Loneliness in Art and Storytelling

There is a loneliness that can be rocked. Arms crossed, knees drawn up, holding, holding on […] Then there is the loneliness that roams. No rocking can hold it down. It is alive.

Toni Morrison

Best cure for loneliness is solitude.

Marianne Moore
The Lone Ranger Annual 1953
The Lone Ranger Annual 1953. To be alone is not synonymous with ‘lonely’.

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.

Edward Hopper was influenced by a number of artists including Martin Lewis.

Martin Lewis
Martin Lewis

Phil Lockwood, who used to teach art in Sheffield, took Hopper’s famous painting of the lonely American diner and zoomed out to offer a peopled view. Do you think he’s removed the loneliness, or is it still there?

Phil Lockwood

Artist David Inshaw’s image below has a loneliness to it.

David Inshaw (b.1943) She Did Not Turn, 1974, rainbow
David Inshaw (b.1943) She Did Not Turn, 1974

Images of young women and girls with their backs turned to the viewer, contemplating a single building in the middle distance are reminiscent of a famous 1948 painting called Christina’s world by painter Andrew Wyeth.

Christina's World painting, Andrew Wyeth 1948
Christina’s World by Andrew Wyeth, 1948

Artists and filmmakers have been creating pastiches of this lonely work since then.

And here are some men alone on an open plain. Archetypal scenes of the Western.

These images feel like the openings to Thomas Hardy novels, which open with an image of a lonely character moving within a scene.

Another artist who 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. 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. Until now, most research on loneliness has focused on social isolation. Yet social isolation and feeling lonely aren’t the same at all. Loneliness most often derives from the experience of feeling like you are different from the people around you and also misunderstood by them.

At The Spinoff, Holly Walker explains 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
Cover design and illustration by Sydney Leff, 1932
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.
From 'Kiss my Tears Away' - True Life Library, 1965. Designer unknown lonely
From ‘Kiss my Tears Away’ – True Life Library, 1965. Artist not yet found.

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 AND THE MOON

Cover design and illustration by Sydney Leff, 1926 Are You Lonesome Tonight
Cover design and illustration by Sydney Leff, 1926 Are You Lonesome Tonight

In images and stories about loneliness, the moon often features large in the background. This connection goes back a long way. “To the Moon” by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) is an ode to the moon, functioning as a symbol of loneliness.

A companion to Shelley’s poem would be the children’s book Owl At Home by Arnold Lobel.

Why might the moon be so connected to loneliness? When we are far from loved ones and look up at the moon we know that those separated from us are also seeing the same object. The moon is one of the few objects which can unite humankind. I speculate that this feeling is related to a psychological experience known as The Overview Effect.

LONELINESS IN FICTION

LONELINESS AND THE IMAGINATION

Other people are so necessary to our mental health that when we have no people around us, we start to hallucinate.

Some of the most compelling descriptions of sensed presences come from lone sailors, mountain climbers, and Arctic explorers who have experienced hallucinations and out-of-body experiences. In one amazing 1895 incident, Joshua Slocum, the first person to circumnavigate the globe in a sailboat singlehandedly, said he saw and spoke with the pilot of Christopher Columbus’s ship The Pinta. Slocum claimed that the pilot steered his boat through heavy weather as he lay ill with food poisoning.

Psychology Today

LONELINESS IN CHILDREN’S STORIES

“I’m lonely,” she said.
The old gardener pushed his cap back on his bald head and stared at her a minute.
“Art tha’ th’ little wench from India?” he asked.
Mary nodded.
“Then no wonder tha’rt lonely. Tha’lt be lonelier before tha’s done,” he said.

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

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.
  • Somebody Loves You, Mr. Hatch by Eileen Spinelli is a picture book which ostensibly ends happily because a lonely man is appreciated by his wider community despite the revelation that a box of chocolates from a secret Valentine was not meant for him at all. However, I’m not consoled by this ending. Mr Hatch is your classic ‘appreciated outsider’ who is clearly in want of a lover.
Vasily Perov (1833 – 1882)

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
Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman is a popular contemporary novel about a thirty-year-old woman so lonely she attempts to take her own life. The ideological issues of this novel are covered in detail here. (Is there something lonely-sounding about the name Eleanor? Cf. Eleanor Rigby.

Convenience Store Woman

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata is often compared to Eleanor Oliphant. She does something very odd to avoid scrutiny as an unmarried woman nearing middle age. But was she ever really lonely? The Convenience Store Woman partners up with someone she doesn’t even really like, and immediately discovers she is now accepted by mainstream society. No one cares if they’re good together; they only care that she’s partnered. Now they can regard her as Normal.

I’d like to read a story that ends with this particular anagnorisis, and Convenience Store Woman comes pretty close to it:

There are far too many absolute cinnamon rolls who are unhappily alone, and waaaaaaaay too many selfish jerks celebrating golden wedding anniversaries and stinking up R/relationships to ever conclude that romantic love is distributed fairly according to merit.

Captain Awkward
LONELINESS AND KATHERINE MANSFIELD

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.

The song by Charlotte Cardin below is about the specific loneliness of being the ‘other’ girl rather than a guy’s ‘main girl’. Stories generally feature, centre and create empathy for ‘the main girl’, and Cardin wanted to tell the other side for a change.

So often in books, or in movies, one character looks at another character and understands in a precise way what that person is feeling. So often in real life, one person wants to be understood, but obscures her feelings with unrelated words and facial expressions, while the other person is trying to remember whether she did or didn’t turn off the burner under the hard-boiled eggs.

Criss Cross by Lynne Rae Perkins

FURTHER READING

“And there is a dignity in people; a solitude; even between husband and wife a gulf; and that one must respect, thought Clarissa, watching him open the door; for one would not part with it oneself, or take it, against his will, from one’s husband, without losing one’s independence, one’s self-respect—something, after all, priceless.”

Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway

When Olivia Laing moved to New York City in her mid-thirties, she found herself inhabiting loneliness on a daily basis. Increasingly fascinated by this most shameful of experiences, she began to explore the lonely city by way of art.

Moving fluidly between the works and lives of some of the city’s most compelling artists, Laing conducts an electric, dazzling investigation into what it means to be alone, illuminating not only the causes of loneliness but also how it might be resisted and redeemed.

22 year old Jena Chung plays the violin. She was once a child prodigy and is now addicted to sex. She’s struggling a little. Her professional life comprises rehearsals, concerts, auditions and relentless practice; her personal life is spent managing family demands, those of her creative friends, and lots of sex. Jena is selfish, impulsive and often behaves badly, though mostly only to her own detriment. And then she meets Mark – much older and worldly-wise – who bewitches her. Could this be love?

When Jena wins an internship with the New York Philharmonic, she thinks the life she has dreamed of is about to begin. But when Trump is elected, New York changes irrevocably and Jena along with it. With echoes of Frances Ha, Jena’s favourite film, truths are gradually revealed to her. Jena comes to learn that there are many different ways to live and love and that no one has the how-to guide for any of it – not even her indomitable mother.

A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing explores the confusion of having expectations upturned, and the awkwardness and pain of being human in our increasingly dislocated world – and how, in spite of all this, we still try to become the person we want to be.

from Roxy 6 April 1963
from Roxy 6 April 1963

The Haunting of Shirley Jackson: Emily Alford on the hazards of loneliness seen in Shirley Jackson’s books and the ways recent film adaptations have missed the mark.

WORDS RELATED TO LONELINESS

Adronitis

Frustration with how long it takes to get to know someone.

Anecdoche

A conversation in which everyone is talking but no one is listening.

Exulansis

The tendency to give up trying to talk about an experience because people are unable to relate to it.

Kenopsia

The eerie, forlorn atmosphere of a place that is usually bustling with people but is now abandoned and quiet.

Mauerbauertraurigkeit

The inexplicable urge to push people away, even close friends who you really like.

Nodus Tollens

The realisation that the plot of your life doesn’t make sense to you anymore.

Onism

The frustration of being stuck in just one body, inhabiting only one place at a time.

FURTHER READING

Books about Loneliness from the University of Miami Picturebook Database

Lemon girl young adult novella

READ AT MY OTHER BLOG

Subscribe to occasional bookish newsletter.

Home » Loneliness in Art and Storytelling