. HIGH LONELINESS (5.7%). This group comprise the most introverted, emotionally unstable and score poorest in wellbeing. This is a much smaller percentage than some other loneliness studies would suggest, but it depends where researchers draw the loneliness line. Chronic loneliness has a very real effect on health, affecting every kind of mortality, impacting sleep.
  2. LOW LONELINESS (57.9%). These people don’t really feel lonely at all. This NZ percentage reflects UK and USA statistics.
  3. APPRECIATED OUTSIDERS (29.1%) Appreciated outsiders receive acceptance from others but feel like social outsiders. These people experience experience and support in the social connections that they do have.
  4. SUPERFICIALLY CONNECTED (7.2%) The superficially connected are the opposite to ‘Appreciated outsiders’. They have many ‘friends’ but do not enjoy close connections with many or any of them. This group had moderate wellbeing, but ‘appreciated outsiders’ are relatively higher in wellbeing despite greater introversion and neuroticism.
Cover design and illustration by Sydney Leff, 1932 loneliness
Cover design and illustration by Sydney Leff, 1932

Hannah Hawkins-Elder explains that in reality loneliness is more of a spectrum because all of us feel lonely at different times. Loneliness forces us to seek social connection, so this is an important emotion, drawing us back into society.

This song feels a bit like an updated version of Eleanor Rigby with its character sketches of loneliness.

LONELINESS AND AGE

Young adults (18-24 year olds) tend to score highest on loneliness in general, followed by the elderly and people with chronic health issues, neurodiversities and similar. British people feel most alone at the average age of 37, which may be quite an arbitrary age.

People look to social media for encouraging loneliness in young people. Social media enables a high quantity of friends but does not encourage authenticity. It’s easier to wear a mask online. We see everyone’s well-lit shop window on the Internet, not their messy storerooms. That said, social media apps are changing in a way which aims to do a better job at fostering authentic connections online, for example by encouraging sharing and chat between smaller groups of people who know each other well.

The 18-24 age is a very liminal, volatile time when we are still forging our own identities. We are quite often leaving home or moving cities, starting new work where we lack confidence. Connecting with others has the prerequisite for finding your people, so we must all understand who we are as people before forging deep, close personal connections. This takes time, and social media aside, may explain why young people are the loneliest demographic. However, this theory requires more research.

LONELINESS IN FICTION

LONELINESS IN CHILDREN’S STORIES

All stories about friendship start from a place of loneliness. Since many children’s stories are about friendship, many start off with lonely main characters. This explains why the trope of the child moving houses is so enduring — everyone is lonely when they move to a new place, faced with the daunting task of starting friendships from scratch.

  • Lucy Pevensie is alienated from her older siblings for having a wild imagination but by the end of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe she is a fully included equal.
  • Fern is alienated from her farming family The Arables for caring too much about pigs, but soon makes barnyard friends. Initially her mother is worried about this, but the doctor reassures the mother that animal friends are just fine. Whatever it takes to quell the loneliness.
  • Picture books are less about loneliness than middle grade literature, though all small children experience a kind of loneliness after being required to sleep alone in their own bed. There exist many Western picture books about that particular experience. Tropes include monsters under the bed and imaginative trips into the night, with carnivalesque guests who may or may not be imaginary. The postmodern picture books of Anthony Browne have a lonely aesthetic (see for example Gorilla), though these picture books tend to appeal to an older audience.

There is an unwritten rule in children’s stories that empathetic young characters cannot remain lonely. Lane Moore wrote The Art of Being Alone for adults, and in this interview she talks about all the reading she did as a kid, in which every lonely character ended up with a loving home, from Anne of Green Gables to Matilda. This didn’t reflect Moore’s own childhood experience of loneliness, which continues into adulthood. So perhaps we need revise that unwritten rule.

In his collection Eleven Kinds Of Loneliness, Richard Yates includes a short story about a boy who starts at a new school and becomes ostracised by his peers, helped to fit in by his well-meaning young teacher. So far, so good — you might read it to your child and they’d understand every beat. But why is “Glutton For Punishment” a short story for adults? By the end this young boy has lost the support of his teacher as well as his peers. His loneliness looks set to continue. We don’t accept that ending in stories for children, which must end with hope and at least one friend to quell the interminable loneliness.

Károly Ferenczy (Hungarian, 1862 - 1917) Divorce, 1892
Károly Ferenczy (Hungarian, 1862 – 1917) Divorce, 1892
LONELINESS AND FICTIONAL MEN

We would rather electrocute ourselves than spend time in our own thoughts. This was demonstrated in a controversial 2014 study in which 67 per cent of male participants and 25 per cent of female participants opted to give themselves unpleasant electric shocks rather than spend 15 minutes in peaceful contemplation. I would like to know why so many more male participants than female participants preferred the electric shocks.

Like children’s stories, many fictional narratives for adults are also about loneliness followed by a happy ending of friendship, though in stories for adults, some stories end on loneliness, with no relief in sight. This marks a difference between the sort of narrative accepted for adult readership versus those accepted for child readership. A story which begins and ends with loneliness is considered a tragedy.

Hud based on the novel by Larry McMurtry is a good example of that kind of tragedy.

Hud is an excellent example of a character who cannot form deep connections because he plays by the rules of toxic masculinity. He cannot form a close connection with a woman because he uses them and assaults them. He cannot form a close connection with his father because he is in direct competition with him for patriarchal control of the farm. Ditto for his nephew, who initially looks up to him.

The Wrestler is another excellent peek into male loneliness, though again, this story is a tragedy.

There’s another type of story which so far predominantly stars men: The story of the man who gets himself a doll. There are two standout examples of this in film: Her and Lars and the Real Girl.

Charles Spencelayh (British ,1865 – 1958) The Empty Chair, 1947. The visual motif of the empty chair is also used in The Heart and the Bottle by Oliver Jeffers
Jacques Maes (Belgian,1905 - 1964) Breakfast
Jacques Maes (Belgian,1905 – 1964) Breakfast
THE SPECIFIC LONELINESS OF THE MIDDLE AGED WOMAN

The “Sex Machine” episode of the Hidden Brain podcast outlines the history of sex objects, going back to Prometheus who created humanity from clay. Likewise, Pygmalion seemed to enjoy fashioning women to his own tastes (he carved a woman out of ivory) and we see the influence of that ancient myth in modern storytelling.

Most middle-aged women are surrounded by people, partly because of the extra caregiving duties experienced by women in midlife (for both children and elderly parents) and also because more women tend to work in people-oriented roles such as nursing and teaching and human resources.

Though she didn’t use this terminology, Irish author Marian Keyes explained on the How To Fail podcast that she feels like an appreciated outsider much of the time, and the main character of Grown Ups is also an appreciated outsider, a fifty-year-old woman who gets social gatherings organised, pays for them, does the dishes at a party and ultimately feels a little like she is buying her friends by performing all this labour.

There’s a teacher archetype who fits into the appreciated outsider category. Richard Yates also includes one of these types of loneliness in his Eleven Kinds of Loneliness collection. “Fun With A Stranger” is the character study of an end-of-career teacher who does not know how to connect with her students, though she tries to with the best of intentions. Though told from the point of view of a student, this woman’s loneliness shines through. A teacher is a prime example of a person surrounded by people, but because of the need for emotional distancing, and due to the intensity of the job, I suspect appreciated outsiders can be found in schools everywhere.

The loneliness of the performer is similar. Surrounded by people, the performer is nonetheless alone on their stage.

Michael Sowa, a German painter from Berlin
illustration by Michael Sowa, a German painter from Berlin

Katherine Mansfield wrote many lonely women across her short stories. Standouts include:

  • Miss Brill, who sits on her on in a park and imagines social connectedness by making up backstories about complete strangers, then returns to her room with the new understanding that she is probably too old to be married and must remain forever alone.
  • Linda Burnell of the Prelude trilogy is a mother living in a three-generational household yet remains interminably lonely, perhaps due to post-natal depression or similar. Beryl is unmarried and romantically lonely, though I’d argue she is less lonely than Linda, who is married to hapless Stanley. Beryl knows how to console herself with her imaginative powers.
  • Pearl Button is playing alone in her front yard but enjoys a lovely social day after she is whisked away by some Maori women.
  • In “The Doll’s House“, two girls are ostracised due to their lower social class. The sisters still have each other, however. We can extrapolate that their exclusion will forge a stronger sisterly bond.
  • A Dill Pickle” is another story about an unwed woman living in genteel poverty, but she is not so lonely that she will marry just anyone.
  • The Escape” features a married couple who live on different emotional planets.
  • In “The Tiredness of Rosabel“, Rosabel goes through her life surrounded by people but utterly alone and hungry. This story highlights the inherent loneliness of a large city.
  • Psychology” is a more uplifting story because an unmarried woman seems to have found a way to deal with sexual loneliness, and it involves more than one person.
Vasily Perov (1833 – 1882)

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