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Loneliness and solitude may be perceived as destructive or constructive depending on one’s circumstances. In western literature, this concept has often brought out the creative genius in main characters. It has also been a platform for reconciling one’s inner self with the external. This provides a deeper meaning of life and the purpose of existence.
Loneliness, isolation and solitude in western literary tradition
In the books that will be subsequently analysed, loneliness has been examined through two lenses; that of the individual isolated from society and that of the individual isolated away from himself. The most useful kind of isolation is the latter because not only does it allow one to come to terms with all the complexities that one has undergone in one’s life but it also provides a platform for creating a better and stronger character. Isolation should therefore not be prejudged as a psychological disorder that should necessitate the immediate removal of the person who experiences it.
If all the members that have experienced isolation at any one time were to be expelled then society would be left desolate (Brock & Rokach, 284). One’s identity at times needs to be placed in retrospect. It is often quite difficult to achieve this when one is in the presence of others. The conditions of isolation and solitude are therefore very favourable for such fundamental changes in people’s lives.
Engagement with loneliness does lead to creative expression because this is an outlet or response to the complexities of such as a feeling or condition. Numerous poems and novels that have done relatively well within the literary field do not merely focus on the delightful; it is their capacity to relate and convey the deep unhappiness of the human spirit which audiences around the world tend to relate to. In essence, loneliness becomes a mode of expression because it is a conduit for finding the truth behind a person’s reality. Through solitude and isolation, loneliness allows one to question these concepts especially against the backdrop of continual changes in the social landscape.
It allows a greater degree of consciousness because people do not just go through the choices, feelings and worries of day to day life without considering the purpose and the significance of those choices. Loneliness is therefore a way of getting to the deeper issues concerning the reason for existing. Human beings are essentially separate and distinct from one another thus providing a prerequisite to isolation and loneliness. However, the need to live with and interact with one another is what leads to subsequent tension that causes people to struggle. Sometimes, not all answers can be found outside and one may have to look inside to find them.
A clear explanation of how a writer has done this relatively well is in the book “Robinson Crusoe’. By looking at the life of the protagonist in isolation, the author is able to critique his society i.e. British society. This is possible because Robinson Crusoe has grown tremendously during the time when he was isolated from the rest of society. Readers can therefore identify with the wrongs in their society by learning about an isolated soul that is totally removed from such an experience. In other words, this is kind of like a journey into the ideal world where man should aspire to be.
Therefore, isolation inspired the main character to be better or to explore his creative genius. He was no longer in a position to run away from the challenges that he was going through; he used to do that in the midst of other people but isolation causes him to face them head on. Crusoe was able to weigh his options in terms of the resources available to him as well as his inherent fears. This protagonist is finally able to establish the best way to work with his circumstances rather than feel pity for himself.
Defoe (106) affirms that Crusoe carefully looked at his reality and was able to acclimatise or get on with life (Defoe, 106). Defoe (66) further illustrates that sometimes what may seem to the unthinking mind like a very serious misfortune may actually be a great blessing in disguise. When Crusoe sees that the grains in the island are sufficient enough to nourish him and that he can actually survive in the island then he can now sees the bigger picture. He now knows how fortunate he is that all others in the ship died but he was the luckiest one to stay alive. The isolation created by the island led to spiritual development that would otherwise not have been possible without this confinement.
In the poem “I wondered lonely as a cloud” by Wordsworth the poet is able to illustrate that loneliness and isolation do actually lead to creativity. At the time, Wordsworth was writing the poem, he was exercising his freedom to create. This was a notion that was being encouraged by many other contemporaries in his time (Hunter, 51). However, the aspect that comes out very well at the end of this poem is that the protagonist was inspired to use his imagination owing to the circumstances that were surrounding his life.
He was in an isolated and lonely state but was surrounded by nature. It was the latter condition that inspired him to imagine and bring together his thoughts. This state of isolation causes him to use his imagination well. He was both spontaneous and free. Surrounded with nothing but nature, the mood was certainly right for the poet to come up with something creative. The product of his isolation and loneliness was therefore a beautiful work of art as seen through the poem.
Western societies are characterised by complex challenges. There is plenty of violence and hence spiritual emptiness. This illustrates that the current generation is far removed from matters of the soul. Indeed most western societies are highly obsessed with the search for wealth and fulfilment so few will focus on deeper matters. The overall effect has therefore been a big impoverishment of the inner self that needs to be closed through deep confrontations. Loneliness can therefore be the red signal that illustrates there is problem. Persons have the option of responding to these matters by carrying out a deep analysis and by looking beyond contemporary understandings of the meaning of life (Shmuel, 134).
Indeed, the book written by Daniel Dafoe best illustrates this point. The main character finally got to a point where he could look at conditions in his life in a different light because of his isolation. He was able to engage with certain elements that he had never dealt with before. He soon came to realise that his former life in the other society was corrupt and that his life in the island was blissful and perfect (Defoe 207).
He was finally in harmony with his surroundings and felt that there was no point of going back to his former life. In essence, the author of the book is trying to demonstrate that there is a problem with the way his society exists through the protagonist. He is therefore showing that there is a problem with conventional understandings of right and wrong and that one should be daring enough to question these assumptions. To Defoe, the perfect society is one that has one member. This was a very bold claim but it is the author’s view nonetheless and nothing better illustrates this assertion than the life of isolation led by the protagonist.
Also, Wordsworth (14) in his poem shows that loneliness provides the means required to place matters in context. Instead of merely judging something from face value, one needs to look at its deeper meaning and this is only possible once someone has gone into a state of isolation. In the poem, the author would not have been able to appreciate the true beauty of the daffodils if he had focused on their face value. When he went back home and was on his own, feeling rather lonely, then he was able to create greater meaning to them upon contemplating about them. Loneliness in this instance is therefore a prerequisite to re-examination and hence depth.
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Self exploration has also been exploited through the poem written by T.S. Elliot i.e. The Love song of J. Alfred Prufrock. This work is an examination of the journey underwent by Prufrock concerning his critical challenges such as life. At the time, the protagonist was living an unfulfilled life and he needed to go beyond the superficial so as to really get to the meaning of his life. He especially needed to place the matter of his love for a woman in context. Prior to his feelings of isolation, he had never really been in a position to really look into these matters.
He was so crowded by fear that he could not confront these issues. However, after the immense examination, he soon comes to terms with the reality of his situation. He discovers that he is not in a position to ever love the woman of his dreams because he does not possess the qualities needed to get her. One may assume that isolation and loneliness led Prufrock to even greater unhappiness but asserting this would be ignoring the fact that this author was living in blissful ignorance prior to this in depth examination. It is after his serious search that he soon comes to the truth and therefore looks at things from a realistic standpoint. He now knows where he really stands. In the past, the poet had convinced himself that he was actually relevant.
He was actually able to come to terms with his real life as seen in one of the lines. “pair of rugged claws, scutting across the floors of silent waters..”(Elliot, 74). Here, the protagonist is actually comparing himself to a sea creature and further adds that if he was one; it would make no difference since his life is so significant. The main character soon realises that he has been living his entire life under a protective shell. By engaging in monotonous tasks, he had made himself seem to be relevant but he really is not. It is therefore through isolation that this main character is able to learn the truth behind his identity. The protagonist has been given an opportunity to become a better person because he had put everything in retrospect. He can now curve out a new and realistic path for his life simply because he was brave enough to look at things as they were.
Essentially, loneliness needs not to be considered as something that is strange and peculiar. It is something that characterises almost all human experiences. Therefore, instead of struggling with it or instead of hiding away from other persons, sharing it with others does facilitate a greater understanding of one another.
One of the methods in which this is so easily expressed is through the poem “I wondered lonely as a cloud”. In this piece, the author elaborately describes the beauty of nature through the daffodils, waves in a lake and the breeze. He quickly immerses readers’ attention into these concepts but towards the end of the poem, one realises that the latter descriptions are nothing more than a relieving of what the poet had experienced in the past. This is seen when he asserts
“For oft, when on my couch I lie,
in vacant or in pensive mood,
they flash upon that inward eye,
and then my heart with pleasure fills….” (Wordsworth, 13-18).
The poet therefore demonstrates that all along he has been sharing his experiences concerning the feeling of loneliness. Readers can therefore sympathise with his predicament because they can now fully contextualise it.
The poem “The love song of Alfred Prufrock” is able to strike a chord with the audience because of the honesty that the protagonist illustrates by sharing his loneliness. As one goes through the lines of the poem, one gets the same feeling that the Prufrock got upon realising that he could never really enjoy the life of love and fulfilment. Loneliness is something that always creates a sympathetic note when the concerned parties have been bold enough to share the experience.
Through all the three pieces of literature, it is possible to see that loneliness and isolation are fertile ground for the creative spirit within the individual. In the book Robinson Crusoe, it motivated Crusoe to develop spiritually and mentally by confronting his demons. In the poem “I wondered lonely as a cloud”, loneliness inspired the poet to create a wonderful piece of art and in the poem “the love song of Alfred Prufrock” it caused the concerned individual to confront his past and hence be able to work out a new pathway for his life.
Isolation and loneliness also inspires how one perceives one’s reality and this causes individuals to challenge the status quo. This was effectively demonstrated through Robin Crusoe. Therefore, these three books illustrate that contrary to other disciplines, literature; especially English literature uses loneliness and isolation to achieve a greater good which is revelation and depth to characters’ existence.
Defoe, Daniel. Robinson Crusoe. London: Taylor publishers, 1719.
Wordsworth, William. “I wandered Lonely as a Cloud” London: Longman, 1807.
Elliot, T “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock 1917. Poetry magazine, 1917.
Weiss, R. Loneliness: The experience of social and emotional isolation. MA: MIT Press, 1990.
Brock, Heather & Rokach, Ami. Loneliness and the effects of life changes. Psychology journal 131,3(1997): 284-290.
Shmuel, Erlich. On loneliness, narcissism and intimacy, American psycho analysis journal, 58.2(1998): 134-162.
Hunter, Davis. William Wardsworth. Frances Lincoln, 2009.