A Look at Loners in Literature

One of literature’s major archetypes is the loner — a character who, happily or not, often goes the solo route.

Some loners are rather boring, which can happen when a person has minimal social interaction. But other loners are interesting and even fascinating. Why do they do things “their way”? What inner resources keep them functioning? How do things go when they encounter people? If they’re unlikable, we’re rather glad they don’t have a wider circle of friends and family. If they’re likable, they draw our sympathy.

Heck, a good number of real-life loners are drawn to literature — reading is usually a by-yourself thing — so they relate to their fictional counterparts.

Some people are of course loners by nature or choice, while others might be more gregarious types who find themselves out of the social loop because of betrayal, tragedy, or other circumstances.

An example from the nature/choice category is the title character in Toni Morrison’s Sula. She does for a time have close friend Nel, but mostly “marches to a different drummer” due to her intelligence, wanderlust, unconventionality, lack of empathy, and refusal to be confined to a racial/gender box during a more biased era.

From Sula to Silas: The introverted star of George Eliot’s Silas Marner has loner leanings, too, but is somewhat “of the world” until a betrayal by a close friend sends him into an emotional tailspin and hermit-like existence. Then…

Another kind of major disappointment (being jilted by her fiance) leads Miss Havisham of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations to mostly withdraw from life.

Years of abuse, mistreatment by male authority figures, and more make the brilliant Lisbeth Salander a hostile loner in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and the two other novels in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy.

And the biggest blow of all — death — makes Gauri almost incapable of love as she sheds her two closest relationships in Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland. Gauri actually deals with two deaths: the murder of someone very close to her, and a different man’s murder she peripherally helped make happen.

The self-sufficient Jane Eyre of Charlotte Bronte’s novel is like Silas Marner in that she has social tendencies yet fate has conspired to often keep her solo. Jane grows up with a family that doesn’t love her, sees her best friend die, and gets engaged to a man with a devastating secret.

In current mass-audience literature, a quintessential loner is Jack Reacher of Lee Child’s adventure series. He’s unmarried, has no home, drifts around the country meting out vigilante justice to bad guys, and then, before getting very close to anyone, hitches a ride or takes a bus elsewhere. In Never Go Back, he does get into a romantic relationship, but…

Some of Reacher’s roaming is in the West (South Dakota, Nebraska, etc.) — which reminds me that the “western novel” is full of loner types. Among the countless examples are Mattie Ross and Rooster Cogburn of Charles Portis’ True Grit, Billy Parham of Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing and Cities of the Plain, and early frontier protagonist Natty Bumppo of James Fenimore Cooper’s five “Leatherstocking” novels. Natty is only out west (Kansas) in The Prairie, but the woodsy New York milieu of the other four novels was wilderness in the 1700s.

Cornelius Suttree of McCarthy’s Suttree — a novel set in the South rather than the West — is another memorable loner. Like many of his type, he does have friends and a (temporary) romance even while going solo much of the time.

But some characters are just loners through and through, like the enigmatic Bartleby of Herman Melville’s famous short story “Bartleby the Scrivener.”

Certain circumstances almost guarantee significant solitude. For instance, some characters who would like to be liked are meanly ostracized (or they self-ostracize) because of their looks or mental situation. Examples include the overweight “nerd” who stars in Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and the intellectually challenged Charlie Gordon in Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon and Boo Radley in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

Also, between-performance solitude can be the lot of traveling entertainers — such as music-hall dancer Renee Nere of Colette’s The Vagabond and Sinclair Lewis’ corrupt preacher Elmer Gantry, who’s a performer in a way.

Loneliness is of course also felt by jailed characters, such as Edmond Dantes during his Chateau d’If imprisonment in Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo — though Edmond does eventually find a friend/mentor during his solitary confinement.

Traumatic battle experiences can also push survivors into the loner camp, as with World War I veteran Larry Darrell as he searches for some transcendent meaning to life in W. Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge.

And in apocalyptic novels where much of the human race is wiped out, some characters obviously have to become loners — whether it be “The Snowman” protagonist in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake or Lionel Verney in Mary Shelley’s The Last Man.

In a related matter, there are also reclusive writers such as Emily Dickinson, Marcel Proust, Thomas Pynchon, J.D. Salinger, and the aforementioned Harper Lee, but that’s another story…

Who are your favorite fictional characters of the loner persuasion?

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