Loneliness: An Exploration in Art and Fiction

Although loneliness is often brought up when discussing isolation, they do not hold the same meaning. Isolation, as defined in the Cambridge Dictionary, is “the condition of being alone, especially when this makes you feel unhappy”. 

On the other hand, loneliness is usually interpreted as “the state of being lonely” or the state of being “unhappy because you are not with other people”. While both words are defined differently, isolation has been shown to result in loneliness for some individuals. Individuals who are in the state of loneliness can suffer from severe negative impacts when they are involuntarily isolated. Therefore, although isolation emphasises on the physical state of being alone and loneliness can be considered the emotional aftermath of isolation, both are still closely connected.

Isolation and loneliness have both been often explored in a fictional sense, with detailed analyses being conducted for both as subjects or literary themes. Research has even been carried out to investigate the capabilities of certain forms of media, such as short stories, in capturing the seclusion and solitude found in real life events. It is in art and fiction that we find truths reflected in our surroundings, so let us see what we can discover in art and fiction today!

Nighthawks by Edward Hopper

Edward Hopper is an American painter well-known for his painting Nighthawks (1942). What remains the same throughout many of his paintings, is a realistic style that still manages to highlight the “strangeness of familiar surroundings”.

Numerous interpretations have been written concerning Hopper and his artworks, with one notable interpretation appearing in Olivia Laing’s book The Lonely City, which describes Laing’s prior experiences with loneliness in New York City that she explicates through art.  What stood out for Laing in Hopper’s Nighthawks included the washed out colours that she describes as “inextricably associated with the nocturnal city of glass towers, empty illuminated offices and neon signs”. 

There is sense to that claim. The largeness of cities can be found through the bustling hub of activity that are usually found in office towers during the day. These same spaces go through metamorphosis by night, becoming quiet and uninhabited (if we assume that there is no frustrated individual working overtime). Besides pale moonlight, the only other form of illumination offered would be by electric lights, which colour the empty offices in artificial shades of white. These man-made sources of light often appear harsh and detached from reality compared to sunlight, which feels natural and genuine. Hopper represents this by painting the walls and shadows green in grim geometric shapes, to which Laing writes, “there is no shade in existence that more powerfully communicates urban alienation than this noxious pallid green, which only came into being with the advent of electricity”.

Another point Laing noted in Nighthawks was the presence of the window, which curves elegantly away from the viewer. It should be noted that no door is painted and that the sealed window is the main element that separates the viewer from people depicted in the painting. Glass, as Laing mentions, represents loneliness. The absence of a door implies that the viewer is being left alone in the dark streets. Just as the viewer can look in through the window to get a complete and unhindered view of the people in the diner or the nighthawks, the see-through quality of glass hints that the nighthawks can gaze back at the viewer as well. With the lack of a door and with the window obstructing the way, it becomes clearer that the viewer is unable to join or interact with the nighthawks, thus amplifying the viewer’s vulnerability and loneliness caused by isolation.

To gain a more comprehensive understanding of Nighthawks, it would be helpful to get to know Hopper and his beliefs. Hopper’s artworks and style were influenced by European Romanticism and Symbolism, but he took liberties in deviating from these specific styles so that his work resembled that of Gustave Courbet, one of his inspirations. The 1920s, a decade also known as the Jazz Age, was a time where sociocultural vigour was widely promoted. While American lifestyles back then were draped in glitz and glamour, Hopper’s works reflected solitude and the loneliness that became more impactful, precisely because of the time they were created. Nowadays, Hopper is still regarded as a painter who is able to capture a specific American identity that opposes American optimism.

To Your Eternity by Ōima Yoshitoki

Hopper aside, Ōima Yoshitoki is a Japanese manga artist whose work To Your Eternity examines the themes of isolation and loneliness. She does this through Fushi, an immortal being who learns what it means to be human by interacting with the people around him. Fushi experiences loneliness because of his immortality, a popular theme in fiction where it sometimes ultimately ends up becoming a curse for the character involved, which is true in Fushi’s case. 

In the series, it always begins with Fushi meeting a stranger, getting acquainted, and finally becoming firm friends with them. Naturally, time and unpredictable circumstances do occur along the way. As it is for many fictional immortals, Fushi’s friends end up leaving him, whether intentionally or otherwise. While he maintains a largely calm facade over the years, the feeling of continuously being left behind takes a toll on him. As reported by the BBC, a hermit noted that “when you’re alone, you start to lose your sense of who you are”. This is the same for Fushi.

At some point, he becomes convinced that to save everyone in the world from pain, he must isolate himself from civilisation. By isolating himself from society, lack of interaction with anyone else causes Fushi’s emotional and mental development to come to a screeching halt. It may have even negatively impacted his social skills as he remains awkward when interacting with others for a considerable amount of time after rejoining society. He also often struggles to comprehend other characters’ motives and actions. This could be in line with the concept of symbolic interactionism. Fushi is unable to develop his identity or a complete sense of humanity due to lack of opinions and feelings exchanged with others, causing him to lack understanding of himself or social norms. 

Another factor that unceremoniously dumped Fushi into the depths of loneliness is change. Technically, this is a factor that also branches from Fushi’s immortality. Even so, change remains as a core component that’s commonly revisited in the series. When his initial plan of estranging himself from society does not work out, Fushi strives to become stronger and more powerful so that he will be able to save everyone. When his friends offer to aid him, he opts to keep most of the stress and worry to himself. It’s fair to say the world is on his shoulders. Such a heavy burden would be unimaginable for anyone unless you happen to be the Titan Atlas. Before, he physically isolated himself out of a perceived need, but this time he isolates himself mentally and emotionally. He is always caught up in his own thoughts, ideas and endless anxiety, rarely being around with any of his friends. 

Alas, any casual reader will see that his coping strategies are evidently unsustainable. Ironically enough, he is frightened of being alone. He is afraid of change, that his friends will be unhappy, that they will leave him, that he will have to spend ages without company. Ironically, Fushi’s loneliness, tragically enough, is inflicted by himself. However, his actions may be reasonable when the reader contemplates Fushi’s reasons for not communicating meaningfully with his friends. He does not want to share his thoughts or feelings with them because he is certain that they wouldn’t understand. How could they ever understand the loneliness of immortality when they can never experience it for themselves?

In a nutshell, Hopper’s Nighthawks may give some the peace of mind that solitude brings, but for others it could present a picture of loneliness. Through its depictions of physical proximity between its subjects and the viewer, as well as the contrast between size of space and individuals, it tackles the unintended seclusion that comes with living in a large city. As for To Your Eternity, a line from British TV series Doctor Who might be appropriate for Fushi’s situation: “It’s funny. The day you lose someone isn’t the worst — at least you’ve got something to do. It’s all the days they stay dead.” To Your Eternity takes into account the way differences can isolate us from others. It illustrates dealing with challenging and subjective themes of loss, change, fear and loneliness. It looks into memories and what it means to be human. Ultimately, the series proposes the question of how we deal with loneliness and find the means to continue living after the passing of a loved one.

In this day and age, loneliness runs rampant all over the world. It can affect anyone regardless of age.  Studies have disclosed that 1 out of 10 individuals are lonely, and social isolation during the pandemic has escalated the issue. As there is a very thin line between solitude and loneliness, it would be a grave mistake to casually disregard the root of the issue — isolation. Nighthawks and To Your Eternity demonstrates that even when living in a world constantly stuck in a state of hustle and bustle, it can still be easy to end up isolated or lonely due to a range of factors. It would be ideal if we are capable of looking out for ourselves and for our loved ones, because loneliness is the kind of predicament that creeps up on one instead of happening instantly overnight. As singer-songwriter Fiona Apple mentions, “when you’re surrounded by all these people, it can be lonelier than when you’re by yourself. You can be in a huge crowd, but if you don’t feel like you can trust anyone or talk to anybody, you feel like you’re really alone”.

By: Jia Xuan

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