Writing is one of few pursuits that not only tolerates but urges a bit of isolation. It’s happy ground for the introvert, and fertile territory for the mind that operates best alone. Writing truthfully requires an observer’s eye – the wallflower’s shyness, the recluse’s hesitancy – but the quiet cast of personalities that produce notable works often falls short when it comes to transcending from author to protagonist. More often than not, the common protagonist is more gregarious, and more involved somehow in the larger framework of the novel’s world.
If the typical protagonist mirrored the life of many of our favorite hermits – Sigmund Freud, Roald Dahl, Agatha Chrisite – creating a compelling narrative would prove a tricky task. Although many, myself included, adore novels that meditate on a single scene (Virginia Woolf’s The Waves for instance) or ones that are solipsistic in nature (Dostoevsky’s Underground Man), this tends to be a fictional anomaly, trumped by action-packed plots and complex webs of characters and social interactions. Introversion, “is a low-level, lingering, nebulous feeling, hard to turn into a story or drama,” as a Guardian article puts it. “It has none of the pathos or narrative momentum of major life events like love, loss, illness and grief. Shy characters are not born protagonists; they are too passive to propel stories along.”
That’s not to say, however, that we haven’t been dealt a handful of inspiring books with introverted protagonists. These characters, when they do make an appearance in literature, are insightful and perceptive beyond their pages. They reflect the nature of the author, acting as a sort of scientist critically observing and parsing apart the phenomenon of human interaction. They offer a micro-biology take on what it is to be human and, painfully, what it means to feel a sharp distance between the self and the enveloping world. For the text book introvert, learning about these books and their authors provides a channel for empathy and better understanding of ourselves.
David Foster Wallace’s Consider the Lobster
Wallace, as anyone ready to slap a post-modernist with the lofty brick that is Infinite Jest, probably knows a thing or two about the author’s difficult past. Struggling with depression and addiction for over twenty years, Wallace was familiar with isolation. As with many writers, his solitude was deliberately sanctioned off and desired, but for Wallace it was also a mounting source of interest. Close friend Mark Costello once said, “plainly, Dave, as a guy and a writer, had a lifelong horror/fascination with the idea of a mind sealed off.” This horror/fascination bred genius fiction. Monster masterpiece aside, his shorter essays offer equally valuable insight to the whirling mind of an introvert. The essay at the forefront, Consider the Lobster, lays out in exquisite details a Maine Lobster festival, seeing that every face, scene, and grotesque butter licking lip is accounted for. The attention to detail and social interaction is pretty remarkable, and definitely relatable for the fly on the wall ethnographer type.
Emily Dickinson’s The Selected Poems
Throughout her upbringing and career, Dickinson spent increasing amounts of time in isolation. Although she was initially drawn into solitude by domestic duties, she ultimately favored her four cornered room that kept her separated from the rest of the world. According to her sister, “Emily chose this part and, finding the life with her books and nature so congenial, continued to live it.” Her poems capture the untamed imaginative musings that isolation seems to nourish, an appreciation for detail, the ability to be moved by even the smallest of them and, overwhelmingly, a pervading sense of calm. Her work offers a version of isolation free of stigma and hitched instead to ideas of boundless creativity and an active mind.
Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way
Although anything said about Proust will inevitably fail to do his work justice, I will say his protagonist does a wonderful job of bringing the reader into his head. Transported, we drop into the simplest of memories – even as banal as the taste of a sponge cookie – with detail so incredible we can’t help but feel just as affected by minuscule details. Like DFW or Dickinson, attention to detail seems to be a trademark of the introverted author. Proust too, was fond of his alone time, spending some 17 years in near complete isolation with his novels. Much like Swan’s Way demands many thoughtful hours from the reader, many more hours of slow thoughts, mulled over and dissected again and again, went into the author’s works. His withdrawal, although at times a harm to his health, led him into bouts of incessant writing in which he often went days without sleeping, so strong was his drive to write.
JK Rowling’s Harry Potter Series
As a known introvert, not too many people know that Rowling began Harry Potter while traveling alone from Manchester to London. Too shy to ask to borrow a pen from her neighbor, she “simply sat and thought, for four (delayed train) hours, while all the details bubbled up in my brain,” she recalls. “This scrawny, black-haired, bespectacled boy who didn’t know he was a wizard became more and more real to me.” You can see her own inclination towards seclusion mirrored in Harry, who, in terms of family, feels a sense of solitude, but also excels under the hanging accountability that this same solitude fosters.
Virginia Woolf’s The Waves
Woolf’s six characters – Bernard, Neville, Rhoda, Louis, Susanne, and Jinny – although often coming together in chorus, live lives of relative isolation. Spanning from their child years to adulthood, each character is solipsistic in nature, preoccupied with other characters but never penetrating a climactic, depthful intimacy with another. The novel looks at the beauty of the interior, and the difficulty of internal thoughts transcending to the outside world. It prioritizes the introversion of experience over explanation, as the latter tends to do the prior a disservice. This favoring of isolation over explanation reflects the author’s own mentality. Woolf spent large spans of time alone and had a difficult time communicating, verbally, the rich creative blooms and depressive states she often fell into. Through her work, she is able to capture her own feelings of remoteness and internal flourishing in a way that frames solitude as a creative blessing rather than a burden.
Do you have another favorite? Share it with us in the comments.
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