By the Book - Literary Life Lessons

By the Book #41 – Eleanor Rigby by Douglas Coupland

Everyone feels lonely from time to time. Eleanor Rigby by Douglas Coupland shows us what it is that gives our lives meaning.

“All the lonely people, where do they all belong?” These are the last lines of the famous Beatles song Eleanor Rigby, which is considered to be one of the first mainstream pop music songs about death and loneliness, in a time the charts were dominated by love songs. Douglas Coupland’s novel of the same name deals with loneliness and death, too, and tries to answer the question Paul McCartney asked us back in 1965. Want to know what it is about? Read on!

Eleanor Rigby is the story of Liz Dunne, who tells her audience about the life she’s had – or, to be more precise, about the life she isn’t really living. For Liz, in her own words, is a fat, bland, red-haired woman who claims to be one of the loneliest people alive, and who doesn’t contribute to society at all. Until one day, right after she sees the Hale-Bopp comet in the night sky, she is called by a hospital. It turns out that the son she had put up for adoption has grown up and is looking for her. Enter Jeremy, exit loneliness. At least, for a while…

There is a philosophical thought experiment which goes as follows: “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” One can argue that yes, of course there must have been a sound because a tree does not fall silently, but on the other hand, sound only exists when there is someone to receive its waves. Years ago, when I was a teenager and, as teenagers are wont to do, feeling quite sorry for myself, I wrote a similar thought in my notebook: “If a person is alive but there is nobody to notice them, do they exist?” I was reminded of that line while reading Coupland’s novel.

Eleanor Rigby is a book I wish I had read years earlier. It’s such a breath of fresh air to read about someone who isn’t necessarily accepted by society, who isn’t a gorgeous, perfect woman, or someone who spends her life helping out others. Instead, Liz Dunne is a woman who, to me, felt more real than other characters I’ve read about before. It felt like she gave a voice to all those people who aren’t special according to society’s standards, but who do deserve to tell their stories – even if they do not consider their lives meaningful enough, or if they are usually overlooked.

Giving meaning to one’s life and seeing are two important themes in Eleanor Rigby. At first Liz does not live a very meaningful life, but it all changes when she is reunited with Jeremy, the son she put up for adoption when she gave birth to him aged sixteen. He enters her life, and she takes care of him, and in doing so, he takes care of her, too; he makes her realise that she is not just an empty shell of a human being, and that she matters. Therefore, it can be argued that human connection is what gives our lives meaning, even if we weren’t really looking for it – even if we think we don’t need it.

The other important theme is vision, or seeing and being seen. Eleanor Rigby begins with Liz telling her audience about how her life changed when she saw the Hale-Bopp comet in the sky, because it gave her a sense of peace. While she is not a religious person, she saw the comet as a sign just for her, and she wanted to believe in it. Her son Jeremy regularly sees visions because of his advanced stage of MS; he doesn’t necessarily attach any value to it, but Liz is determined to see the things he sees, too, in order to keep his memory alive. Furthermore, it seems to me as though Liz and Jeremy are kind of ‘visions’ to each other, because for the first time in their lives they feel safe with and comforted by someone else. They see each other, even though others look right through them, and in doing so, their perspective of themselves is altered.

The plot of Eleanor Rigby is deceptively simple, but there are so many deeper layers to be found in it. For instance, it reminded me of the loneliness I feel from time to time – and that every single person in the world must occasionally feel. It also made me realise how our society is determined to make lonely people believe they’ve brought it on themselves; we are expected to be pretty, have a successful career, have a family, a perfect relationship, and so on. However, we should always bear in mind that there are people who have not completed all, or, indeed, any of those goals, but that does not mean we should ignore or refuse to see them.

So let’s return to The Beatles, when they sang “Ah, look at all the lonely people…” Let’s consider this line as a request; Eleanor Rigby (both the song and the novel) shows that world is full of them, yet they usually escape our awareness. However, they’re all here, on this world, and all of them must have some sense of fulfilment in their lives. If not, go take a good look around, locate the lonely people, and go and talk to them. Help them feel like they matter, make their lives meaningful.

I believe I finally have an answer to that question I wrote down in my notebook years ago: yes, people still exist even if nobody really sees them. We just need to look more closely.

What did you think of Eleanor Rigby? Do you feel like Liz personifies all the lonely people in the world? Do you think books like these can change your life? Do you think life is meaningful when there’s other people in it? Do you think we can “cure” loneliness by talking to people who are alone? Can we actually make a change in the world? Do let me know in the comments! Also, don’t forget to follow me for more book-related posts!

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