One of the most prevalent challenges facing society today is undoubtedly loneliness. The news abounds with headlines showing that loneliness among almost all generations is on the increase. Although counterintuitive at first sight – we might expect that both the internet at large and social media in particular offer us plentiful opportunities for connection – it is certainly the case that feelings of isolation are becoming increasingly common. I have dealt with feelings of loneliness through much of my life. Anyone with a history of mental illness will understand the separation that this experience often imposes. In addition to symptoms that, in many cases, lend themselves to a desire to be alone, the misunderstandings and taboo that still surround mental health create challenging conditions of segregation between sufferers and those around them. Beyond my experiences with anxiety and depression, I have also spent the past 14 years moving constantly. Now 30, I haven’t spent more than two years in one place since I turned 16. In many cases, these moves have been transcontinental. I’m now approaching two years in my newest home (in the US midwest) and I still struggle with feelings of profound isolation and loneliness. A combination of homesickness, cultural separation, and the fact that making friends in your late-20s/early-30s is a nightmare certainly explains why these emotions have been much harder to shake than at any time previous.
Loneliness is something that we’ve all experienced, to varying degrees and for a plethora of different reasons. It feels appropriate, therefore, that the second post in this actionable series on bibliotherapy should tackle this common and, in many cases, acutely painful problem. I’ll begin by talking through the relationship between bibliotherapy and loneliness, considering the ways that loneliness can manifest (psychologically and physiologically) and the many different avenues through which reading literature can help to counter these challenges. I’ll be drawing on the three components of bibliotherapy – (1) identification; (2) catharsis; and, (3) insight – to make some recommendations for books that might help you to work through any feelings of loneliness that you’re experiencing. Whatever the reason for your encounter with loneliness – whether through the isolation imposed by mental illness, a move, a job change, or the loss of a loved one – literature offers a plethora of therapeutic benefits that can translate to assisting you in places of isolation.
As always, be sure to get in touch via a comment or email if you have any thoughts, experiences, or recommendations that you would like to share! If you are interested in the other posts of the bibliotherapy series, they are linked at the end of this post. You can also access them via the site menu.
*These posts are not intended to suggest that bibliotherapy and literature are a replacement for professional help. Although I believe that fiction can serve as an effective tool in the maintenance of mental health and the treatment of mental illness, it must be viewed as a complement to professional intervention, where appropriate. If you are struggling with mental illness or otherwise, please do not hesitate to reach out to someone who is in a capacity to help.*
Bibliotherapy and Loneliness
As mentioned above, loneliness can come in a variety of forms. Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, described seven different types of loneliness in an article written for Psychology Today. Among these are cases of ‘new-situation’ loneliness – as entering a new job, moving away from home for the first time, or, in my case, to a new country – and ‘I’m different’ loneliness – into which category the isolation often imposed by mental illness would fall. While Rubin misses the loneliness that can be created by rejection or misunderstanding on the part of other people, her seven types of loneliness indicate the incredible variety of situations that can cause loneliness and, therefore, the commonality of the emotion. This is backed up by some truly remarkable statistics. A 2017 report, for instance, found that more than nine million people in the UK often or always feel lonely. These findings led Prime Minister Teresa May to appoint the very first Minister for Loneliness, charged with finding ways to combat the epidemic of loneliness.
It is not, however, simply the feeling of loneliness that is a problem. The consequences – both psychologically and physiologically – can be extremely damaging. Loneliness is a symptom of a number of common ailments, including depression, seasonal affective disorder, postpartum depression, dementia, and addiction. It can impact your heart health, overall physical condition, and your mental state. A study on older adults found that 43% reported feeling lonely. Lonely adults aged 60 and over have a higher mortality rate than those that don’t feel lonely. Loneliness can, therefore, be incredibly damaging. At its most inconsequential, it can create a physical discomfort – something akin to a ‘heart ache’ – resulting from a very real feeling of sadness. At its most extreme, loneliness can be a symptom – or, in some cases, facilitate the development – of mental illness. In older adults, it dramatically increases your chances of dying earlier than you otherwise would.
*The following couple of paragraphs are a brief introduction to the components of bibliotherapy. If you have read my previous posts on the subject, you might want to skip ahead to the recommendations!*
It is unsurprising, therefore, that so many novels would deal in the experience and implications of loneliness. As one of the most common shared emotions, it is a feeling that will arise for all of us at some point in our lives. Fortunately, the fact that literature deals so plentifully with loneliness creates ample opportunity for bibliotherapy to provide some reprieve from isolation. As I highlighted in Can Fiction Help You? An Introduction To Bibliotherapy, bibliotherapy can be grouped into three distinct (but sometimes overlapping) categories:
(1) Identification with the character or text;
(2) Catharsis in response to the text;
(3) Insight into problems through the text.
As they pertain to loneliness, each of these components have something truly important to offer. Identification and insight are tied to the representation of loneliness via the text of a novel. Research has demonstrated that our brains process fictional scenarios as if they were happening to us directly. Reading thus equips us with better tools for the management of challenging scenarios and a degree of emotional resilience when confronting situations first-hand. Our brains quite literally learn to change and adapt our response to loneliness as we read about fictional encounters with the same emotion. The catharsis aspect of bibliotherapy is similarly important as it pertains to loneliness. Not only does fiction have the ability to calm any physical distress – for example, the ‘heart ache’ that loneliness can induce – it can also offer us a very real sense of connection. While this cannot replicate the alleviation of loneliness that comes with real-life interactions, situational demands often make it difficult to achieve this direct connection. This is where bibliotherapy can certainly help.
Making sure to choose the right novel to meet each of these requirements is important. While there is less risk of ‘triggering’ by reading the ‘wrong’ novel in regards to loneliness – as opposed to with conditions such as anxiety and depression – our requirements will vary depending upon our situation and our needs. We might be looking for identification with characters, in order to feel less alone ourselves. Alternatively, it might be insight that we desire, in an effort to confront our loneliness head-on by learning coping mechanisms or, perhaps, encouraging ourselves to get out into the world. Or maybe it is catharsis that we desire – a chance to connect with characters more generally or an opportunity to laugh and alleviate some of the physical distress caused by feelings of extreme isolation. The following section talks through book recommendations that fall into each of these categories. While they are obviously not personalised exactly to your needs, they are a starting point – a signpost toward the lists that you can continue to create for yourself.
These fictional works all centralise characters and situations that overlap with the experience and/or symptoms of loneliness. The process of identification with a text is believed to increase a reader’s capacity for empathy and compassion toward individuals and scenarios as represented in fiction and, by extension, the ability to better understand personal suffering.
Stoner by John Williams
There is perhaps no novel more replete with loneliness that John Williams’ Stoner. The hero of this novel – William Stoner – begins life as a poor farm boy, eventually enrolled at the University of Missouri and turned onto the wonders of literature. From here, Stoner enters an academic career – but, on all sides, his life is one of mediocrity and isolation. It is not an uplifting novel and is painfully problematic in places. It is, however, one of the best representations of loneliness that I have found in fiction. For anyone grappling with loneliness and attempting to explore the meaning of an individual life – or a life well-lived – Stoner will certainly invite reflection.
The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa
One of my more recent reads, The Housekeeper and the Professor is a relatively short and obscure novel from the Japanese author Yoko Ogawa. This beautifully poignant work follows an unnamed housekeeper as she becomes employed by an aloof and highly-intelligent professor. The housebound professor was victim of a car accident, some decades prior and, ever since the incident, his memory has not exceeded 80 minute cycles. Every 80 minutes, therefore, the professor forgets everything that has occurred since his accident. What results is a powerful reflection on connection and the isolation imposed by disability. For anyone experiencing loneliness as a result of feeling different or somehow socially impaired, the emotions of The Housekeeper and the Professor will feel acutely relatable.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
On the theme of loneliness brought about by feelings of difference, there is perhaps no novel more appropriate than Mary Shelley’s gothic masterpiece Frankenstein. The isolation imposed upon Frankenstein’s monster, as a result of his master’s disgust, problematises popular ideas of what this novel is actually about. That Frankenstein’s monster is one of the story’s main victims – a victim of Frankenstein’s hubris and blind curiosity – makes the monster’s intense loneliness and social exclusion all the more painful to witness. This novel is the perfect representation of fiction about loneliness through difference. The themes will spark immediate identification from those of us struggling to feel like we have a place in the world around us.
As I mentioned above, the cathartic capacity of fiction is one of the most meaningful and direct ways in which literature can assist those of us experiencing loneliness. Catharsis indicates an alleviation of physiological and/or psychological distress and can be achieved in a variety of ways. In my experience, there are three principle ways to achieve catharsis via fiction – as it pertains to loneliness – and this is via (1) connection, (2) levity, and (3) nostalgia. Although the manner in which each of these works for you – as well as the books that evoke each response – will depend largely on your individual preferences, the novels listed below can serve as a point of reflection and exploration for you to figure out what offers the best cathartic response.
Connection: The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende
One of my favourite novels of all time, The House of the Spirits is an inter-generational epic so saturated with characters that it is impossible to feel disconnected when reading. Following the Trueba family through decades of political and social turmoil in Chile, the story and its elements of magical realism will prove intrinsically comforting to anyone looking to read for a sense of connection. In a similar vein to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, you will leave this novel feeling intimately acquainted with the characters and truly a part of this incredible story. If you are looking for catharsis through fictional connection, The House of the Spirits is the perfect remedy.
Levity: Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome
Three Men in a Boat was one of my earliest reviews on The Book Habit and remains one of my go-to novels whenever I’m looking for a quick pick-me-up. The story follows three friends as they embark upon an incredibly comedic voyage down the river Thames. Accompanied by the dog Montmorency, the trip is a disaster from start to finish. In the vein of P.G. Wodehouse or Nancy Mitford, this novel will certainly provide the humour that you are looking for in alleviating the physical or emotional toll wrought by loneliness. The friendship between the characters and the camaraderie that is one of the novel’s major themes will also provide you with the additional sense of connection that can prove so central to catharsis for loneliness.
Nostalgia: Matilda by Roald Dahl
Catharsis through nostalgia will always depend largely upon personal preference and the novels with which you most identify. The reason that nostalgia can prove so effective for loneliness is the manner in which it invites a reconnection with times, spaces, and books that allow you to move away from a fixation on present-day isolation. For many of us, a return to the familiarity of childhood favourites – such as the Harry Potter series – will invite an escape into a world that is both comfortingly familiar and vivid. On the theme of loneliness, however, Roald Dahl’s Matilda is my favourite nostalgic work. Matilda’s isolation from her family, as she finds herself preoccupied with books and reading, is something to which many bibliophiles will relate. Her eventual escape from this pervasive loneliness is so hopeful and wonderfully kind that one can’t help but feel uplifted. To me, Matilda is a story both perfectly evocative and wonderfully comforting.
When reading fiction for insight, it is not necessarily the case that novels need directly refer to or deal with the problem at hand. Where identification allows us to explore characters and situations to which we can directly relate, insight permits us to consider ways of operating that might allow us to better navigate our challenges. While the books listed below do not necessarily portray loneliness directly (although, in most cases they do), they offer a variety of reflections on coping and moving forward that provide particular insight into the problems that loneliness can create.
Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto
Banana Yoshimoto’s novella, Kitchen, is a wonderful exploration of the disconnect brought about by grief and loss. The story’s protagonist Mikage finds herself isolated, following the death of her grandmother – her last remaining relative. As Mikage grapples with what it means to feel cast afloat – “…tied by blood to no creature in this world” – she finds herself connecting with Yuichi Tanabe, one of her grandmother’s old employees. Yuichi and his transgender mother, Eriko, take Mikage into their home. Through their openness and their ability to relate to Mikage’s experiences with grief, Mikage is able to explore new connections and discover an avenue through which she is able to replace isolation with something new. Kitchen is an incredibly poignant and sensually-reflective work. It offers a plethora of lessons about the nature of loneliness and our capacity to connect, even when we feel at our most displaced and alone.
The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim
The gentle sway of The Enchanted April makes it one of the most perfect novels for achieving the profound sense of calm that literature can so often invite. Beyond this, Elizabeth von Arnim’s examination of the loneliness brought about by marital discord, a lack of friends, and old age, makes it a wonderfully insightful work for anyone looking to find a way forward from isolation. The novel follows four female strangers as they embark upon a lengthy holiday in the Italian Riviera. Despite the challenges of connecting with one another, through slow-forming friendships the women are able to reach an understanding of their own circumstances and the way in which they are holding themselves back. It is a profound reflection on the nature of friendship and difference, as well as our own responses to those around us.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
The final recommendation must undoubtedly come in the form of one of my favourite classic novels, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. I first read the novel in my early twenties, at a time of incredible change. I had just finished university and was living on my own for the first time – in a new place and with no friends. Loneliness was a feeling with which I became increasingly familiar. Reading Jane Eyre, however, offered me a new perspective on my experiences. Following Jane as she grapples with her orphan status and eventually winds up working as governess for the infamous Mr. Rochester, one of the novel’s principal themes is independence. While Jane Eyre certainly celebrates friendship and romance, it is Jane’s determined adherence to her own principles and beliefs – even when this leads to disconnect from those around her – that is most impressively stark. The novel is a perfect reminder that, even in loneliness, we can be true to ourselves and our principles. While this may not remedy the pain of isolation, the importance of independent thought and action is a vital insight as we look to find our place in a world of constant change.
Other Posts in the Series: