Admiration for Novels With Isolation

One way fiction authors can create drama is to put characters who often don’t initially know each other in an isolated place.

I just read Michael Ondaatje’s eloquently written novel The English Patient, which does the isolation thing — and does it well. As World War II draws to a close, the emotionally exhausted nurse Hana is caring for the mysterious, badly burned title character in a remote Italian villa. Eventually she’s joined by her father’s old friend Caravaggio (a maimed, charismatic scoundrel) and the brilliant, methodical, decent bomb-disarmer Kip. Interesting, intense, and romantic scenarios ensue — with secrets revealed, a love affair between two of the characters, and a conclusion heavily influenced by Kip being the one person of color among the four.

Or how about Agatha Christie’s chillingly claustrophobic And Then There Were None? A group of guilty-but-never-convicted people are invited to an island and subsequently killed off one by one. It’s Christie’s most famous novel, the best-selling mystery ever, and one of the best-selling books of any genre (more than 100 million copies purchased).

Also (partly) set on an island — the rocky If, off the coast of Marseille — is Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo. When Edmond Dantes is falsely imprisoned there, he eventually meets fellow inmate Abbe Faria — with whom Dantes develops a deep bond. Faria restores Edmond’s will to live and changes Dantes’ whole future by telling him where to find treasure that will fund his transformation into The Count of Monte Cristo and also fund Dantes’ righteous revenge against the men who framed him. (The photo atop this blog post is of me last year next to Dumas’ tomb in the Paris-based Pantheon.)

There are also the luxury-ocean-liner passengers thrown together in Paul Gallico’s The Poseidon Adventure, which chronicles the capsizing of that big boat and the struggle for survival. Heck, any ship-set novel — such as Herman Melville’s Redburn, Jack London’s The Sea-Wolf, Martin Cruz Smith’s Polar Star, Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander, etc., etc. — jams a crew together in one place, for better or (often) for worse.

Back on land, we have partygoers taken hostage in Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, residents stuck in a quarantined city in Albert Camus’ The Plague, and three initial strangers (including a house-sitter) losing their sense of reality while living in a mansion not theirs in Morag Joss’ Half Broken Things.

Your favorite novels that fit this topic?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for The latest weekly piece — about part of my town’s high school being disastrously closed for repairs — is here.

72 thoughts on “Admiration for Novels With Isolation

  1. Dave again Bookshop written by Penelope Fitzgerald.

    I have not found the book yet but have seen the movie version of it.
    Florence Green, a lonely widow decided to open up a bookshop in a small coastal town of Hardborough, Suffolk. There was an abandoned old house damp and sitting for years in there.
    So Florence decided to revamp it and open a bookshop which became quiet successful in the small town. Bur there was an influential woman Violet Gamart wanted to make that house an art center.
    A little girl Christine, daughter of a neighbor became Florence`s helper..
    Her best customer was a wealthy bookish recluse Edmund Brundish lived by himself for decades and started to have feelings for Florence.
    He came out of his recluse and wanted to help Florence by visiting Violet but could not bear the mean spirited argument and died..

    Eventually Florence lost her battle and was evicted by the powerful members of the town.
    As she was leaving she saw Christine lighted up the bookshop.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, bebe, for mentioning “The Bookshop” and for the excellent summary of it!

      I want to read that novel very much. I looked for it when I went to the library this afternoon, but it unfortunately wasn’t there. Hopefully next time. 🙂


  2. Though it’s but a short story, Jack London’s “To Build A Fire” provides a chilling example of isolation: by the time your dog looks like a hand-warmer, and your dog knows it, you’re very much on your own!

    William Godwin’s “Things As They Are, Or The Adventures of Caleb Williams” presents a tale of isolation endured by its 2 principal characters. Williams, a servant, discovers his master’s terrible secret and is harried for years from place to place by his master Falkland’s agents, and a justice system entirely constructed to serve the will of the gentry. Falkland, relentless in defense his reputation and honor, is himself isolated from the consequences of his deeds by that system, yet riddled by fear that what Williams knows will become common knowledge, so that his life from the point his secret is known to Williams becomes a slow spiral around Falkland’s own crime, from which he cannot move on any more than he can allow Williams to move on freely in society. At novel’s end comes resolution– actually a couple of them, as Godwin wrote more than one conclusion…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, jhNY! Love your paragraph about “To Build a Fire” — a story in which the dog has more sense than the man.

      Also a great summary of “Caleb Williams.” Someday, I’d like to read that novel by the husband of Mary Wollstonecraft and the father of Mary Shelley. Sounds like it has a LOT to say about matters of class.


      • It’s a strange piece of fiction, Godwin’s, and I think a significant portion of its original impact will always be lost to us, who have not (yet) lived in a society so rigidly circumscribed by class and class privilege.

        From wikipedia:

        ‘Although released to outstanding commercial success, Caleb Williams attracted a great deal of negative reactions. Many saw it as an affront not only to government but also to justice, virtue, and religion. One review from the British Critic in July 1794, stated, “This piece is a striking example of the evil use which may be made of considerable talents…every gentleman is a hard-hearted assassin, or a prejudiced tyrant; every Judge is unjust, every Justice corrupt and blind.”’

        Liked by 1 person

        • Seems like Godwin had the pulse of the (mostly awful) 1% of his day. 🙂

          Yes, way back when there was “a society so rigidly circumscribed by class and class privilege.” Of course, many 21st-century-style elements of that unfortunately remain.


  3. I must say I adore books with characters who find themselves isolated by either fate or choice, and I’m thinking here of Ms. Havishsham one of my favorite isolationist. Seems like this particular theme is fairly common place in a lot of gothic literature as there are quite a few characters who have chosen to turn their backs on society, e.g. Scrooge, Nosferatu (who reminds me of Trumpster ‘s Stephen Miller), Jane Eyre’s Rochester and his crazy wife, then there’s Edgar Rice Borroughs’s Tarzan, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Henry Stacpoole’s Blue Lagoon, Wm. Golding’s Lord Of The Flies etc. As an aside, we have the two characters in “The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter” who are isolated because of their disabilities which is a sad state of affairs indeed. And then we have sci-fi and what is sci-fi without someone getting stranded on another planet, like The Martian Chronicles, the best. Sorry, this is far longer than I anticipated. Great post as always, and love the picture!

    Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you, SW, for the great mentions of many novels with isolated characters! Including “great” as in “Great Expectations.” 🙂

        “…what is sci-fi without someone getting stranded on another planet” — excellent line, and very often true!

        And Trump administration ghoul Stephen Miller is indeed Nosferatu-like. A sick, sick, despicable man.


  4. Titus Alone, a book by Mervyn Peake and last, I think of his Gormenghast series, was mostly unloved when it appeared, but has made a few champions from its readership, mostly Peake fanatics, who find more than incipient madness in its contents, at least after later, more carefully edited versions were published. At least, that is the impression I have formed by skimming stuff I found on the interwebs.

    Some years ago, I happened on a paperback that featured a Peake illustration on its cover. Ignorant of all things Peake, I brought it home mostly on the strength of its meticulously drawn hideousness, and a cursory read of its first few paragraphs.

    The first few chapters are florid and gothicish and arch, but describe the solitary, nocturnal journey of its title character on a dark river in a small boat. The effect of this section is overall uncanny and fascinating. But most of all, the utter unfamiliarity of landscape, dimly seen and unknown to character and reader, evokes a sense of foreboding isolation.

    But then Titus meets up, as dawn breaks, with another character, and for me, the spell was broken, and plotlines and character interactions began to take shape, and that extraordinary beginning had turned into something less. I confess here and now I never returned to the book, and though I tried a little, could not work myself up to interest in the dramatized version of Peake’s trilogy.

    The irreducibly mysterious B. Traven, who may or may not have been a few people, among whom are a German anarchist, is most famous for his novel “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”, and mostly famous for that because Bogie made a movie. He wrote many more things, mostly from his hideout in Mexico, but published his first novel in Germany in 1926, titled “Ghost Ship”, or something like ‘coffin ship’ in its original German.

    Its principal character is a merchant seaman who has no papers, and thus no country and thus no legal work, and thus, he finds himself a crewman on a ship in such bad repair that it is likely to be worth more sunk than afloat. Eventually, the crew is reduced to two, if I remember right, and the ship drifts, stripped of nearly all salvageable parts. Hard to get more isolated than nearly by yourself in the middle of the open sea, on a ship no one is looking for and many hope is lost under its surface…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, jhNY, for the eloquent discussion of those two books with isolation elements.

      Sounds like you have mixed feelings about “Titus Alone,” and you explained well why you do.

      From your description, “Ghost Ship” appears to be quite a haunting book. Yes, hard to get more isolated than on the open sea in that situation — except maybe when one is floating in outer space or stranded on another planet, a la Andy Weir’s novel “The Martian.”


  5. The couple from “The Light Beyond the Oceans,” which saw a baby daughter from a lighthouse rescue and raised her as their own. There’s not much more isolated than a lighthouse!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Dave, as well as “Gerald’s Game” below, Stephen King’s “The Dark Tower” both starts and ends in a kind of lonely and isolated way.

    I read “The Count of Monte Cristo” a few years back, and remember really enjoying it, but sadly, the story didn’t stay with me as long as I would have liked. If it wasn’t so long, I’d have it on my re-read list in a heartbeat. I do however remember the isolation of the prison. Thank you so much for sharing that Count related picture 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Sue, for the Stephen King and “The Count of Monte Cristo” mentions! The Dumas novel is indeed very long, and the prison section is ultra-compelling.

      I have pictures of the rocky Chateau d’If jailhouse somewhere — print photos I took long before (2007) having an iPhone. Edmond Dantes’ inventive escape from that island prison is quite something to read!


  7. Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett, abouts a woman living a hermit life after her fisherman lover drowns.

    And for film, Dead River Rough Cut, about men who seek total isolation in Maine winter forests. (Sometimes has advertising – Most Popular Film, 3 years running, Maine State Prison!)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Cynthia! “Country of the Pointed Firs” sounds like a great example of isolation in literature, and it’s a novel I want to read.

      Maine has certainly been the setting for books by quite a few novelists — Jewett, Elizabeth Strout, John Irving, Stephen King, Richard Russo, Lee Child…


  8. In this category, I put “The Rabbi of Lud,” by Stanley Elkin. The rabbi in question starts in a school off the Maldive Islands and eventually becomes the chief rabbi of the Alaska Pipeline. Talk about isolated.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Pingback: Admiration for Novels With Isolation | Phil Slattery, Author

  10. I haven’t yet read the English Patient. It is towards the top of my ever lengthening reading list, so I hope to get to it very soon! Awhile back, I read Jessica Shattuck’s “Women in the Castle.” It is a novel about the wives of the ringleaders in the July 20 plot to kill Hitler. In the aftermath of the war, these women who only have one link – that their husbands were executed by Hitler – take refuge in a castle in the isolated countryside, and they must survive the bitter post WWII world they are thrown into. Of course, they all have their own secrets, which only adds to it. It’s pretty well done, I recommend it!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, M.B.!

      You’d probably like the military elements of “The English Patient” (along with its other elements). I certainly learned a lot about defusing bombs!

      “Women in the Castle” sounds like it has a terrific premise! On my to-read list it goes. 🙂 (“Accordion Crimes” is next up for me as soon as I finish Annie Proulx’s “The Shipping News” — half done.)

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Hi Dave, someone has already mentioned Misery and The Shining. There’s also Gerald’s Game by Steven King also. Gerald and his wife like to visit their holiday cabin out in the wilds, where they get up to all sorts of ‘naughty’ things. On this occasion, he handcuffs her by the wrists and ankles to the bedposts. Unfortunately, while in the act, Gerald has a fatal heart attack. I won’t say anything else about her predicament … it’s one of my favourite King novels! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, ellem63!

      I read “Gerald’s Game” a few months ago (on the recommendation of the commenters here Molly Stevens and Sue at Work). Definitely a memorable, harrowing, intense novel with a strong isolation element. I appreciate you mentioning it!

      Liked by 1 person

    • You beat me to it 🙂 After Just Me mentioned Stephen King, I thought of “Gerald’s Game”. Such a mesmorising novel, considering so much of it it happens in one location, with only one character.

      Liked by 2 people

      • It was indeed mesmerising! I could hardly wait to see how she would get out of that one. Such a great writer is King … I felt like I was going through everything with her, though very glad I wasn’t! ☺

        Liked by 1 person

        • Yes, I read it in one night because I couldn’t put it down. Amazing how compelling it can be just floating around one fictional person’s head. King manages to go through a lot of things while she’s chained to the bed.

          Definitely NOT something that I’d want to experience first hand though!

          Liked by 2 people

  12. Annie Proulx’s “Shipping News” is set in coastal Newfoundland, isolated by destination. Those who live there do not seem to mind. They are tough, strong, self efficient. Dave, if you have not read this novel, the main character Coyle works at a small town newspaper. I found him endearing, he went through a great deal in his life and was a very good father to two young daughters. An array of memorable characters in this Pulitzer Prize winning novel from 1993 have their own language, food, ways of life dealing with the harsh climate. An excellent read.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Michele! Coincidentally, I’m reading “The Shipping News” now! (It was also recommended by commenter “Sue at Work” here.) About halfway through. I like it a LOT — and also like your great description of it!


  13. Not necessarily favorites, but a few come to mind. The Decameron, in which a group of people are isolated by the plague. Ship of Fools, by Katherine Ann Porter, about a group of passengers on an ocean liner. The Admirable Crichton, a play by J.M. Barrie
    that upends class assumptions when a wealthy family is stranded on an island and the butler takes command. I think it’s a plot device that can be used in many ways..

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Anonymous, for the excellent mentions of those three works!

      I like the idea of the butler taking command in “The Admirable Crichton” (sounds a bit like a serious version of what P.G. Wodehouse depicts humorously in his Jeeves novels and stories). “The help” often have more smarts and common sense than their “betters.”


  14. It’s not a novel, Dave, but the memoir, “The Butterfly and the Diving Bell” by Jean-Dominique Bauby comes to mind as the ultimate isolation story. Bauby was a journalist who suffered a stroke leaving him with ‘locked in syndrome’ – an intact mental status but no ability to communicate. He dictated his memoir blinking one eye (the other was sewn shut due to lubrication issues). This book is a gem that represents one man’s unquenchable spirit. I liked “The English Patient” when I read it several years ago. I’m amazed every week when you come up with a new and interesting topic related to books and literature. Such infinite ideas!

    Liked by 1 person

  15. I have to confess I’ve never read or watched “The English Patient,” but now I want to remedy that!

    War and prison camp stories immediately spring to mind for this topic. The people in them often have too much closeness for comfort with their neighbors—but no access to anyone else. “The Cross of Iron,” about a platoon of German soldiers trying to make their way home from where they’re trapped behind Soviet lines in the end of WWII is perhaps one of the best examples of that.

    And on the murder mystery theme, since I see “Murder on the Orient Express” is mentioned, Dick Francis did a locked-train mystery too, “The Edge,” which is excellent reading,

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Elena! I agree that many novels in the isolation “genre” are war and prison stories. “The people in them often have too much closeness for comfort with their neighbor—but no access to anyone else” — very true, and well said!

      From your description, it sounds like “The Cross of Iron” is an excellent example of a book with isolation.

      I’m not surprised that Dick Francis did justice to a locked-train mystery (or any topic)!

      Liked by 1 person

  16. Dave, as you know, I’m not reading much these days, but the one I did matches this column, even from the title, “Nine Perfect Strangers,” by Liane Moriarty. She’s such a wonderful writer that I’m kept enthralled from beginning to end.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Kat Lit!

      The title and premise of that Liane Moriarty novel do indeed perfectly match this topic. I hope to read “Nine Perfect Strangers” soon — I look for it every time I visit my local library. 🙂

      As I’ve said before, I totally agree that Ms. Moriarty is a wonderful writer!


    • Thank you, Anonymous! I checked out your link, and that sounds like a GREAT premise for a novel.

      I got a chance to visit the Chateau d’If back in 2007. Sobering place to be at, and I saw the cell Dumas supposedly modeled Edmond Dantes’ cell on. Very memorable experience.


  17. I’ve never read “The English Patient” but the screen version was wonderful!! Agatha Christie has other novels that fit this category, Dave. Seemingly, “Murder on the Orient Express” involves strangers thrown together on a snow-bound train. Only in the conclusion do we discover that they aren’t strangers after all. “Death on the Nile” also involves strangers thrown together on a Nile River cruise.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Fixed!

        “Murder on the Orient Express” is a terrific example of this topic — and, yes, Agatha Christie (and various other mystery writers) use isolation to great effect in some of their novels.

        I’ve never seen “The English Patient” movie, but, from everything I’ve heard, it definitely seems like that film IS wonderful.

        Thank you, lulabelle!


        • Dave, you can probably understand from my personal history that I can’t abide any book that has to do with boxing, prison or anything related to those subjects, though I can rally around any book that is similar in topic or that is fictional in nature. Go figure!

          Liked by 1 person

          • Totally understand, Kat Lit! We all have some topics we want to avoid as much as possible — even as we might be able to better deal with those topics in one format rather than another.


            • The weird thing is that I can read non-fiction books about these things, but need to not read anything that is fiction. Very strange to me! My best friend since 1st Grade, is a clinical psychologist (with a specialist in Veterans affairs, many of whom are still dealing with PTSD from the Vietnam War). Every time I reach out to her with my questions, I have a running tab with her my for my 5 cents (a la Lucy with Charlie Brown)! So that will explain my latest book, “Columbine” by Dave Cullen that will help you all understand my latest book.

              Liked by 1 person

              • Perhaps some readers have a subconscious expectation that novels should be at least partly escapist and entertaining — though of course some novels are as “serious” as nonfiction works.

                Lucy should’ve raised her rates. 🙂


  18. Great topic Dave, first character came to my mind was Jack Reacher by Lee Child.
    Reacher is single with no possession, no drivers license, he travels from one State to another with no attachments.
    Reacher hitchhikes, carries a toothbrush in his pocket with his small wallet. Washes his clothes and later trashes them and buys some new ones.

    Why we don`t have him in real life when the whole Country is consumed with greed .

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, bebe!

      Jack Reacher is definitely a loner, even as there are times when he makes temporary alliances with others to fight “the bad guys.”

      A real-life Reacher would be great! For one thing, the ethical Jack would certainly despise Trump and his also-corrupt cronies/enablers.

      Liked by 2 people

  19. I love this bit of advice. I’ve recently contemplated the notion of isolation in a short story I’m playing with called “Shrinking Jenny.” It’s a cat and mouse game of psychological horror between a borderline patient and her unscrupulous therapist. Muahaha!

    Don’t forget “The Shining” and “Misery.” Stephen King has a gift for placing the reader in isolation instantaneously and he keeps you there, feeling trapped until the inevitable end.

    I enjoyed your post, Dave. Your contributions are ALWAYS on point!

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Just Me! Glad you enjoyed the post, and your comment was VERY well said.

      Your “Shrinking Jenny” story sounds really compelling — and, yes, Stephen King’s memorable novels “The Shining” and “Misery” definitely squeeze a lot of tension and horror out of isolation situations.

      Liked by 1 person

  20. I am enjoying following your posts. Our response to the concept of isolation is complex. I remember reading “The Count of Monte Cristo” and experiencing the horrific feeling of being alone until the bright light of another person was introduced. Remember John Bunyan’s “Giant Despair” in “Doubting Castle?” – how relieved I was when he was set free. I share your admiration for novels with isolation for it allows us to recognize our need for living within and creating compassionate communities.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Clanmother, for the kind words and the eloquent/humane comment! Yes, having even that one companion made all the difference for Edmond Dantes in that cruel island prison. And it’s true that reading about isolated situations make us appreciate the alternative even more.

      Liked by 1 person

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