Unwanted solitude is one of the most painful situations that people experience, and the great books about loneliness explore the depths of suffering that isolation can bring. The need for community and companionship is a powerful motivator, spurring characters to take drastic actions to remedy their isolation. Hungry for human friendship, characters in great books about loneliness often sink into despair or latch onto any and every possible savior that they can find.
However, rather than merely allowing readers to wallow in pity, great books about loneliness explore both the causes and the effects of loneliness. Sometimes solitude is the result of unfortunate circumstances. Other great books about loneliness explore those souls for whom loneliness is a natural consequence of personal choices; some characters isolate themselves in a quest for personal perfection, for example. Whatever the cause of isolation, however, great books about loneliness explore the impact of this common situation.
#1 – Jane Eyre
Whenever great books about loneliness are discussed, Jane Eyre is sure to be included. From an early age, Jane Eyre’s life has been marked by loneliness, beginning with her friendless childhood with cruel relatives. After earning a job as a governess at Thornfield Hall, Jane still feels the pain of isolation but quickly befriends the inhabitants of the house. However, after falling in love with the master of the house, Jane cannot stay and must leave her peaceful solace.
#2 – The Great Gatsby
F. Scott Fitzgerald
Jay Gatsby is a man of excess, living in a rich part of New York City and constantly throwing extravagant parties in an attempt to catch the attention of an old sweetheart, Daisy. Despite Gatsby’s wealth, however, he is a lonely man who has no real friends to call his own. When he finally does get Daisy’s attention, the rekindling of his old romance has disastrous consequences.
#3 – The Catcher in the Rye
Many great books about loneliness, including The Catcher in the Rye, examine the lives of those who are isolated by their thoughts rather than by physical barriers. Holden Caulfield, a rebellious teenager, struggles to find his identity and place in life. After getting expelled from his private school, Holden wanders aimlessly through New York City, dancing with tourists and attempting to hold a conversation with a prostitute.
#4 – 1984
The search for truth, freedom and other metaphysical goals is often the cause of isolation in many great books about loneliness. Winston Smith is a simple man who yearns for the truth in a dystopian future where free thinking has been eliminated. Winston’s lonely life ends abruptly when he meets Julia, another individual who seeks to know the truth behind their country’s tyrannical government.
#5 – The Little Prince
Antoine de Saint-Exupery
This French classic about loneliness is narrated by a pilot who crashes in the middle of the Sahara desert and meets a lonely young prince from another world. After the narrator draws some pictures for the boy, the two become friends. The prince explains to the pilot that he has been traveling the universe, seeking friendship but ultimately coming into contact with a series of isolated adults who have little to offer the boy.
#6 – Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
Jonathan Safran Foer
After losing his father in the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, young Oskar Schell is caught in a world of loneliness and sadness. One day, Oskar discovers a mysterious key in his father’s closet, labeled only with a last name. Oskar sets out to locate every person in New York City with that name, hoping to find the owner of the key.
#7 – Frankenstein
In this cautionary tale about ambition and loneliness, Victor Frankenstein narrates his life’s story, beginning with his growing interest in science at a young age. After the death of his mother, Victor conceives of a way to create life in non-living matter, ultimately leading to the creation of a monster with no name. Victor’s rejection of the creature soon leads to tragedy.
#8 – The Bell Jar
This semi-autobiographical work follows the journey of Esther Greenwood, a woman who moves to New York City for a job but quickly finds herself overwhelmed by her new environment. After returning home to Boston, Esther finds herself falling into isolation; she makes several attempts at suicide, a common occurrence in great books about loneliness.
#9 – Persuasion
Jane Austen wrote many great books about loneliness, including Persuasion. Anne Elliot feels isolated and alone in her family. When she was 19, she was forced to break off her engagement to Frederick Wentworth due to his lower class. Years later, however, Frederick returns into her life with status and wealth, but social obstacles prevent the couple from achieving immediate happiness.
#10 – The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
John Singer, deaf and mute, struggles for acceptance in a small town in Georgia after his roommate of 10 years is forced into an institution. John finds himself becoming a confidant for many of the town’s residents, including the musically inclined Mick Kelly and an alcoholic social agitator, Jake Blount. The pains of disappointment and loss isolate the characters from each other despite their close physical proximity, a common theme in many great books about loneliness.