During these times, many writers, artists, and public figures have taken to sharing their lockdown diaries or pandemic reading lists or advice on how to survive isolation. Thanks to this ongoing spate of articles and essays in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are well aware that solitude and loneliness are not synonymous words.
respective histories of these two modes of being also show us that solitude is more about an autonomously-chosen, self-reflective time with oneself, while loneliness is about an undesired and imposed lack of connection with the world around us. Solitude is often a privilege while loneliness is seen as a curse. All that said, being unhappy while alone is a fairly modern idea. And, during these times of social distancing, a good number of us are working to understand and leverage our own isolation pathologies better.
The five short stories here—by Anton Chekhov, Katherine Mansfield, Bharati Mukherjee, Anthony Doerr, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie—explore some of these isolation, solitude, and loneliness pathologies from the perspectives of different lives and cultures. Almost all of them have had solitude or loneliness thrust upon them (not due to any pandemic-like situations) and are trying to cope as best they can. As always, fiction allows us to look at aspects of human nature that we are often unwilling to face within ourselves or in our loved ones. What the characters in these stories experience and how they respond to their isolationary solitude or loneliness allows us certain deeper insights that are, at once, both familiar and eye-opening.
“The Bet”, by Anton Chekhov (translated by Constance Garnett)
In Chekhov’s short story “The Bet“, a banker and a lawyer make a bet with each other about whether death is better than life in prison. As morbid as this sounds, this story explores more than the usual debate of capital punishment versus life imprisonment. To fulfill the bet’s conditions and win two million rubles from the banker, the young lawyer must live in total isolation for 15 years. The only contact he is allowed with the rest of the world is through letters.The story doesn’t progress as we might expect. But this is Chekhov, so we must put our expectations aside and let him take us on a journey with the evolution of these two characters. Whichever side of the fence we might be with this never-ending debate, it makes us question our beliefs and values while reading.
From a craft perspective, this is classic Chekhov. Even while exploring matters of life and death, there is no moral teaching or didactic personal opinion here. Like the doctor that he was in real life, he probes, diagnoses, and presents every important detail. The prognosis is ours to make as readers. And though the story is written to appeal to the intellect more so than to emotions, Chekhov’s mastery of showing versus telling is always a delight to savor.
Then he remembered what followed that evening. It was decided that the young man should spend the years of his captivity under the strictest supervision in one of the lodges in the banker’s garden. It was agreed that for fifteen years he should not be free to cross the threshold of the lodge, to see human beings, to hear the human voice, or to receive letters and newspapers. He was allowed to have a musical instrument and books, and was allowed to write letters, to drink wine, and to smoke. By the terms of the agreement, the only relations he could have with the outer world were by a little window made purposely for that object. He might have anything he wanted—books, music, wine, and so on—in any quantity he desired by writing an order, but could only receive them through the window.
“Miss Brill”, by Katherine Mansfield
Several of Katherine Mansfield’s short stories feature solitary, lonely women. The title character of “Miss Brill” is so beautifully and heartbreakingly portrayed that she has become a timeless literary archetype. Almost the entire story takes place on a park bench. And yet, Mansfield depicts the entire life of this singular character so effectively that we feel we know her as intimately as her writer. There is not one superfluous detail and every sentence builds the story, mood, drama, and emotions in the precise, signature Mansfield manner. Even the seemingly excessive use of metaphors and similes serve important purposes if we read close enough.
As Miss Brill sits in her “special seat”, she observes the people around her with a careful, acute curiosity. We’re deep in her point of view so we get to see, feel, hear, think, and sense her precise impressions of all the interactions teeming around her. But her illusions and delusions are thrown into sharp contrast with the twist ending that’s so brilliantly foreshadowed through all her own judging and romanticizing of others and herself.
Although it was so brilliantly fine—the blue sky powdered with gold and great spots of light like white wine splashed over the Jardins Publiques—Miss Brill was glad that she had decided on her fur. The air was motionless, but when you opened your mouth, there was just a faint chill, like a chill from a glass of iced water before you sip, and now and again a leaf came drifting—from nowhere, from the sky. Miss Brill put up her hand and touched her fur. Dear little thing! It was nice to feel it again.
“The Management of Grief”, by Bharati Mukherjee
The New York Times headlined Bharati Mukherjee’s obituary with the label “writer of immigrant life”. She was certainly that. But she also tackled much more with her writing. Often, such labels are too reductive and they put readers off. Jhumpa Lahiri’s clapback at the New York Times when she was called an immigrant writer remains the best response yet: “If certain books are to be termed immigrant fiction, what do we call the rest? Native fiction? Puritan fiction? This distinction doesn’t agree with me. Given the history of the United States, all American fiction could be classified as immigrant fiction.”
So, while Mukherjee’s “The Management of Grief” features Indian immigrants in the US, it’s about a lot more: a woman’s sense of isolation after losing her entire family in a mass tragedy and being surrounded by well-wishers and do-gooders; how communities and individuals deal with loss; how racism and justice play big roles in social acceptance; and how cultural traditions and customs, in the end, are of little help with personal grief.
Having already written an investigative account of the 1985 Air India flight 182 disaster with her husband, Dr Clark Blaise, (see The Sorrow and the Terror; Penguin Books; September 1987) Mukherjee wrote this short story in one sitting. In a PowellsBook.blog interview, she recalls how she could have been on that fateful flight herself.
Mukherjee’s craft is sharp here as she reveals bits of information through the protagonist’s experiences and observations. We, as readers, begin to piece the tragedy together as Shaila tries to make sense of what has happened. Also, for a lot of readers, this well-anthologized story is their first introduction to this huge disaster that history texts often ignore.
A woman I don’t know is boiling tea the Indian way in my kitchen. There are a lot of women I don’t know in my kitchen, whispering and moving tactfully. They open doors, rummage through the pantry, and try not to ask me where things are kept. They remind me of when my sons were small, on Mother’s Day or when Vikram and I were tired, and they would make big, sloppy omelets. I would lie in bed pretending I didn’t hear them.
“The Deep”, by Anthony Doerr
“The Deep” won the 2011 Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award—the biggest award in the world for this literary form. Doerr is a much-celebrated writer, well-known for both his novels and his short stories. This story was also anthologized in the New American Stories (Vintage Contemporaries; July 2015; edited by Ben Marcus.)
Death features strongly in this story as well because the protagonist, Tom, is diagnosed with a terminal illness at a very young age. Due to this life-threatening condition, he’s forced to lead a mostly reclusive kind of life until he meets Ruby at school. Ruby takes risks and gets him to sneak away with her to experience the little pleasures of life that his mother has, until then, protected him from. After they’ve gone their separate ways, Tom settles into a safe routine existence. Until he and Ruby meet again as adults.
Rather than giving us a formulaic story of unrequited love, Doerr goes, well, deeper. He shows Tom struggling with choosing how to live his life even as he manages to live past the age his doctor had predicted. In the last scene, when Tom shares his big epiphany with Ruby, Doerr avoids the many possible clichés and has our hearts aching for these two people trying to somehow connect, comfort, console each other.
Where Doerr’s storytelling craft shines is in the cinematically beautiful contrasts of Tom’s life before, with, and after Ruby. The story is set in 1914 Detroit, during the Great Depression and Doerr’s historically accurate details of how exactly the world around them is falling apart are notable too.
You can see actor Damian Lewis, reading an excerpt of this story here.
Tom is born in 1914 in Detroit, a quarter mile from International Salt. His father is offstage, unaccounted for. His mother operates a six-room, under-insulated boarding house populated with locked doors, behind which drowse the grim possessions of itinerant salt workers: coats the colors of mice, tattered mucking boots, aquatints of undressed women, their breasts faded orange. Every six months a miner is laid off, gets drafted, or dies, and is replaced by another, so that very early in his life Tom comes to see how the world continually drains itself of young men, leaving behind only objects—empty tobacco pouches, bladeless jackknives, salt-caked trousers—mute, incapable of memory.
“New Husband”, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
A newly-married woman from Lagos, Chinaza, joins her immigrant husband in New York. They barely know each other due to their arranged marriage. As she tries to adjust to both him and her new world, she deals with the inevitable sense of isolation and loneliness. And, while this might read on the surface like yet another immigrant story, it is also much more than that.
While her husband encourages assimilation into American culture, he discourages any ties back with their culture back home. Almost every impression or ideal Chinaza has of America, the land of opportunity and dreams, slowly crumbles on a daily basis as she tries to understand and accept her confusing reality. It is a lonely struggle because her husband, who likely went through his own assimilation challenges when he first moved to the US, can no longer appreciate or sympathize with what she’s going through.
Adichie adds a twist in the story that we’ll leave unrevealed. It’s not entirely unexpected when it surfaces but it does force Chinaza to make a decision, one way or another. That big decision is also inevitable because of how Adichie foreshadows it carefully. The symbolism of the opening door in the final lines is, of course, perfection.
My new husband carried the suitcase out of the taxi and led the way into the brownstone building, up a flight of brooding stairs, down an airless hallway with frayed carpeting and stopped at a door. 5D, unevenly fashioned from yellowish metal, was plastered on it.
“We’re here,” he said. He had always used the word ‘house’ when he told me about our home. I had imagined a gravelly driveway snaking between cucumber-colored lawns, a wide doorway that he would carry me over, walls with serene paintings. Like the white newlyweds in the American films that Lagos Channel 5 showed on Saturday nights.