Very Much Alone

I’ve written about loners in novels before, but what about characters who are literally alone — cut off from all contact with other humans?

Though that situation might seem like a possible recipe for reader boredom, there is actually plenty of potential drama of a tense and poignant nature. How does the alone person handle that dire situation? How does she or he pass the time? How does she or he get out of the situation, if that happens? Etc. We certainly feel sympathy for those without companionship.

All that occurred to me last week as I read The Valley of Horses, the very good first sequel to Jean M. Auel’s great The Clan of the Cave Bear. Cro-Magnon protagonist Ayla is no longer living with the Neanderthal group with which she spent much of her childhood, and is now seeking people of her own kind in sparsely populated prehistoric Europe. The resourceful/proto-feminist young woman ends up being solo for quite a long time, just trying to survive — though, as is the case with some novels of this type, she does find some memorable animal companionship.

Then there are novels in which a character is stranded alone on an island — with Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe probably the most famous example.

There are also fictional prisoners in solitary confinement — with one of the most famous Edmond Dantes, unjustly incarcerated for years in an island jail in Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo.

Characters can be stranded in outer space, too; one recent example is Mark Watney of Andy Weir’s The Martian. The astro-botanist/engineer becomes The Martian of the title when stuck on The Red Planet.

In the above categories, sometimes rescue or self-rescue will happen and sometimes it won’t. Hope for a happy ending can certainly encourage readers to stick with a grim story line.

Apocalyptic novels in which millions devastatingly die can also find surviving characters alone; the title of Mary Shelley’s The Last Man clearly offers more than a clue to THAT scenario.

Of course, a novel starring a completely isolated character might or might not juxtapose scenes with people living more normal social existences. That’s the case in The Valley of Horses, which alternates chapters spotlighting Ayla with chapters featuring two journeying Cro-Magnon brothers who fall in with a Cro-Magnon clan different than their own. When charismatic “ladies’ man” Jondalar tells brother Thonolan that he doesn’t want to settle down yet because of a desire to hold out for an extraordinary woman, we sense he and Ayla might eventually meet…

Any “aloner” fiction you’d like to mention?

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 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about school and pool reopenings, and a welcome new ordinance banning gas-powered leaf blowers for part of each year — is here.

121 thoughts on “Very Much Alone

  1. For loners in literature I’d suggest the novel Sult (Hunger) by Norwegian author Knut Hamsun (pseudonym for Knud Pedersen). It was Hamsun’s first novel. It was published in 1890, but it is super modern. Those not thrown by it should stop reading books and focus on what’s inside fortune cookies instead.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post!
    Though it’s been awhile since I last read it, I was quite fond of JK Huysman’s Against Nature. The main character, Des Essseintes, is a lonely and neurotic eccentric living alone in a faded and fading bourgeois family home. He has become jaded with everything and spends his time analysing things of beauty; paintings and flowers and music and exotic food and ever-stranger objects he collects in an attempt to find meaning in any beauty and truth to life.
    Hm, I should have another go at it sometime…

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Kafka’s Samsa has already been mentioned, so I will not. But Kafka has another story, “The Burrow”, in which the lone character, whose humanity can only be confirmed one place in the tale– the mention of his/its ‘forehead’– spends his life shoring up the tunnel out of which he fearfully and occasionally scurries forth, and keeping guard on its entrance.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, jhNY! That’s a Kafka story I don’t remember reading, but it sounds fascinating. What a strange imagination Kafka had, and one can’t help thinking of the symbolism he consciously or subconsciously imbued his writing with.

      Like

  4. Don’t know which I enjoyed more- reading the post or reading the comments. As mentioned above Matherson’s I am Legend is well worth a read as is watching the TV version from 1964 starring Vinnie Price on you tube- https://youtu.be/x8M0bow7P5I . Must be said, mainly because it anticipates the whole walking dead genre so popular recently.
    People mentioned Kafka’s Metamorphosis and I’d add The Trial and probably Steppenwolf by Hesse. More than isolation of being alone in fact, is the fact of being alone within a community which is what resonates with many people who have a sense of alienation (or is that just me?).
    Without giving recommendations, in my humble opinion (if such a thing were feasible) I would mention the magical and profound Engine Summer (last time a book haunted me so much was Jonathan Livingstone Seagull which I read aged 13); A Canticle for Leibowitz (which I’m currently half way through) and Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale and the new sequel Testaments – in which she does an incredible job of staying true to the timeline created by the original 9185 novel and the variations created by the Popular TV series. A superb piece of literary juggling.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Paul! I loved reading the comments, too!

      I can imagine how good “I Am Legend” is; I’ve read some of Richard Matheson’s work, and he’s a page-turning writer.

      You’re absolutely right that there’s a good deal of loneliness in “The Trial” and “Steppenwolf,” even if the main characters are not totally alone, as you allude to. Excellent observation about “being alone within a community” — that can be as painful, or more so, than complete isolation.

      I just put “Engine Summer” on my to-read list after seeing your comment and googling that John Crowley novel.

      I read “The Testaments” recently (after having read “The Handmaid’s Tale” years ago), and agree that Margaret Atwood did a superb job with the sequel. Including, as you said, juggling the continuation of the “The Handmaid’s Tale” novel and TV series. When it comes to literature, there’s almost nothing Atwood can’t do!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I must look for this book by Mary Shelley. I am writing a trilogy and book two will have this situation of being alone for a long period. I am familiar with Robinson Crusoe and I have recently re-read The Pit and the Pendulum by Edgar Allan Poe in which the character is also alone in a prison, but he is being tortured. Shudder! I think that 21st century kids are much more used to being alone than we were. They seem relatively happy to communicate via chat groups and on Steam. An interesting change to human socialising. Thanks for this interesting article, Dave.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Robbie!

      “The Last Man” is a great novel — even better in some ways than Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein.” Set in the late 21st century, and featuring fictionalized characters based on Shelley herself, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Lord Byron.

      “The Pit and the Pendulum” is indeed a riveting, horrifying short story. “Shudder” is the word. 😳

      Excellent point about many young people these days being more used to being alone — while sort of not being alone as they communicate via their devices.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Robinson Caruso did come into my mind.
    LOL, as usual my brain went to movies, and I thought of Cast Away starring Tom Hanks.
    Jean M. Auel’s books seem to be top list items for you.
    I’m putting The Clan of the Cave Bear on my list.
    Loners have always intrigued me, but BEING alone is different.
    I think of Papillon by Henri Charrière. Although he was not always alone, he spent much time isolated in solitary confinement.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Resa! I remember the “Cast Away” movie well. Tom Hanks’ character was stranded for several years, with only a volleyball with a painted-on “face” for company. And I read “Papillon” a long time ago — gripping book.

      I’m enjoying Jean M. Auel’s series a lot, but will definitely read some other novels soon. 🙂

      Yes, being a loner and being alone is significantly different!

      Like

  7. Shelley’s The Last Man and Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend are so similar, perhaps a wee bit of plagiarism going on there. Re: aloners and/or loners would like to mention Quasimodo aka Hunchback Of Notre Dame. Must say I find it difficult these days to imagine someone being truly alone when so much artificial feedback is now considered a form of human contact. In fact, I think If Robinson Crusoe had a cell phone he’d be too busy posting facebook pics of the bananas he ate for breakfast in order to get likes that he wouldn’t even worry about being rescued until he ran of of bananas or his phone ran out of juice, ha! Great post Dave. Susi

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Susi! I haven’t read “I Am Legend,” but I’ve heard about it and it does have some similarities to “The Last Man” — which obviously came first. 🙂

      “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” is a great mention! While Quasimodo wasn’t totally alone, he was essentially alone.

      And that’s a TERRIFIC point that it would be harder for a character to be truly alone in a recent novel vs. a long-ago one. Technology marches on… (Hilarious Robinson Crusoe riff! 😂 )

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yup, There are things that alienate us from each other, e.g. like Quasimodo’s disfigurement and being deaf. Kinda wonder if this explains the symbolism in Kafka’s metamorphosis. You either start out a bug or end up one. Yikes!

        Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Teagan! A great point that a reader being a loner (or not) can influence how they feel about fictional loner characters and their situations. I was a loner as a kid (not as much now), and would feel a lot of empathy for characters who were loners by choice or circumstance (Jane Eyre, Hester Prynne, etc.) — even while getting vicarious enjoyment, as I think you’re also alluding to in your case, from more “social” books (“Little Women,” “The Three Musketeers,” etc.). My best wishes to you, too!

      Liked by 1 person

        • Books starring loners do have strong appeal, Robbie — and “Jane Eyre” is my favorite novel, too! (Coincidentally, I mentioned it on your blog today when commenting under your post about characters we’d liked to converse with.) I think I’ve read “JE” about five times, but not for at least a decade. You first read Charlotte Bronte’s novel impressively young! My first read was in high school, when an English teacher assigned it.

          Defoe’s “Journal” is still on my to-read list! Not at my local library the last two visits, but I have future hopes. 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

          • How amazing that we both love Jane Eyre. It is not that many gentleman’s favourite book. I did read it young. I also read She by Rider Haggard at age 10 and I was scared to death. I am sure I didn’t understand everything but I remember enough to go back to these books repeatedly over my life. Defoe’s Journal is fascinating. I have also read that book more than once. I buy and keep all the books I love and I have about 3,000 now.

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            • “Jane Eyre” is such a dramatic, heartfelt, well-written, several other adjectives novel!

              Reading “She” at age 10 had to indeed be an unsettling experience! I didn’t read it until last year, and I was unsettled as a well-into-adulthood adult. 🙂

              Yes, rereading certain books feels almost like a necessity. Meanwhile, I hope to read Defoe’s “Journal…” for the first time.

              Three-thousand books? Wow! Impressive!!!

              Liked by 1 person

              • I hoard books I like, Dave. I have a ridiculous worry that Amazon could disappear one day and all my ebooks and audio books will vanish. As a back up, I buy the originals of all my favourites. I also have books from when I was a young girl as I created my own library when I was 12. I made pockets and library cards, the works. I went through a stage at age 10 and 11 when I read a bunch of classic books with a dictionary. I also read Great Expectations by Dickens. Those books that I read back then have never left my mind completely. I aspire to impact people with my own writing in the same way that these books impacted on me. I have read She many times. I love the descriptions of Africa.

                Liked by 1 person

  8. Hi Dave,

    Because it’s still fresh in my mind, the first book I thought of was Perfume. Jean-Baptiste is so overwhelmed by all the smells around him that he spends more than a few years in a cave. It’s only a small part of the already small novel, however he is definitely completely cut off and alone for that period.

    The Count of Monte Cristo also came to mind. You’d think so many years alone in a cell would be a boring read, but it’s a terrific novel that I’d like to re-read one day.

    You mentioned apocalypses which got me thinking about Stephen King’s The Stand. It’s a book about a largish group of people making a stand, but watching those people go through incredible aloneness before they make their stand is quite harrowing at times.

    Speaking of Stephen King, Oh My Goodness, Gerald’s Game! Poor Jessie is handcuffed to the bed by her husband during some sexy fun times, but after the husband suddenly dies, Jessie is left alone with nothing but her own thoughts and nightmares to keep her company. I first read this book about twenty years ago in one sitting because I just could not put it down.

    I’ve read both Life of Pi and Crime and Punishment however didn’t think of either of them until I read the comments. Sometimes I wonder how I miss such obvious examples!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Susan, for the comment and for mentioning several books very relevant to this topic!

      Edmond Dantes’ struggle to maintain a bit of hope amid the bitterness of being framed is among the reason why his years of imprisonment make for a riveting read in “The Count of Monte Cristo.” (It helps that Dumas is such a great writer.) And then what happens during Dantes’ latter years in that island jail…

      “Gerald’s Game” is indeed hard to put down. What leads to Jessie’s aloneness, wondering if or how she’ll survive, the grisly moments…

      “Life of Pi” is definitely a “human alone” novel, but it also didn’t occur to me that “Crime and Punishment” would fit this theme because there are several significant supporting characters. But Raskolnikov is indeed psychologically and literally alone for much of the book.

      Like

  9. I was wondering if you were going to mention the Martian! Such a good book and the movie was pretty good too. I haven’t read any of Weir’s other books yet although I really want to someday. I thought of Metamorphosis also, and I see another person mentioned it. Although I remember his sister caring for him to some degree, I still can’t imagine the loneliness of turning into a giant bug. That story has stuck with me through the years – SO creepy. Brooklyn is another book I might toss out – the story of Eilis Lacey immigrating from Ireland to the US, where she has no friends or family, and feeling very isolated and alone as she tries to navigate a whole different world. And finally, one of my favorite recent reads, A Gentleman in Moscow – the story of a former Russian aristocrat confined to house arrest in a hotel during the revolution, and so must pass the rest of his days without even setting foot outside. Although he does make some friends and connections here and there through the decades of his confinement.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, M.B.! “The Martian” is indeed an excellent sci-fi novel. I’ve never seen the movie; glad it was pretty good.

      Creepy is definitely the word for “The Metamorphosis.” I realize that Kafka classic is meant to be symbolic on some level, but it is literally…creepy. 🙂

      Yes, a lot of loneliness in “Brooklyn,” as there are in many immigration-themed novels. Especially ones where the immigrant travels to the new country alone.

      And “A Gentleman in Moscow” (the one work you mentioned that I’ve haven’t read) also sounds very relevant to this topic!

      Liked by 1 person

    • I LOVED “A Gentleman in Moscow”. Brilliant. Did you know this book in on the Duchess of Cornwall’s Reading list this year. Check out her instagram and you will find an Amor Towles interview on how he came to write this book!

      Liked by 5 people

        • I agree, Robbie. I think that the Count was an extravert so would want to look for engagement with others. I remember the scene on the rooftop and how he was met by someone who knew the smell of blossoms. As he moved on, I felt that his friendships allowed him to adapt to his imprisonment and the changing times. To me, it was his sense of purpose that gave meaning and contentment.

          Liked by 2 people

          • Yes, Rebecca, you are right. His role as father to Sofia did give him purpose and, of course, he had his romance with Anna too. I nearly didn’t finish this book because I was so worried he would be caught and executed. I added The Invisible Man by HG Wells to my TBR today and also The Last Man by Mary Shelley.

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  10. After having read your post about lonely people in stories, I don’t know anymore, whether the character in the book WILD by Cheryl Strayed is lonely enough! Anyway, at 26 Cheryl thought she had lost everything. Her mother had died, the family grew apart and her marriage crumbled. When she had the impression that she had nothing to lose anymore, she decided to organize everything and walk the Pacific Crest Trail -approx. eleven hundred miles- alone. And it is thanks to this loneliness that she pieces together her life again! Thank you, Dave, for your very inspiring post!

    Liked by 6 people

    • Thank you, Martina! Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild” memoir is an excellent mention, and you described it well!

      A GREAT point that being alone can sometimes be a good thing — or a partly good thing — in terms of trying to heal from recent trauma, “find one’s self,” learn life lessons, and so on. Of course, it helps when being alone is a voluntary decision. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  11. Hae

    On Sun, May 16, 2021, 21:20 Dave Astor on Literature wrote:

    > Dave Astor posted: ” I’ve written about loners in novels before, but what > about characters who are literally alone — cut off from all contact with > other humans? Though that situation might seem like a possible recipe for > reader boredom, there is actually ” >

    Liked by 2 people

  12. It’s been a long time since I read “Villette,” by Charlotte Bronte, but I recall a stretch of the book where the main character is quite alone. I have never forgotten it as a portrayal of loneliness—not the sometimes enjoyable state of being alone. In fact, I think that’s why I have never been tempted to reread that book!

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thank you, Sheila! You’re right that there was quite a bit of loneliness in “Villette,” as there was in part of Charlotte Bronte’s more famous “Jane Eyre.”

      I agree that “Villette” is often downbeat, though it has many interesting moments. I’m sure the novel reflected the author’s mood after her sisters Emily and Anne had died so young not long before.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. What an interesting post, Dave. I haven’t read any of the mentioned books, though I’m familiar with all of them. Call of the Wild, as far as I can remember, had some riveting solo scenes. What’s fascinating is how often authors are admonished for not having enough dialog. Dialog is considered essential in many books for variety and pacing. The success of these books is testament to the quality of the writing. 🙂

    Liked by 5 people

    • Thank you, Diana! There is indeed much aloneness in “The Call of the Wild” — human and canine. And, yes, a riveting novel with riveting scenes.

      Great point that great novels starring an alone character require excellent writing on the part of the authors to make up for the lack of dialogue that helps drive many works of fiction. Of course, an alone character can talk to herself or himself, talk to an animal, recall conversations, and so on, but that’s not the same.

      Liked by 3 people

    • I logged in to mention Call of the Wild. Years after reading it, I remembered the scene when lighting a fire while cross-county skiing to dry out our socks. I looked for snow-covered tree branches before striking a match. I see below “To Build a Fire” is actually a different story, which means I’ll need to read them again. Thank you for the suggestion.

      Liked by 3 people

  14. A short story by H.P. Lovecraft called “In the Walls of Eryx” is about a guy trapped in an invisible maze on another planet. He ends up in that predicament while prospecting for some sort of desirable crystals. The character isn’t really sympathetic, but his situation is certainly compelling.

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    • Thank you, Audrey! I’ve read a number of Lovecraft short stories but must have missed that one. It sounds eerie and fascinating — two adjectives that can describe much of that writer’s work.

      Liked by 1 person

  15. Dave – the first time I felt that aloneness was when I read, “A Wrinkle in Time” a YA novel written by Madeleine L’Engle. I was 8 years old.

    The story opens with thirteen-year-old Meg Murrey’s meeting her eccentric new neighbor, Mrs. Whatsit. Shortly thereafter, Mrs. Whatsit is joined by Mrs Which and Mrs. Who. Meg, her child genius brother, Charles and fellow schoolmate Calvin, are taken off planet via a tesseract to find their missing father. This story was all about aloneness. Meg who was ostracized by her classmates, Charles who lived within his own world, and Calvin who came from a difficult family. But what came through was Meg’s father in a distant planet, alone for years, without hope of being rescued. To this day, the idea of rescue resonates.

    And speaking of aloneness, Madeleine L’Engle received rejection letters from at least 26 publishers. Why you may ask? Because it was too different and expressed concepts about good and evil, too difficult for children to understand. When it was finally published in 1962, A Wrinkle in Time won the Newbery Medal, the Sequoyah Book Award, the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award, and was runner-up for the Hans Christian Andersen Award. I do love happily ever after endings. Don’t you?!!!

    Liked by 7 people

    • Thank you, Shehanne! Terrific mention! I’ve read that compelling Yann Martel novel, but somehow forgot about it when writing this post. That tiger had a human name (Richard Parker), but was certainly no human!

      Liked by 4 people

      • LOl. I thought you had prob read it. BUT like that when you do a post you sometimes forget because there’s other mentions filling your mind. I also thought–and I know it is a book you often mention– Crime and Punishment. I know there’s other characters in it etc but somehow Rashkolikov seems to be the only one in a way. The focus is entirely on him in so many ways. .

        Liked by 6 people

        • Thank you for the follow-up comment, Shehanne! I have a list of novels I’ve read during the past 20 years or so, and should have consulted it. 🙂 Instead, I did this “aloneness” post off the top of my head because of an unusually busy week. 🙂

          Raskolnikov is indeed both literally and psychologically alone during a good portion of “Crime and Punishment.” That superb novel definitely focuses mostly on him, and the angst-ridden Raskolnikov mostly focuses on himself…

          Liked by 6 people

  16. I sometimes find the idea of these stories quite claustrophobic – which is one of the reasons why I haven’t read ‘The Martian’, although I’ve been told it’s very good.
    So, I dug deep to think about loners….Lionel Shriver’s ‘We Need To Talk About Kevin’ sprung to mind. It’s been a while since I read it (so had to check Wiki for names), but Eva does lead quite a loner existence. Then I thought about books about walking and people setting off on journeys – ‘The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry’ by Rachel Joyce was one that came to mind (although I can’t remember a great deal about it). There was another one I read and I can’t remember the name of it, although not a great deal happened in it. I think it was written by an Austrian or Polish author about a man who just ups and leaves one day, spends 20 years walking around Europe and then turns up at his house again. Again, very much a loner existence. And finally, from a slightly unusual perspective, is the second novel by Irvine Welsh (and my favourite of his), ‘Marabou Stork Nightmares’ about a man in a coma….and I’ll just leave it there…

    Liked by 6 people

    • Thank you, Sarah! “The Martian” is indeed claustrophobic, and quite good. Really ingenious in describing how the protagonist survives and prepares to make a long-shot attempt to get off Mars.

      I like Lionel Shriver’s work a lot (especially “So Much for That”), but have yet to read “We Need To Talk About Kevin.” I want to!

      Yes, a journey can be a very solo thing. And being in a coma is about as lonely as lonely gets, even if the person going through that ordeal has little or no awareness of their situation.

      Liked by 3 people

      • I’ll have to give ‘The Martian’ a go I think. I’m sure it’s quite a skill to write from that very solitary perspective.
        I’ve only read the one Shriver, but I found her writing excellent. ‘We Need To Talk…’ is one of those books that you sort of know what it’s about but it’s a constant surprise at every turn of the page. It’s probably one of those perfectly crafted novels!

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        • If you do read “The Martian,” Sarah, please let me know what you think!

          Re Ms. Shriver and “We Need to Talk…,” it’s impressive for an author to keep readers riveted even when they sort of know what’s going to happen!

          In addition to “So Much for That,” other novels I’ve read by Ms. Shriver are “The Mandibles,” “Big Brother,” and “The New Republic.” “So Much for That” was an A for me, with the other three in the B or B+ realm. 🙂

          Liked by 3 people

          • High marks indeed and shows that she’s very consistent! I started reading ‘The Post Birthday World’ some years ago but didn’t get very far at the time. Perhaps I should try ‘So Much For That’?!
            And yes, will probably get round to ‘The Martian’ at some point. Occasionally my hand pauses over it when I’m choosing what to read next. Perhaps a summer read to counter the claustrophobia!

            Liked by 1 person

    • ‘To The Back of Beyond’ by Peter Stamm. Swiss not Austrian or Polish! Even though not much seemed to happen it has certainly stayed with me and the thought of it always leaves me with more questions than answers!

      Liked by 2 people

  17. They say constraints breed creativity, and a character all alone is an interesting constraint. With no dialogue or opportunities to play characters off one another, it seems to me like it would be almost compulsory to tackle it from a first-person viewpoint, just so I can get as deep as possible into the character’s head.

    Did you notice any interesting tricks the authors of these books used to keep the story moving with only a single character driving the action?

    Liked by 6 people

    • Thank you, Samuel! Very true that “constraints breed creativity, and a character all alone is an interesting constraint.” Yes, a first-person narrative can help a lot, as can characters having an internal dialogue with themselves, or talking out loud to an animal companion — as Ayla does in “The Valley of Horses.” (Those are two tricks I’ve noticed.) But a third-person narrative can also work if it’s strong enough.

      Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Michele! Excellent mention!

      It’s been years since I read that great novel; I have a vague memory that Miss Havisham had visitors once in a while, but was indeed mostly alone with her psychological trauma.

      Liked by 3 people

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