Themes in Literature

Literary Isolation

Literary Isolation

Isolation is a powerful force. Human beings live, work, and play in groups, and to be separate from the whole of humanity can disorient us, debilitate us, and even make us question our place in the world. Isolation is easily confused with other forms of aloneness such as loneliness and alienation, but the condition of being isolated requires that one be detached from others through reasons not in one’s control. Isolation produces devastating consequences for many people, leading to lifelong emotional problems and difficulty in relationships with others. Conversely, the condition can move others toward extraordinary creativity and innovation as a result of having been forced to rely solely on their own minds as a source for meaning. As one might suspect, these two sides of the coin are not mutually exclusive; many people experience both positive and negative effects of isolation, deriving inspiration from it while at the same time feeling hurt and disturbed. Obviously, not all who feel isolated are literally alone, and not all who are alone are isolated. In an essay on isolation in literature, Mark Conliff points out that the condition hinges on the individual having once been part of a whole. The isolated person is not really a “stranger” or an “outsider,” words that might come to mind when thinking of this solitary state. Isolation requires that one was part of the group (at least at one time) and that he or she continues “to be defined, however subtly, by his association with his usual world” (121).

That identification is what makes isolation so powerful. The stranger might long to be part of the group but, having never been a member, will not derive meaning or shape her identity based on this association. The isolated soul, however, cannot escape the connection. Whether the isolation is voluntarily imposed on the self or forced by some other entity, it is a condition that is objective in that it is not merely a feeling, and that is created by an outside force, not by happenstance. When human beings are genuinely isolated from others, serious psychological consequences may result. This is due to the basic human need to belong, to depend on and be accompanied by others throughout life. When human beings lived in hunter-gatherer societies, survival required these affiliations. As humans have evolved from that period in their history, they have not lost that need. The English psychiatrist Anthony Storr noted that these connections need not be intimate ones, but that they must be there: “[W]hether or not they are enjoying intimate relationships, human beings need a sense of being part of a larger community than that constituted by the family” (13). Kipling D. Williams, in his study of ostracism and its effects, notes that the need to belong is fundamental, and that “an absence of affiliation .╯.╯. with others produces a host of negative psychological consequences, including depression, anxiety, stress, and physical and mental illness” (60). Being isolated from others, Williams goes on to argue, can also effect other fundamental needs, such as the need for self-esteem, the need to feel in control of one’s own life, and the need for meaningful existence (59–60). Being apart from others in any kind of systematic way can, in fact, alter the way we derive meaning from our lives.

Isolation, forced or voluntary, can be as a window into what life would be like if we did not exist. When there is no one to take notice of us, no one to see us, talk to us, or respond to us in any way, it is as though we are dead, for there is no one there to remind us that we are alive. William James, in his groundbreaking Principles of Psychology (1890) says, “No more fiendish punishment could be devised, were such a thing physically possible, than that one should be turned loose in society and remain absolutely unnoticed by all the members thereof ” (quoted in Williams 2). To be cut off like this, or “cut dead” as James puts it, is one of the most powerful weapons humans wield against one another and the basis for one of our society’s most common punitive actions: incarceration. When isolation is forced, as in incarceration or ostracism, its victims can undergo enormous pain and stress. For example, in Susan Glaspell’s play Trifles, Minnie Wright has been isolated by her cruel husband for many years. She sees no one, talks to no one, and must live out her days in only his infrequent and reticent company. Thus, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters surmise that when John Wright kills her only source of comfort, and indeed her only source of identification, her parakeet, she snaps and turns to murder, a completely uncharacteristic move. This parakeet is the only way Minnie knows she is alive, because it responds to her by singing, which she herself used to do in church with other members of her community.

Minnie’s isolation is created by her husband; many characters in literature suffer forced isolation at the hands of family members. In The Color Purple, by Alice Walker, Celie is isolated first by her father and then by her husband, Mister. She is given no access to those who love her and those who would give her life intimacy and connection. First her father takes away her babies moments after they are born, then he marries her off to Mister, separating her from her beloved sister, Nettie. After Celie goes to live at Mister’s house, he in turn isolates her, keeping her like a prisoner, forced to cook, clean, and have sex, but receiving no comfort or love from anyone. Briefly, when Nettie lives with them, Celie feels joy again, but Mister literally tears them apart from one another and forces Nettie out of the house. Significantly, Mister tries to keep Nettie from teaching Celie how to read—and once she is gone, he hides the letters Nettie sends. These letters, had they been delivered, would have given Celie the human connection she so desperately needed. Her isolation cultivates in her feelings of worthlessness—feelings that leave her to wonder if she is even human. Forced isolation such as Celie and Minnie experience may also be brought on by society or by the circumstances of one’s life. In William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Ariel and Caliban have been isolated for years, alone on an island, until a shipwreck brings others into their lives. Both of them react based on their previous isolation. Ariel, who has been imprisoned in a tree, is willing to do Prospero’s bidding because he is grateful to have the company of others once again. Caliban, on the other hand, is horrified to have to share “his” island. His years alone have made him rough and unable to communicate well—and thus he appears to the shipwreck survivors as a beast, unfit for human interaction. While isolation often produces effects that dehumanize people, positive changes may also result from extended solitude. As Anthony Storr argues, “The capacity to be alone is a valuable resource when changes of mental attitude are required” (29).

He relates stories of such isolated souls as the children’s author Beatrix Potter and the 17th-century explorer and nobleman Sir Walter Raleigh. Schooled at home by a nanny, Potter was isolated as a child, with no opportunity to mix with other children. She made “friends” with the animals she encountered—rabbits, mice, ducks—and spent hours drawing them. As an adult, she would go on to produce the famous and beautifully illustrated Peter Rabbit stories. Storr theorizes that the isolation she experienced as a child forced her to create companions, and that is what led to her ultimate creativity (111–112). Raleigh wrote the first volume of his Historie of the World, about ancient Greece and Rome, while imprisoned in the Tower of London. Again, Storr theorizes that like Potter, Raleigh devised something for his mind to do while his body was physically isolated. In Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story The Yellow Wallpaper, the narrator is confined to her room for what her husband and her doctors have declared a “nervous” depression. With nothing else to do, she becomes obsessed with the room’s wallpaper, eventually believing she is one of the women on the wallpaper. In the end, the narrator does reach psychosis—but one can read this ending as a kind of freedom from her husband’s control. Her isolation forces her to think in a new way, and ultimately he frees her from the room because of this. Isolation, while mostly a difficult, debilitating force for human beings, can also produce interesting, creative results in its victims.

By and large, however, being isolated challenges our basic human needs and calls into question the meaning of our lives. Literature, with its windows into the thoughts and feelings of the characters it portrays, allows us a glimpse into the isolated mind.

See also Bierce, Ambrose: “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, An”; Chopin, Kate: Awakening, The; Conrad, Joseph: Heart of Darkness; Defoe, Daniel: Robinson Crusoe; Frost, Robert: poems; Harte, Bret: “Luck of Roaring Camp, The”; Hawthorne, Nathaniel: “Rappaccini’s Daughter”; Hemingway, Ernest: Old Man and the Sea, The; Hurston, Zora Neale: Their Eyes Were Watching God; James, Henry: Turn of the Screw, The; Joyce, James: Dubliners; Molière: Misanthrope, The; Morrison, Toni: Bluest Eye, The; Salinger, J. D.: Catcher in the Rye, The; Steinbeck, John: Of Mice and Men; Twain, Mark: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; Wharton, Edith: Frome, Ethan; Williams, Tennessee: Streetcar Named Desire, A.

2 thoughts on “Literary Isolation

  1. “To be or not to be” – Shakespeare “To do is to be” – Satre “To be is to do” -Socrates “Do be do be do” – Scooby Doo.

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