Ah, Look at All the Lonely People
Loneliness is unfortunately something most people have encountered at some point in their life. Throughout the history of literature and art, loneliness has been a theme that is commonly explored. It has been a central theme in many movies, books, songs, and other works of art. Aloneness is a theme developed through the book, The Catcher in the Rye, the movie Death of a Salesman, and the song “Eleanor Rigby”. Although the theme is the same between these works, it is developed uniquely to each through the use of literary techniques (colloquial language, dramatic diction, paradox, etc.) to convey a theme and story focused on being lonely, and what life is like for those who are, in a way that is unique to each work.
The tale of the sarcastic and sadistic Holden Caulfield, the protagonist in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, is one focused primarily on the loneliness of an individual in the post World War II society. Catcher shares that theme with Death of a Salesman, as well as the fact that they both serve as a form of satire on a society changing faster than it is ready. In Catcher, the reader takes a trip inside the mind of a young man who is roughly seventeen years old; the reader hears all the thoughts and opinions of Holden, who is very critical of society and every single person in it. Caulfield continuously refers to people as “phonies” and always talking about people and their “phony parties” (Salinger 127) and finds it hard to like anything about people. Holden recognizes his loneliness but does not realize that it is his actions that cause it. He harshly judges people throughout the story and shuts himself off from the world and people without remorse. Holden is the only person to blame for his loneliness, he tries to counteract his lonely feelings by inviting a prostitute to his room in chapter 13 and begging her to stay, repeatedly saying, “ ‘Don’t you feel like talking for awhile?” (Salinger 95). Holden then tries to feel cared for when he resorts to inviting Sally Hayes to do something with him one afternoon, he had spoke only negative things about Sally throughout the novel yet he resolves to asking her to do something because he felt so lonely. As John Galt suggests in his article “Universal Values in Catcher in the Rye”: “Perhaps the greatest overall effect of Holden’s loneliness can be seen when he mentions that the only thing he wants to do with his life is to become the ‘Catcher in the Rye’.” (Galt 3), this opinion is very true in the sense that Holden and his disdain towards people, wants to help people with his life, and not feel so lonely, he would catch children all day and get recognized for it, and finally get the attention he has been craving the whole novel. Holden’s alienation finally becomes too much and he goes to see his sister Phoebe, one of very few people whom he does not dislike. He visits with her and towards the end of the novel he wants to leave and head out West, but falls ill and returns home where he ends the novel with a positive outlook on life, and feeling less lonely.
Salinger makes this theme of loneliness come alive by creating many different situations in which Holden’s inner feelings come out. Salinger describes these scenes by using colloquial language to make Holden appear as a normal person. Holden’s breakdowns are rare and unique. When he blew up in the novel, he made frequent comments about the world around him, making his loneliness ironic, he hates being lonely, but he hates everyone, a brilliant use of paradox by Salinger. Paradox is a common tool used in Catcher, the biggest one being that Holden feels lonely while in New York City, the most populated city in America, so Holden feels lonely with millions of people surrounding him. That is also a great use of setting by Salinger, taking a lonely teenage runaway and putting him in the most populated city, only to still feel lonely. In an episode of the hit television program Scrubs, the main character struggles with loneliness of his own and sums it up by saying, “I don’t think people are meant to be by themselves…because nothing sucks more than being alone, no matter how many people are around.” (“My T.C.W.”), that statement can also be applied to Holden and his current situation of feeling alone in the sense that, he is not enjoying life and is lonely, but he has millions of people surrounding him, which for most people, would not make you feel lonely. In his literary criticism of The Catcher in the Rye, Eberhard Alsen suggests that Holden Caulfield’s loneliness was necessary for this “young neurotic” so he could die a “figurative death” and be reborn as a “new, healthy, and responsible individual.” (Alsen 3). The use of paradox, language, and setting is what makes the theme of loneliness unique to Catcher, regardless of what Holden’s loneliness means.
Willie Loman is one of the well-known protagonists of American literature and theatre and is one of the best remembered as well. Death of a Salesman was originally a play intended for theatre, written by Arthur Miller but was made into a television movie directed by Volker Schlondorff and starred Dustin Hoffman. The story is about a salesman in the post-World War II society and the struggles he faces as his life goes on, and ultimately becomes meaningless. One of the crises Willie faces is loneliness. Although he is a salesman, meeting and greeting new people everyday, Willie suffers from lonely feelings as well as constant realistic flashbacks of his life and deals with the growing fact that times are changing, and Willie is not keeping up. People grow cold to Willy, especially at his job, as he is seen as old and outdated and ultimately being replaced by the newer, younger faces of the company. Willie’s wife, Linda, seems to be the only one who loves him genuinely throughout the movie, but that makes Willie feel guilty because he is cheating on her. Willie’s sons, Biff and Happy, are in a love/hate relationship with their father, there are moments where they treat him with respect, but there are numerous occasions that they talk poorly about him saying “Biff (to Linda): Stop making excuses for him! He always, always wiped the floor with you. Never had an ounce of respect for you.” (Miller 40). Linda references the fact that Willie has attempted to kill himself times preceding where the story starts, as she tells Biff and Happy about the sucker attached to the gas pipe in the garage. Willie’s car crash at the beginning of Act I foreshadows his eventual suicide at the end of Act II. The first major blow Willie takes is when he loses his job, Willie finally realizes he is not wanted and shouts, “You can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away-a man is not a piece of fruit!” (Schlondorff), stating that he feels used and now feels worthless, he only had one purpose and once that was gone, so was he, like the peel of an orange. Willie’s suicidal tendencies stem from the thought (in his mind) that he is losing everything, so that must mean he is losing even the love of those who used to adore him. Willie crashes his car at the end of Act II, killing himself. Only his wife, two sons, and neighbor Charley attend his funeral, making the theme of loneliness and isolation come full circle.
Through the use of setting and dramatic dialogue, Schlondorff creates a vivid story of a lonely man from Miller’s already vivid play. Schlondorff uses setting by making Willie’s funeral dark, almost a black and white color, with the sun going down in the back and making the few characters attending the funeral the main focus up front, a beautifully dark and gloomy picture. Ironically, Willie sees being a salesman as the “hero of American drama, the embodiment of the American Dream” (Mexico 1) and Willie had big dreams of hundreds of people at his funeral, like his friend and old salesman, Dave Singleman. Willie relays this vision in a conversation with his boss, Howard, “by describing a well-loved and successful salesman” (Mexico 1). It appears as though Willie lives his life as one giant wish and dream that shattered sooner than expected. Through that use of dramatic dialogue between Willie and his boss about Dave, he helps to convey that Willie hates being alone and wishes to be loved by everybody, just like every person in the world, nobody wants to be lonely, but everybody wants to be loved. Loneliness rings loud in Death of a Salesman through Schlondorff’s use of setting and dramatic dialogue and scenes to convey a unique view of the theme.
The most obvious theme of loneliness out of these three works is in the Beatles’ song “Eleanor Rigby” from the album Revolver. Although “Eleanor Rigby” shares a lot with Death of a Salesman and The Catcher in the Rye in terms of what the main subject is, the themes of loneliness and despair and false reality are uniquely developed in the song just as they were in the previous two works. The song is about an elderly woman named Eleanor, who is so lonely that she finds herself picking up “the rice in a church where a wedding was held” saying that she “lives in a dream” much like Willie Loman in Death of a Salesman. The song talks about Father Mackenzie and a sermon he is writing that “no one will hear” (McCartney); he is writing the sermon to be said at Eleanor Rigby’s funeral, which nobody attends. The song says that Eleanor Rigby is “buried at the church with only her name” (McCartney) meaning she died alone, not married, she was all by her lonesome. Father Mackenzie’s sermon was heard by him and only him, and he had to bury Eleanor, hence why the song says “wiping the dirt from his hands” (McCartney), another lonely person, another lonely death.
Repetition is the key technique of conveying the “loneliness” of the people mentioned in the song, with the repeating lines of “all the lonely people, where do they all come from? All the lonely people, where do they all belong?” (McCartney) obviously implies that there are a lot of lonely people in the world, but nowhere to go. Eleanor seems like a helper at the church where Father Mackenzie is a priest. Possibly a custodian because she “picks up the rice after weddings and she died in the church” (“Eleanor Rigby”), so she obviously helped out but had nobody to be with. Father Mackenzie was a priest at the church but nobody came to his sermons so he was lonely as well, but neither one of them can do anything about it since he is a priest. So the loneliness cycle continues. The repetition of the lines about lonely people are what convey the specific theme differently than the previous two works (Catcher in the Rye and Death of a Salesman), and McCartney’s melodic rhythms to the words make the theme of loneliness stick out more in this song than in the previous two works.
Loneliness is a common theme among literature and art, but is not as widely developed as it is in The Catcher in the Rye, Death of a Salesman, and “Eleanor Rigby”. All three works convey and exploit the theme better than any other work of literature or art because of the literary elements used and to the extent that which they were used. All the while conveying and explicating a theme so deep and personal, each work still held onto its originality and uniqueness.
Alsen, Eberhard. “Catcher in the Rye.” Contemporary Literary Criticism. 243rd ed. 2008.
“Eleanor Rigby.” Entry Points. 16 Apr. 2008
Galt, John. “Universal Values in ‘The Catcher in the Rye.'” Associated Content. 5 Oct. 2007. 6 Apr. 2008
McCartney, Paul. “Eleanor Rigby” Revolver. Abbey Road Studios, 1966.
Mexico, Roger. “Characters and Theme’s of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.” Associated Content. 20 Aug. 2007. 6 Apr. 2008
Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. New York City: Dramatists Play Service Inc., 1948.
“My T.C.W..” Scrubs. NBC. KJRH, Tulsa. 20 Mar. 2003.
Salinger, J.D. The Catcher in the Rye. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1945.
Schlondorff, Dir. Volker. Death of a Salesman. 1985. Bioskop Film.