We are purportedly in an epidemic of loneliness. It is often presented in the media as a symptom of failed modernity and a problem that has come to define our times, not least our experiences of isolation within the coronavirus pandemic. Media outlets and charities have been swift to publish commentaries on the potential rise of loneliness and tips on how to combat it in lockdown. The effects of this global pandemic are equally emotional as they are economic. Common across the advice is the urge to talk about and share your emotions. But for something supposedly so universal, and so universally commented on, loneliness is a feeling that is hard to define.
In this contemporary portrayal of loneliness’ universality, and as an ‘epidemic’ in late modernity, have we done away with the complexity of the emotion itself? By looking at some literary references to loneliness from the seventeenth to twentieth century, we can begin to see the complexities and difficulties associated with defining loneliness.
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The UK government’s 2018 loneliness strategy (predictably, given its purpose) reinforces the connection of loneliness with contemporary modern society with reference to rising social media usage and the effects of technology on working conditions. But within this strategy is a point which provides a connection with the longer history of understanding loneliness as an emotional, rather than purely physical, state. The strategy notes that certain ‘trigger points’, such as bereavement or moving to a new city, make an individual more at risk of loneliness. Considering loneliness in reference to certain ‘triggers’ goes to the heart of the difficulties in defining it as an emotional state.
As an emotion of absence, loneliness is often described in reference to its trigger, what is missing, or what it is connected to. The original ‘trigger point’ for loneliness was a relatively simple and singular one, and one perhaps keenly felt in our current moment: a distanced removal from society. Loneliness was seen as a physical rather than an emotional state in the seventeenth century, attributed to ‘oneliness’ or the state of being by oneself. Whilst associated with a negative sense of desolation, to be ‘lonely’ was a distinctly physical state of being quite different from our modern conceptions of feeling lonely. Thomas Blount defines ‘Vnison [unison]’ in his 1656 Glossogrophia as ‘an one; an oneliness, or loneliness, a single or singleness’. Here loneliness is purely the state of being alone rather than a feeling of isolation. This state of being alone also developed connotations of a more positive feeling of ‘loneliness’ where one could commune with God or nature, which ultimately resulted in a creative or religious productivity.
Defining loneliness became more complex when it shifted from the physical state of isolation to becoming an involuntary feeling that could be felt within the throws of society itself in the eighteenth century. Samuel Johnson noted in the Rambler in 1751 that:
Every man might, for the same reason, in the multitudes that swarm about him, find some kindred mind with which he could unite in confidence and friendship; yet we see many struggling single about the world, unhappy for want of an associate, and pining with the necessity of confining their sentiments to their own bosoms.
For Johnson, ‘struggling single’ is inherently linked to a lack of company that is not borne out of choice. In a world where a person should easily find their kindred spirit within the multitude, to be alone is associated with feelings of absence and unhappiness. Notably, the feeling of being ‘single’, is defined with reference to other emotions: unhappiness for the want of an associate, pining as a result of holding one’s feelings to oneself. While Johnson does not explicitly call this ‘loneliness’, we can begin to see the formations of our contemporary notions of loneliness in this configuration and weaving together of various emotions.
In a novel that combines a global pandemic and the devastating effects of loneliness, Mary Shelley combines this history of loneliness as both a physical and emotional state in her extreme version of ‘loneliness’ at the end of The Last Man, describing Lionel Verney as the last survivor in a world ravaged by a plague. After the deaths of Adrian and Clara, his only other fellow survivors, Lionel comes to the realization that he is alone:
I am alone in the world—but that expression as yet was less pregnant with misery, than that Adrian and Clara are dead. […] Thus the sentiment of immediate loss in some sort decayed, while that of utter, irremediable loneliness grew on me with time.
There are echoes of our contemporary ‘trigger points’ here: Lionel’s loneliness is certainly the result of his bereavement. Shelley spends time trying to define loneliness, documenting the transition from the physical state of being ‘alone in the world’ to an emotional state of loneliness as the aftermath of the immediate sense of loss. Lionel pairs being ‘alone’ with other emotions: ‘double sorrow’, a ‘sleepless sense of woe’, ‘throes of agony’. The reference to ‘pregnant’ here is also key, relating to the long gestation of loneliness, ultimately becoming all-consuming and attaching itself to other emotions rather than an immediate emotional response.
As Joseph Conrad once noted, loneliness bears an ever-changing face: ‘Who knows what true loneliness is – not the conventional word but the naked terror? To the lonely themselves it wears a mask.’ When looking at the developing definitions of loneliness after the word’s first appearance, it is perhaps right that the feeling of loneliness defies any ‘conventional word’: it needs other emotions to help place and define it. Loneliness, paradoxically, is not a lonely emotion.
- Mary Shelley, The Last Man
- Fay Bound Albert, A Biography of Loneliness
- Leroy Rouner (ed.), Loneliness
- John Sitter, Literary loneliness in mid-eighteenth-century England
- Tiffany Watt Smith, The Book of Human Emotions: An Encyclopaedia of Feeling from Anger to Wanderlust
From the History of Emotions Blog
- Tom Lee, Loneliness 12 June 2018
- Geoff Mulgan, On the politics of well-being and loneliness 13 March 2018
Other online sources
- Barbara Taylor, ‘Are we more lonely than our ancestors?’ BBC Radio 3 Free Thinking
- David Vincent, ‘Loneliness: the making of a modern pandemic’ Solitudes Blog, 21 March 2019
- Amelia Worsley, ‘A history of loneliness’ The Conversation, 19 March 2018