Tight Times (1979) is an American picture book written by Barbara Shook Hazen and illustrated in graphite pencil by Trina Schart Hyman. Tight Times also happens to be the first ever picture book read by LeVar Burton on America’s Reading Rainbow series back in 1983.
I can see why they chose it. This short picture book elicits some strong emotions, and unfortunately, this story about economic deprivation is just as necessary today as it was at the turn of the 1980s. Today in America, one in six children are living in poverty.
From a storytelling point of view, this picture book is interesting because it does a fantasic job of helping the reader empathise with the boy and his parents. Below I go into how write and illustrator work together to achieve that.
Also, as the child character heads towards the story’s climax, the storytellers make use of plot points straight out of fairytale, even though this is a story baked in realism. These plot points are so old and so embedded in our collective wisdom that other storytellers can make use of them to create a vivid and affecting story, full of pathos like this one.
Does a story (especially a movie) that makes us cry really offer an audience cathartic healing? Researchers say not. Studies show no improvement in mood after this kind of crying.
Professor Jennie Hudson is the director at the Centre for Emotional Health at Macquarie University in Sydney, and told Jesse Mulligan at RNZ that after this kind of crying, most people report either no change in mood or a slightly worse mood than before. So much for catharsis.
So why do others report an improvement in mood after crying, in general? Professor Hudson explains that it’s all about what you do during and after your crying session. If the crying leads to increased connection with others, then your mood will improve accordingly. Crying has the evolutionary function of improving social bonds, so long as the people around the crying individual respond in a helpful way to the expression of vulnerability.
Another factor in reported improvements of mood after crying: Holding the tears when all you want to do is cry definitely makes difficult emotions feel worse. The research is clear on that.
WHO CRIES AND HOW OFTEN?
The gender gap is especially interesting.
Women cry on average 2-5 times per month. This wasn’t surprising to me, as the cultural narrative shows that women cry often.
Men cry on average once every two months. This statistic surprised Professor Hudson, and also surprised me.
A few years ago I read the first of Larry McMurtry’s Houston novels, Moving On. (Terms of Endearment is the most famous of that series.) What really started to irritate me as I ploughed my way through this gigantic novel: A few of the female characters were constantly crying, especially Patsy Carpenter. It really is constant. It feels like a writer’s tic, like Stieg Larsson and his coffee drinking characters.
I am far from the first to notice McMurtry’s tendency to write female characters who cry. When asked, he said that as far as he was concerned, when he writes women who cry frequently he is writing social realism. Growing up, he was surrounded by women who cried.
That aside, is it really true that people cry in shifts? If a character is crying, do we really think we don’t have to? Is there another evolutionary adaptation going on here, in which people rallying around a crying person spring into action rather than sympathy crying (in the same sense as ‘sympathy vomiting’)?
HOW OFTEN SHOULD FICTIONAL CHARACTERS CRY?
Although Larry McMurtry’s Patsy Carpenter annoyed the hell out of me because of all her on-the-page crying, research findings suggest McMurtry was in fact writing social realism. Unlike most writers, he chose to include the crying. Storytellers always leave things out — going to the toilet, travelling from A to B. It should be noted that McMurtry has also written men who cry, especially in his book from the same series, unsurprisingly called Duane’s Depressed. However, the macho men of McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove do not cry. (None of them are on-the-page queer either, another unbelievable omission.)
After learning that men cry once every couple of months I conclude that fictional male characters cry nowhere nearly enough. If men really are crying this often, and if writers put male fictional characters through their paces, as they always do, then we should see a lot more on-the-page crying, especially from our masculo-coded characters, and especially in stories reaching for realism.
When men cry in fiction, the tears are almost always because someone died, or because it’s a comedic scene and his tears are supposed to be funny. If someone else is offering a crying male character emotional support (rare), that person is almost never another man. However, I’m talking about Hollywood here. Men cry more in drama from East Asia, especially in KDramas.
Examples of men crying on screen:
Lord of the Rings
Field of Dreams
The Handmaid’s Tale
Silver Linings Playbook
Schindler’s List (Oscar Schindler)
Wings of Desire
Good Will Hunting (“It’s not your fault.”)
Big Eden (“You won’t tell me who you are”)
Biutiful (Javier Bardem’s character, reflecting on giving his daughter his ring)
Lady In The Water
Suicide Squad (Floyd Lawton sheds tears over the fact that his daughter writes him every day despite knowing what he does.)
Sorry We Missed You
Da 5 Bloods
Six Feet Under (David and Nate)
The Mosquito Coast (Harrison Ford crying when he has had to set his ice machine on fire with the bandits inside)
Moonlight (“What you cry about?”)
Hostiles (Jonathan Majors’ character is wounded and has to stay at a hospital while the rest of the outfit keeps moving. Bale’s character knows it is likely goodbye forever even when they both survive.
The Walking Dead (Rick finding Lori and Carl)
Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind
Devilman Cribaby (many examples)
The Normal Heart
Hell Or High Water (Jeff Bridges crying after shooting a bank robber who shot his partner)
Call Me By Your Name
Signs (the dinner scene)
The Thin Red Line
Captain Phillips (the ending)
Breaking Bad (Jesse)
Reign Over Me
Emma (2019) (Mr Knightley)
Ordinary People (1980)
And in stories for child/family audiences:
Tangled (Rapunzel’s father cries in front of her mother before they release the lanterns.)
Cinderella (2015) (the prince sobs, tells his father he loves him and they hug each other)
Superman and Lois, episode 9 (Clark cries at the pain his son Jordan is going through because of his developing powers and then Jordan comforts him.)
Billy Elliot (Billy Elliot’s dad e.g. crossing the picket line to try and raise the money to send Billy to his dance academy audition.)
Bend It Like Beckham (The dad supporting his daughter)
Doctor Who (Wilfred Mott e.g. the Van Gogh episode)
Avatar: The Last Airbender(Iroh and Zuko reunite)
Quantum Leap (though Sam was in the body of a woman in a beauty pageant)
The Fresh Prince of Bel Air (Will cries and says “why didn’t he want me?”)
Koe no katachi (A Silence Voice)
My Hero Academia (Mirio Togata cries because Class 1-A’s school festival concert is so good that it makes Eri smile for the first time)
Star Trek: The Motion Picture (Spock cries in sick bay after his meld with V’Ger, and tells Kirk, “This simple feeling is beyond V’Ger’s comprehension.” He and Kirk hold hands.)
Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Series Finale (“Why can’t I do this?! I’m failing you…”)
Glee (Finn in season one because his girlfriend is pregnant)
Stand By Me (River Phoenix)
Before that happens, we need to have a few cultural reckonings about crying and empathy and likeability. Alain de Botton points out that we love people when we know their vulnerabilities and accept them regardless, not because we admire their strengths. Do we apply this to fictional characters, too?
Captain Awkward offers the following, relevant to this discussion because crying is an expression of strong emotion in general (not just sadness and grief):
The assumption that whoever cares the most or feels the most strongly about something can’t possibly ever be the most right about it has got to go.
Why do fictional characters leave the house? Sometimes it’s because they face a crisis and are pushed into action. Melodramatic stories work like that. Sometimes characters are lonely, wanting friends or romance. Sometimes it’s because they’re curious and there’s a mystery to be solved. And sometimes boredom is the motivator. Stories can begin because characters are bored.
Boredom drives all of us and can therefore be found in all types of stories, for adults and children alike:
Claude Goes To The Countryby Alex T. Smith — a dog is bored at home while his owners are away at work, so he bumbles out of the house with the main goal of ‘avoiding boredom’, only to find himself in one hilarious situation after another.
Coraline — Coraline’s parents are both busy working from home and it is boredom rather than curiosity which drives her to discover fantastical parts of her new house, a fantasy which taps into her darkest psychology of being too much, and of her parents being inadequate.
The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier — The mischief is driven by the wish to spice up school life.
A Couple Of Boys Have The Best Week Ever — Marla Frazee takes the boredom trope and plays with it. The adults go out of their way to give two young boys a marvellous holiday but the boys only learn to rely on their own imaginations once the adults wear themselves out and organised fun leaves a gap. (I think this picture book has a message for adults rather than kids.)
“Carnation” by Katherine Mansfield — Mansfield does a wonderful job of evoking the boredom of a classroom, especially on a very hot day. The main character looks out the window and daydreams. This would not be happening if she weren’t bored.
There’s A Crocodile Under My Bed — Many carnivalesque picture books featuring an animal that appears out of nowhere derive from a place of boredom, or at least from a place where the child has room to think, for example trying to get to sleep by yourself in your own room.
Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry — Pretty much the entirety of Chapter 2 details how slow and dull it is living in the sleepy little settlement of Lonesome Dove. This explains why Call and McCrae start out on another big adventure rather than settling down to the quiet life they might enjoy in their later years.
Rain and Boredom
In books for the youngest children, a rainy day will often lead to boredom, on the assumption that being outside is always more fun than being inside. (This trope is starting to show its age.)
It was a drizzly gray day on Sesame Street. Ernie listened to the dreary sound of the rain against the window. “There’s nothing to do!” he groaned.
What’s Up In The Attic? A Sesame Street Little Golden Book, 1987
There’s a whole category of 20th century children’s books instructing how to have fun even when it’s raining outside.
If fictional characters are bored, this is probably at the opening of a story, before the Opponent appears, before the Mystery tantalises. The boredom may function as ‘The Call To Adventure’ at the Desire stage of plotting. In storytelling terms, boredom is basically the negative inverse of curiosity as Call To Adventure.
Outside fiction, boredom is seldom so unbearable that we set off to save the world.
Most jobs involve an element of monotony. Edward Gorey, famous American illustrator, said he hated the monotony of drawing his patterned wallpapers. He found this so tortuous that he’d often leave a piece for months on end before he could stand finishing it off. If I’m working on a big project I always need an extended break at the midway point, so this makes me feel better. As Seth Godin says, it’s not about how long your work takes to make. Audiences only care about their own experience of the piece at their end.
There’s not much research around boredom. This emotion has received scant attention because of the heavy focus on positive psychology over the past 30-40 years, but now the focus is shifting towards negative emotions. Despite our more stimluting world, we are more bored now than ever.
Young people are more boredom-prone than older people
Extraverts are more boredom-prone than introverts
Men are more boredom-prone than women
The first two feel intuitive. The gender difference is yet to be explained, and without getting too binary about things, I wonder if this boredom difference correlates to why masculine story structures traditionally feature a male character setting out on an adventure, apropos of nothing. From an evolutionary perspective, the discomfort of boredom can be motivating.
Boredom isn’t always considered an ’emotion’, rather lack thereof. That said, boredom is often experienced negatively because when people feel bored we tend to feel other negative emotions alongside, such as anger and frustration that we are required to perform a monotonous task.
We are reluctant to admit to boredom, influenced by the maxim that only boring people get bored, and only unskilled people do boring jobs. We seem a little afraid of it, and will competitively say that we are never bored, yet are often happy to admit how stressed we are. This attitude has influenced modern parenting. Parents want to stimulate our children and feel that if they aren’t doing enough then we, as parents, are wasting their learning windows.
However, boredom is a necessary emotion and part of the human experience. We shouldn’t strive to banish it. Boredom helps us to be totally focused on new experiences rather than perpetually fascinated by leaves, rain etc., like toddlers. If we lived our entire lives with toddler-levels of enthusiasm for the mundane we’d never get anything done.
WHAT IS BOREDOM?
Sandi Mann wrote The Science of Boredom: Why Boredom Is Good, and regards boredom as an emotion. She describes boredom as the experience of searching for neural stimulation and not getting it. Repetitive tasks, queuing, things like this are antecedents for boredom.
Others argue that boredom is an absence meaningful things to do.
Boredom can be slightly stimulating because it provides us with an unease, providing a push to do something.
While bored we feel time is frozen. Professor Thomas Götz describes boredom as a ‘silent emotion’. On its own it isn’t too bad, but we experience it as negative when accompanied by something like anxiety.
Students are bored about 30% of their time at school, or 50% if we count ‘slightly bored’. There are many antecedents to boredom, mostly to do with value and control. We feel bored when we don’t attach value to what we are doing, if we don’t see the point, and we feel bored when we have little control over what we are doing. When we are under-challenged or over-challenged we also experience boredom.
TYPES OF BOREDOM
Niksen is a Dutch word which means to do nothing. The closest we have in English is daydreaming. This can be pleasant if not practised for too long. We have creative moments during this kind of doing nothing. We might spontaneously find the solution for something on our mind. When people who worry about screentime, they worry that we are losing Niksen in our lives, because instead of letting ourselves think we are filling our minds with our phones. We might call Niksen or daydreaming a pleasant variety of boredom.
THE FIVE TYPES OF BOREDOM ACCORDING TO PROFESSOR Thomas Götz
How does a storyteller create pathos in an audience? It’s not done by making a character sad. Nor is it done by simply killing a character off. Characters extending kindness to others is a far more reliable trick.
Not all kindnesses in storytelling are the same. “Save the Cat” moments are a well-known tool among storytellers. This was Blake Snyder’s term to describe moments during character set-up when one character does something nice for another. This shows the audience the character is capable of doing good. But these save-the-cat moments of kindness are not designed to move an audience emotionally. On the contrary, the audience barely notices they’re being manipulated into liking a (sometimes very horrible) character.
So those don’t count.
But at other times when a character does something good for another and the scene becomes filled with pathos. This moment will happen much later in the story, probably after the Big Struggle (Climax) and during the Anagnorisis part of the story structure. It seems to only work near the end of a narrative.
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.
Best cure for loneliness is solitude.
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.
“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.
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?
Artist David Inshaw’s image below has a loneliness to it.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
EMOTIONAL LONELINESS: related to the lack or loss of an intimate other
SOCIAL LONELINESS: feeling unconnected to a wider social network, such as friends, family, and neighbours
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.
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.
LOW LONELINESS (57.9%). These people don’t really feel lonely at all. This NZ percentage reflects UK and USA statistics.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 teacherarchetype 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.
Eleanor OliphantIs 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 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.
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
“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.
Growing up is always hard, but especially when so many think you’re a washed-up has-been at twenty-two.
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. Is the dream over? 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.
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.
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, forlordn 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.
Books about Lonelinessfrom the University of Miami Picturebook Database
Well, fast forward a few years and Australian kids now have their own cartoon series reminiscent of Peppa Pig. Bluey is made at Ludo Studio in Brisbane. There are currently about 60 people working on the show.
I no longer have a little kid in the house, but we both checked out Bluey on ABC iView, because a Twitter friend recommended it thusly: https://twitter.com/DevinMadson/status/1219892040718176257
Bluey is getting a 9.5/10 rating on IMDb and was nominated for an Emmy. Bluey is marvellous.
First, why does Bluey remind me of Peppa Pig? The nuclear family set-up is similar. Instead of pigs the family are dogs. Bluey is an Australian blue heeler, making this a specifically Australian show, but not so Australian that the series won’t garner an international audience. (Bluey could be any dog, because she is first and foremost a kid… a human child in an animal’s body.)
The art style is similar. Look at how both shows deal with aerial perspective (hint: It’s in the colour of the outlines.)
But the colour palette of Bluey is more appealing than that of Peppa Pig, and I wonder if Luke Pearson’s Hilda has been an influence.
Bingo and Bluey are 4 and 6 years old, the ‘social emotional developmental phase’, as described by Joe Blumm. He really likes this age because the kids are learning not so egocentric anymore. They want to play imaginative games but that involves other kids also having their input. The games temper their egocentricity. They need persistence to stay in those roles. The show is for that age. There’s no reading or anything like that, aimed at a more abstract age.
Blumm does not believe that kids are little adults. He wanted to create a show specifically for 4-6 year olds. His interest in psychology has clearly influenced his character development.
Family Life Realism
Another comparison is Olivia the Pig, but Bluey leaves Olivia in the dust. Bluey is clearly the brain child of people who know parenting and know kids. Ian Falconer (who wrote the original Olivia picture books) is not a parent himself and this shows in stories such as Olivia and the Missing Toy, in which I want to break the fourth wall and slap the pig parents. The actions of Olivia’s parents make no sense regarding Olivia’s character arc. In Bluey, the influence of good parenting has a direct effect on the child characters. This is realism.
Although the TV adaptation of Olivia no doubt included many parents on staff, to me it never ever reached the level of parenting realism achieved in Bluey, because the source material was lacking. Or maybe my perception of the Olivia series is partly coloured by the fact I’m not a rich New York parent. Perhaps the very Australian-ness of Bluey makes it feel like a more realistic portrayal of parenting to me (currently modern parenting in Australia).
But it’s more than that. Joe Brumm has two daughters, and the producer’s got two daughters and both his brothers have got two daughters. If you’re asking, “Why is Bluey a girl?” there’s your answer. But does the question really need to be asked? Why is it still so unusual to see a girl character without a massive pink bow telegraphing her gender smacked on top of her head?
What else makes Bluey feel ‘real’? (Code for ‘relatable’)
Integration of technology into family life
When Bluey wants to talk to her grandmother she simply calls up on the tablet. Granny doesn’t live in the same house, but she is only a call away. When Bluey and her father get back from the vet, distraught after finding a dying budgie, the mother is right there in the driveway waiting to offer comfort. It is clear that the father has called in advance to tell the mother what’s happened. This is how families are using technology.
In some ways story craft has become more difficult because of technology. How to put your fictional kids in real peril when parents are one phone call away? These kids are still too young to realistically carry mobiles, so there’s that. But my point here is that technology has also made story craft easier in some ways. The writers don’t need to show a retelling of the story to the mother, and no one would ask how she already knows.
MODERN PARENT-CHILD INTERACTIONS
Compare this show to any show from 15 years ago and you won’t find parents as realistically active and involved as these ones are. The parents in Bluey exist on the same hierarchy as the kids, but not in a way that subverts, in a carnivalesque way.
There is a long, long history of dispatching with parents in children’s stories but for modern kids, this won’t ring true. About half of the Bluey episodes include parents in the puppies’ imaginative play. I believe these are the best episodes, and my 11-year-old agreed. By including parents in the play, the writers are able to model more adult-like emotional literacy, and this show is very much about emotional literacy.
How do you apologise to someone (after leaving them out of a game)? How do you cope with being factually incorrect (about Grannies and flossing)? The parents are there to nudge the kids in the right direction.
Like any modern kids’ story, the lessons in Bluey are not taught overtly by the adults. The child characters receive prompting after being allowed to experience hard feelings on their own. At no point are they told that their bad feelings aren’t okay. It’s okay to be in a funk for the entire session at preschool. It’s okay to run out on a game if you need some time alone.
I was initially a little disappointed that it seemed the father constantly having fun with the kids (Mother as Female Maturity Formula, Dad as Doofus Fun Guy). But a few episodes in, the mother is shown participating in one of the kids’ games. Moreover:
Both mother and father make the bed, together (even though the mother is gently admonishing the father for some housework matter that supposedly didn’t happen yesterday)
The mother isn’t busy cooking dinner and waiting on the family while the dad has fun, like we often see in older stories. In the pilot episode of Bluey the mother is out at a baby shower (supposedly a fun social outing for her) while the rest of the family stay home and have fun of their own.
THE KIDS FEEL LIKE REAL KIDS
Bluey’s puppy characters are voiced by children, and these kids don’t sound like they came out of London’s most expensive elocution school. I don’t know how they did it, but it sounds naturalistic.
That said, it’s more than voice acting that achieves the sense that these puppies are ‘real kids’.
On Northrop Frye’s scale of mimetic heroes, the puppies are low-mimetic. They’re not tricksters. For example, one morning Bluey wakes up her father one morning and mimics everything he says and does. Eventually the father says, “My name is Bluey and I smell like a monkey’s butt!” Bluey isn’t savvy enough to NOT fall for that one, and the father good-naturedly ‘wins’. Fathers do tend to win these sorts of games, because fathers have been around longer.
There’s plenty of language humour in Bluey, with words specific to the show. These examples of familect (I’m guessing from the creator himself) are likely to become part of the wider cultural lexicon, much like ‘Yoink!’ and ‘Eat my shorts!’ from The Simpsons. https://twitter.com/ariannaoliver_/status/1190978865767862278?s=20
A lot of the jokes on this show are funny because they are relatable family moments. Family moments might be given its own terminology e.g. ‘a tactical wee’. Giving something ordinary a name is funny in its own right.
In “Copycat”, Bluey’s father observes she has finally stopped copying everything he says. Ironically, Bluey has learned how to deal with grief over a dead budgie and has been channelling him exactly in her make-believe game in which her younger sister refuses to die like the budgie did.
This medium lets creators play with an unlimited amount of cartoon violence but Bluey is restrained in that regard. Instead we enjoy physical comedy such as slipping on a can of beans or watching grandparents attempt the flossing dance move, and failing.
In episode one, the father has been twisting his daughter in rope swings, about to release her. When she asks him how babies get into their mothers’ bellies, he releases her for the spin to avoid answering the question.
If you like Bluey…
… and you are an adult viewer, check out We Bare Bears. This show is more squarely for an older audience, though I’m sure younger kids would be intrigued by it. The pace of talking will be too face for the 4-6 age group.
There is a strong bias in storytelling, across the board: In stories of unrequited love, the object of affection is the romantic opponent, not the main character. Time and again, storytellers show the pain of falling for someone else without reciprocation. We very rarely experience a narrative from the point of view of the person who is not in love.
This is unfortunate because it is in some ways easier to experience unrequited love than to experience being the object of someone else’s love. Twenty years later, the person with the crush will probably look back fondly on the love they felt for someone else, even if that love was never returned. There’s a corpus of story out there telling us exactly how this feels and how this is meant to feel. If we fall for someone who doesn’t love us back, we know from story that we are definitely not alone.
Problematically, many stories of unrequited love end with the love object changing their mind, sometimes because stalker behaviour coded as admirable perseverance has (supposedly) made them fall in love after all. It’s way easier to find stories about love potions and Cupid’s intervention than stories that end in moving on.
Generally, in real life, we hold back the full capacity of our affection until we receive confirmation of reciprocation. Therefore, catching feelings for another person and then facing lack of interest is a minor hit. We do move on.
But being on the other side of unrequited love has a longer half life. Twenty years after someone else professes their love for us, we, the love object, are quite often still a bit confused, indignant and unsure how to process having been part of that whole scenario.
Why? Because stories are not told from the point of view of Rosaline, the (generally) unseen romantic interest of Romeo and Juliet. Romeo is at first deeply in love with Rosaline and expresses his dismay at her not loving him back.
And how did Rosaline feel about all of that? We’ll never know. That said, there have been revisions centring Rosaline — here is one, though reviews of Romeo’s Ex suggest this story is not about what it’s like to struggle with hard feelings. Instead, the author gives Rosaline an anachronistic interest in a career until she does in fact fall in love herself, demonstrating how it is far easier for storytellers to write about the experience of being in love than the experience of being loved (without reciprocation).
There are very few stories about the Rosalines of this world who are very much not in love, but who know they are the object of love. Writers struggle to write this scenario because there is no cultural script regarding how to process it.
This is why people in real life scenarios write into advice columnists such as Captain Awkward as part of processing what to do when someone falls in love with you.@alexrabbit
What accounts for the difficulty of the situation?
When you fall for someone else, you are 100% sure how you feel. In contrast, you can never be 100% sure of the nature of the crush someone has on you, because they’re only seldom being fully straight with you, and with themselves. So the first step is generally second guessing yourself. You might always be second guessing yourself because there is no period of resolution.
We don’t know what our obligations are to people who fall in love with us. Empathetic love objects feel mean because rejecting people, under any circumstance, is hard.
Women in particular are socialised to manage other people’s feelings, especially the feelings of men. Even when nothing is required whatsoever, women can struggle to leave others alone to manage their own feelings.
Because of these exact difficulties, we need more stories told from the other side of unrequited love.
I’ve been taking notice of the stories which evoke a strong emotional response in myself, hoping to find some patterns. Sure enough, there are patterns. The ‘If Only’ story resonates especially. The ‘if only’ story evokes the emotion of regret.
Saudade is a Portuguese and Galician word similar to English ‘regret’. It’s pronounced a little like ‘sour-DA-jay’.
But English doesn’t have an especially rich vocabulary around the emotion of regret, nostalgia and longing, and saudade is a little bit different. You can feel saudade for someone, something or a place. The object of saudade can be anything at all. Various explanations of saudade:
Saudade is the love that remains after someone or something is gone. (A particular kind of love experienced in absentia.)
Saudade is a recollection of pleasurable feelings. Saudade now triggers those senses and you relive them. (Close to nostalgia.)
Saudade contains the repressed knowledge that you can never have that exact thing, that exact person, those exact pleasant emotions again. (I can’t think of an English equivalent for this. Regret is a negative feeling which often includes culpability and guilt.)
I’m sure I experience saudade when a pleasant holiday or overseas experience comes to an end. I remember a conversation with a fellow exchange student as we were both leaving our year in Japan. We discussed whether we’d be coming back. My friend said, “Even if we do come back to Japan, it won’t be the same.” In her late teens she knew this already because she’d had a year travelling the European canals on a boat with her parents and sister. I was about to learn it. I did go back to Japan three years later, and she was right. It was another wonderful year, but not at all the same. If only we could make a good experience last forever. We can’t. Time doesn’t work like that. We all know this, but we repress it, until it’s made clear at crossroads in our own lives or in stories.
The limitation of time is what made the final episode of Six Feet Under so affecting. Yet an inverse-message movie like Groundhog Day teaches us that Ending is a necessary part of Life — if we did have the same experience over and over, that would be a life of suffering.
Perhaps you’ve seen the meme — perhaps on Pinterest — that goes something like, ‘I have experienced all kinds of foolish melancholy — I’ve been homesick for countries I’ve never seen, and longed to be what I couldn’t be’.
There have been various riffs on this line from Cheever: Judith Thurman, contributor to the New Yorker has said, ‘Every dreamer knows that it is entirely possible to be homesick for a place you’ve never been to, perhaps more homesick than for familiar ground.’
There is a German word ‘fernweh’ which seems to translate to ‘wanderlust’ but apparently there is something of the above sentiment embedded in its meaning. It refers more to ‘a longing for far-off places’. The concept may well have been around for a long time. Personally, I feel this way about Canada and for that reason, I’m not keen to ever go there.
I don’t know if everyone has such a place. But it seems a lot of people pick Paris to be their fernweh place. Some people are even hospitalised after getting to Paris and learning that it’s nothing like the place they imagined. It’s called Paris Syndrome. Japanese nationals are particularly prone to Paris Syndrome. But before we laugh at these Japanese people for their grandiose, incorrect ideas about Paris, it has been observed that Tokyo and Kyoto seem to have become for young American writers what Paris was for Hemingway’s generation.
Case in point:
Tokyo was a place I’d canonised in my head as a pocketbook utopia (unfortunately a common reflex for sheltered white westerners) but the constant sound, visual stimulation and flashing lights from LED billboards and other stimuli were too overpowering.
The “Japan” of writers is, of course, half-imaginary, and what is interesting is how, since the 1960s, this literary conception of “Japan” has changed — from the locus of enlightenment (for the Beats and other spiritual seekers) to an internationalized zone of decadence and self-destruction (for the Byronic heroes of contemporary novels).
Whenever you visit a place you have imagined, it’s always different. It might not be worse different, it might even be better different, but your original longing is ultimately quashed, because the place no longer exists in your mind, having been replaced by reality.
Stories in which the main character almost gets what they want are more affecting than when a character never comes close. That ‘thing’ is often ‘love’.
A stand-out example of one such story is the Mickey Rourke film, The Wrestler. Randy the Ram is first painted as a true underdog but then has a chance at happiness. Ultimately, though, he fails to achieve the required Anagnorisis that would allow him to lead a better life. He ends up trapped in a place of Slavery.
At various points in the second half of The Wrestler, the audience suffers through numerous If Only moments:
If only he had not gotten high and showed up for that one last chance with his daughter.
If only he hadn’t told his girlfriend to leave without him.
If only he could leave the exploitative industry of wrestling behind him. But stories which leave the main character in a place of Slavery are relatively rare. Far more often, our beloved main characters achieve a certain amount of Freedom.
LET YOUR CHARACTER LOOK BACK WITH THE WISDOM OF AGE
Stories in which an older character looks back on a crossroads event in their early adulthood are affecting. Early adulthood is an especially significant set-up phase — on average, most of our major life decisions have been made by the age of 35-40. We’ve partnered up (or not), we’ve had children (or not). We gain work skills (or not) and life choices narrow.
When we look back at decisions we made in our twenties, we see with clarity how our lives could have been so different. The Anagnorisis of middle age is that we treated major crossroads ridiculously lightly. We didn’t understand the consequences because how could we?
In order to pull this trick off, the writer must have very tight control over their narrative choices. These choices are completely invisible to the reader. If they’re working, the casual reader couldn’t even tell you what’s going on. But as writers it’s worth taking a closer look at a master.
On Chesil Beach is a novella by Ian McEwan, about a couple’s disastrous wedding night and its longterm consequences for them both. The wedding night sex scene is depicted at a very slow pace — dilated, in fact, as Edward tries to prevent premature ejaculation by thinking of other things. Edwards wants to think about anything other than sex. This conveniently affords McEwan the opportunity to include the couple’s backstory.
During the wedding night scene, McEwan makes the choice to focalise equally on both the bride and the groom, creating a dual centre of consciousness. This way we see they are both good, well-meaning people. This double focalisation has the effect of binding them psychologically together to the exclusion of everyone else, and shows the reader that these two characters do share a wonderful bond. This perfectly executed choice of narration makes their tragedy all the worse for the reader. The sex part is a disaster and their marriage is subsequently annulled.
The novella concludes with a brief description of Edward’s life, and Edward in late middle age, looking back on that single night with a lifetime’s worth of wisdom. He realises how both their lives could’ve been different if only he had been different.
Sometimes in shorter works Anagnorisiss are left right out of the narrative. In a Katherine Mansfield short story, the Anagnorisis can even happen between the scenes on the page. But McEwan explains Edward’s slowly-gained wisdom clearly for the reader by way of narrative summary. He even uses the phrase ‘If Only’:
When [Edward] thought of [Florence], it rather amazed him, that he had let that girl with her violin go. Now, of course, he saw that her self-effacing proposal [for a sexless marriage] was quite irrelevant. All she had needed was the certainty of his love, and his reassurance that there was no hurry when a lifetime lay ahead of them. Love and patience — if only he had had them both at once — would surely have seen them both through. And then what unborn children might have had their chances, what young girl with an Alice band might have become his loved familiar? This is how the entire course of a life can be changed — by doing nothing.
On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan
Now McEwan comes out of Edward’s head and the omniscient narrator gives the reader even more insight into Florence than Edward has. This puts us in reader superior position. Why does McEwan do this? Well, Edward is right there in the story. Of course he’s (hypothetically) feeling all of these emotions keenly. But readers need to be coaxed into feeling so strongly as a fictional character, and writers can use the entire toolbox of tricks:
On Chesil Beach [where the couple broke up] he could have called out to Florence, he could have gone after her. He did not know, or would not have cared to know, that as she ran away from him, certain in her distress that she was about to lose him, she had never loved him more, or more hopelessly, and that the sound of his voice would have been a deliverance, and she would have turned back. Instead, he stood in cold and righteous silence in the summer’s dusk, watching her hurry along the shore, the sound of her difficult progress lost to the breaking of small waves, until she was a blurred, receding point agains the immense straight road of shingle gleaming in the pallid light.
On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan
Ian McEwan also provokes a hugely affecting If Only response in his novel (and movie) Atonement. He uses a similar technique, plus the extra technique of a massive reveal (called a reversal, because the reader must revise what we thought we previously knew). Although this blog is all about spoilers, I feel a spoiler alert is necessary here: The main character wishes she’d made a different decision when she was very young. The actions she take ruin a young couple’s life, which she imagines as quite different. As a fantasist/novelistshe lays the couple’s ideal life down for the reader, but then reveals that this is not how their lives went at all. Reality was much, much worse.
Header painting by Arthur Hacker – In Jeopardy 1902
Psychic numbing is at play when a story about one empathetic character trapped in a concentration camp is more likely to induce tears than a documentary offering an overview of Nazi Germany, even though the mass murder of many should logically be more upsetting than the murder of an individual.
“Don’t write about Man; write about a man.”
E.B. White, Charlotte’s Web
Psychic numbing is why the vast majority of stories focus on one main character, perhaps alternating points of view, but focusing on one at a time. Increased popularity of the close third person viewpoint, replacing a more omniscient point of view favoured by writers of the 1800s, suggests modern storytellers are more aware of this human tendency.
Think of the novels and films that have brought you to tears. Chances are, those stories were about an individual rather than an entire population.
Think of a time when you were affected by someone’s situation in real life. More likely than not, that person seemed alone in the world.
Garry Frost from the New Zealand/Australian band Moving Pictures is the writer of the song “What About Me?” Frost was in a corner shop one day and saw a young boy with autism trying to buy something. The boy was struggling to communicate what he wanted and kept getting pushed to the back of the line.
Saddened and appalled by this, Garry Frost went on to write the iconic song.
While storytellers understand the phenomenon of psychic numbing in order to tell resonant stories with empathetic main characters, we should all be aware of this cognitive bias. We can’t exactly live happily in a world of constant bad news without an ability to turn off empathy. We’d be emotional wrecks without it.
Unfortunately, the terrible downsides of this human ability can be catastrophic. See The Arithmetic of Compassion, a website which exists to combat the negative consequences of psychic numbing, pseudoinefficacy and the prominence effect.
Header painting by Sir Luke Fildes – The Widower 1875-76