Emily Dickinson is American literature’s famed recluse. “Silence is Infinity,” she wrote—and her solitude was generative. Loneliness, as she figured it, was “the Maker of the soul.” But what about women today? Are they relishing their solitude? In May 2021, preliminary research findings were presented at the American Heart Association’s Epidemiology, Prevention, Lifestyle, and Cardiometabolic Health Conference that suggested social isolation and loneliness were each associated with a higher risk for cardiovascular disease in postmenopausal women.
As I scrolled past this news, I found my copy of Jhumpa Lahiri’s latest novel, Whereabouts, which follows an unnamed narrator through a period of quiet desperation. The novel, spread over 40-something chapters and translated by Lahiri from her own Italian, features the mundane, uninspiring, and domestic. We see the narrator go on walks with a friend, sit alone, look at other people, speculate about their relationships with one another, ponder the nature of loneliness, engage with her elderly mother.
A similar thread of loneliness weaves through another recent novel, Natsuko Imamura’s The Woman in the Purple Skirt, which has been translated from the Japanese by Lucy North. Imamura’s is a tale of isolation punctuated by slapstick humor. The nameless narrator is a deeply confounded, lonely, aimless person. She is also a stalker. Seated at the fringes of society and her workplace, she obsessively watches a colleague in a purple skirt, betraying no hint of guilt at stalking this near stranger. That the narrator’s unnerving internal monologue also happens to be very funny at times only makes it more interesting.
I found the anonymity, obsession, and absurdity of Imamura’s novel and the peevish, circuitous, and perambulatory tone of Lahiri’s Whereabouts echoed in the BBC Three show Fleabag. As an angry and dazzlingly intelligent young woman, Fleabag’s eponymous protagonist is certainly more glamorous and gregarious than Lahiri’s and Imamura’s central characters, but she, too, is a profoundly feminine portrait of bitter loneliness. “Women are born with pain built in,” a character asserts in Fleabag’s Emmy-winning second season. “We carry it within ourselves throughout our lives. Men don’t. They have to seek it out.” We see the utter loneliness of the character Fleabag, whose two closest companions—her mother and her best friend—have died. She is suffering from a lack of attention.
Unlike Emily Dickinson, all three of these central characters are nameless (Imamura’s calls herself “the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan,” while Lahiri’s is at times addressed as “Signora”) and none of them has much appetite for being by themselves. Reading Whereabouts and The Woman in the Purple Skirt during the summer months, I found myself haunted by an old, familiar loneliness, made worse by my fears that it is a sadness particular to certain women.
For each of these three characters, one emotion is central: a kind of melancholy depicted as unique to women, transferred as if from centuries of repression, loneliness, and being thoroughly misunderstood. Sometimes the sadness takes second place to the unending drama of their lives, but mostly it is their primary experience. The three of them are restless, prone to snooping, and out of place wherever they are. They yearn to be noticed, known, and loved. Fleabag offers the best zingers (“I want someone to tell me what to believe in, who to vote for, who to love, and how to tell them”), while the Signora and the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan carry their burdens quietly, marinating a soulful broth of melancholy in the face of their dejection.
By cataloging the variousness of loneliness, Lahiri captures the attention of readers living through yet another year of the pandemic, with most forms of usual communication circumscribed. Her narrator laments, “In spring I suffer. The season doesn’t invigorate me, I find it depleting.” Anyone who has been through a momentary dip in their lives will know what she is talking about. Similarly, on mortality: “For the past few days there’s been a strange sensation under the skin at my throat, something along the lines of an irregular palpitation. I only feel it when I’m sitting at home, reading on my couch. That is, when I’m most relaxed, when I’m expecting to feel at peace. It lasts for a few seconds, then passes.”
Beneath Lahiri’s prose lies the particular connection between her women characters and loneliness. The Signora is strung out and cut off from her cultural and historical milieu. As readers, we return to a familiar world in which the characters understand that loneliness is simultaneously a scourge as well as a blessing. If you get too much of it, you lose your mind; if you get very little of it, then, too, you lose your balance.
Lahiri employs stark imagery to evoke the Signora’s emotional state. Anyone who has ever been near the waters of depression knows what she is referring to. Her protagonist suffers from melancholy, is haunted by the burdens of seclusion, but is (secretly) hopeful for the future. When she is subjected to a litany of her mother’s aches and pains, she notes, “I fear I’m a terrible daughter who ignores her mother, whose fault is to be excessively alive.” Here, Lahiri gestures to existential angst, building on longing and loneliness as recurrent themes in her novels.
After a night out, Fleabag, played by the writer-actor Phoebe Waller-Bridge, sits on the stoop outside her father’s house. She looks him in the eye, telling him: “I have a horrible feeling I am a greedy, perverted, selfish, apathetic, cynical, depraved, morally bankrupt woman who can’t even call herself a feminist.” He smiles. “You get all that from your mother,” he says, bringing the night and the conversation to an end. The feeling of feminine loneliness is intensified here—made clear in Fleabag’s despondency, then exacerbated by her father’s suggestion that she inherited her worst traits from her mother, motioning towards a generational form of suffering.
Imamura’s narrator, meanwhile, is bereft in ways that are mysterious and subliminal. She imposes her emotions on the object of her obsession. “The Woman in the Purple Skirt sat down on the bench, a lonely little figure, and enjoyed the last few sips of the sports drink. Then she looked down at her lap and examined her nails. She really did remind me of Meichan, my old friend from elementary school.”
In these poignant depictions of lack, we can perceive elements of the depression, mental illnesses, and misery (now exaggerated by the pandemic) affecting many across the world. Imamura captures the texture of this malaise precisely:
But when I looked carefully, it was clear that what she felt inwardly didn’t match what she projected outwardly. She wasn’t actually enjoying being a part of it all—not in her heart. Even if her lips were smiling, her eyes were not. All the other cleaners had animated expressions on their faces, but she alone had a touch of sadness about her. She was forcing herself, trying to appear to be having fun so as not to dampen the mood.
As artists, Waller-Bridge, Imamura, North, and Lahiri know how to combine naked confessionalism and comic artifice to tap veins of hungry emotion—anger, fear, and, particularly, deep sadness. They are not averse to having their protagonists walk into conventional, potentially sentimental situations, or trudge that thin line between sanity and berserk obsession. The emotionality of their characters plays out in abrupt, uncomfortable ways. These are headstrong, independent women who know better than to have an emotional breakdown—and they do everything that they can not to give in, until they can’t.
While men are, statistically, more prone to suicide, it seems that women are more likely to suffer from depression. A 2009 study in the US notes: “By many objective measures the lives of women in the United States have improved over the past 35 years, yet we show that measures of subjective well-being indicate that women’s happiness has declined both absolutely and relative to men.” Building on this, studies by the WHO have highlighted that women disproportionately suffer from common mental disorders (depression, anxiety, and somatic complaints). Clinical depression—twice as common in women—was predicted to be the second leading factor in the global disability burden by 2020.
Loneliness contributes to, compounds, and pressurizes these burdens. Depression and sadness undercut connection, as we see in Whereabouts, when a restorative break at a friend’s vacant country house reinforces the loneliness of Lahiri’s narrator. The novel proffers a muted portrait of urban solitude marked by undercurrents of not-knowing, longing, and desolation.
The Woman in the Yellow Cardigan feels her isolation more sharply on her days off. The pace of Imamura’s fiction is sober but highlights a disquieting undertow even to the most slapstick of moments. With each passing chapter we see a new layer to the narrator’s loneliness, revealing how strangely isolated she is, creating a patina of distress.
These writers know how to combine naked confessionalism and comic artifice to tap veins of hungry emotion.
The narrator makes disconcerting asides, like:
I considered all the hotel shampoo she could have availed herself of at absolutely no charge. And not only shampoo: conditioner, body wash, bars of soap. … I knew that nearly all the cleaning staff had bottles of shampoo with the hotel crest on their bathroom shelf at home. Everybody’s hair smelled exactly the same, day after day. The only one who was any different was the Woman in the Purple Skirt.
The chilling display of too much interest in another woman’s life is deadpan and scary. A study in voyeurism, the book makes the reader uncomfortable about knowing so much, yet so little, about the narrator’s fixation with the Woman in the Purple Skirt.
In contrast to the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan’s stringent detachment, Fleabag’s unnamed protagonist is so desperately lonely that she hooks up with the first guy who shows interest in her. She breaks the fourth wall to tell the audience of her propensity for these kinds of self-centered, self-destructive antics, while Imamura’s and Lahiri’s character’s motivations are implicit, coiled inside themselves.
These women fill their lives with routines and rituals, some of which are embarrassingly devoid of meaning or circular exercises in theorizing loneliness. “Solitude: it’s become my trade,” Lahiri’s narrator writes. “As it requires a certain discipline, it’s a condition I try to perfect.” Talking of her dead mother, Fleabag says, “With all the love I have for her. I don’t know where to put it now.” The Woman in The Yellow Cardigan wastes her days looking for the familiar face of her estranged sister in a sea of strangers. In the geographies of their lives, in the way they spend their days and live out their obsessions, these women might be markedly different from one another, but loneliness threads through, stitching them together across time, narratives, geographies.
It is pertinent to note that both Whereabouts and The Woman in the Purple Skirt are works of clear-eyed translation. In an essay for Words Without Borders published in April 2021, Lahiri notes, “The responsibility of translation is as grave and as precarious as that of a surgeon who is trained to transplant organs, or to redirect the blood flow to our hearts, and I wavered at length over the question of who would perform the surgery.” Through these books, both North and Lahiri reveal themselves as quiet seekers of perverse pleasures, working silently into oblivious hours, helping something so grand and pithy in one language find resonance and form in another. In their translations, they render these stories as complex and deeply realized character studies, told with an ambition that would otherwise not be afforded the works in their original languages because of their limited reach.
Lahiri’s Whereabouts was first published in Italian, as Dove Mi Trovo (2018). She translated it herself, making it the first book published by Knopf to be translated by its own author. Taking the austere, plotless story from Italian and rendering it in English was a task that both petrified and inspired her. And it shows. Lahiri is a meticulous observer of human behavior, good and bad. In the English translation, she loads the most stilted, banal observations with tension. The narrative of Whereabouts unfolds alongside the development of that skill: the narrator, though intensely lonely, is still only beginning to learn how to navigate life alone, to take in experiences and render them powerfully.
Imamura, in The Woman in the Purple Skirt, depicts the life of her narrator as broken, jagged, and abstract, a blend of not-so-youthful obsession with the urge to reach out for someone elusive. North’s translation into English from Imamura’s original Japanese creates a pressing sense that the narrator is grappling with her life. North creates a portrait that shows how certain human traits transcend cultural boundaries. The elements of society, workplace, and general economic downturn are familiar, but there will always be that someone who exists outside these strict peripheries. Towards the end of the novel, the protagonist asks her boss for a loan. He is shocked:
Do you have any idea how many complaints have been made about you by the other staff, saying that even when you do come to work, you often just take off somewhere and disappear? … Usually … you are quiet as a mouse, and now, the first time you open your mouth, it’s to pester me for a loan? What’s the matter with you? Do you have no shame? Someone at your stage in life. Don’t you think you should be a little more restrained in the requests you make of others?
There is poetry to be found in these women’s loneliness, quirk in the slapstick drama, and poignancy in their ways of handling life—but we all know what’s in store for them. No matter how far or wide they cast their net, melancholy will always be a heartbeat away. One extra martini, one more sullen evening alone, one wayward night spent with the wrong guy—anything could send them tipping into a rabbit hole of ceaseless depression. It’s only they who can save themselves. In the face of this truth, what matters is how they keep their bodies and spirits intact, no matter how daunting the obsessions.
As I powerlessly glare at the screen in front of me, a glass of wine waits at the dinner table. It’s only 2 p.m. and I ought to know better. But it’s a Saturday, and I am completely alone. I have no one to talk to, so I give in to the unceasing, animal pleasures of loneliness.
This article was commissioned by Bonnie Chau.