Everyone's doing it. So why do we still have loner-phobia?

January 17, 2013

The old lady, who lived alone in the woods, took in Hansel and Gretel not to help them. She wanted to eat them. And we all know Norman Bates wasn't normal. The innkeeper in the classic horror film Psycho kept his dead mother in a rocking chair in his house on the hill. He was single, too. Of course.

Now consider Batman. He's weird, too. And a loner. But he's heroic. His mostly solo life – he did have his valet, Alfred, after all – helped him focus on fighting evil. Good witches, who wanted to help children rather than eat them, also lived on their own. Same with oracles and certain saints.

Today, the solo life may be more actively pursued, accepted and facilitated, but the cultural imagination is still rooted in history – when the person who lived alone was stereotyped as someone to be feared or revered. Or both. With Census data in 2012 confirming that more Canadians are living alone, one would think that would have changed. But it seems as though the collective imagination has some catching up to do with the collective reality.

Historically, it's no wonder we assigned extreme character traits to people who chose to live alone. They were an anomaly in any society that promoted marriage, an expectation fulfilled by the majority. Think of poor Edith in the period drama Downton Abbey. A woman in her era who wasn't betrothed or married by her early 20s wept in her handkerchief about being a spinster, a pejorative term for the unwanted.

But with so many people putting off marriage, not marrying at all, or divorcing, it's no longer odd to be single. Not only that, we live in an iLife culture that encourages everyone to dance to the beat of her own drum, not to mention her preferred music. Facebook and Twitter are nothing if not tools of extreme solipsism.

So where are the happy, well-adjusted singletons in popular culture? For the women on the HBO series Girls, being single is a plot device, a rite of anxiety-ridden passage that won't last. (The out-of-left-field marriage of the bohemian character, Jessa, to that creepy venture capitalist is an expression of her instability, not her maturity.) It's implied that once they figure themselves out, they'll stop getting naked at the drop of a text and revel in a stable relationship. Carrie Mathison, Clare Danes's character in Homeland, is single, but she's on meds and more than a little obsessive.

And I don't need to remind you that Hollywood's romantic comedies never end with the heroine choosing to dump the guy and return to her cool condo to happily make risotto for one. Her redemption always comes in the hug of a hunk.

Perhaps it's instructive to look at famous real-life singletons from the past who were cast as oddities. In many cases, their solitary lives weren't quite so strange or isolated as we have chosen to characterize them.

Rumours swirled about William Cavendish-Scott-Bentinck, the fifth Duke of Portland, because he liked his own company. It was said that he was disfigured or mad or that he held orgies. Sure, he does sound a bit strange. He was driven around in a coach with the blinds drawn and liked to walk alone in the night of London, led by a servant carrying a lantern 40 yards ahead. Could it be that people just couldn't get their heads around the fact that he liked to be alone?

As much as some historical loners have been wrongly demonized, others have been over-romanticized. Consider Emily Dickinson, the 19th-century poetess who lived a reclusive life in Amherst, Mass. We think of her as sweet and delicate, writing her poems about angels and nosegays and the birds that are her friends. It is often written that she wore only white dresses and spoke to people through closed doors. We want to think of her as an oracle of sorts, speaking poetic truths, unsullied by the world.

But the truth is, Dickinson was not a stranger to friendship, and she had more wardrobe favourites than white dresses. "I should not dare to leave my friend," reads one of her poems. And there's her infamous poem that begins "Wild night – Wild Nights!/Were I with thee/ Wild Nights should be/ Our luxury!" Such sexual suggestion (the imagery of snakes in the grass didn't hurt) has inspired many Dickinson scholars to speculate about her crushes – from reverends to a lesbian affair with her sister-in-law. Who knows?

Even the famous loner, Henry David Thoreau, was not as solitary as we like to think. The 19th-century poet, author and philosopher famously wrote about his life in a hut he built on Walden Pond as a need to have clarity on life without the distraction of others: "I went into the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."

It's true he was an intense soul. But he was a very sociable hermit. He described how he had three chairs in his dwelling – one for solitude, two for friendship and three for society. William Ellery Channing, a member of the Transcendentalist group, of which his mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson was the leader, would visit often. They would stroll along the shores of the pond to have dinner with the Emersons.

Maybe someone should do a docudrama about him, just to kick-start a new way of seeing characters who like to live alone. In 2010, Jerome Charyn imagined a walk-on-the-wild-side Emily in his novel, The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson. In his opening scene, Charyn has Dickinson looking out the window of the family homestead to a snowy landscape, lusting after the tattooed handyman, Tom.

She sounds very normal.

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