Ophelia and After: Inventing the
Lonely Literary Woman

Angela Qian on Vivian Gornick, Ottessa Moshfegh, Sayaka Murata, and More

The lonely woman has not fared well in the history of literature. Ophelia is the first character to whom Shakespeare applies the word “loneliness,” at the time a neologism to the English language. The scholar Amelia Worsley argues that in contrast to Hamlet, “‘loneliness’ is more apt to describe Ophelia … because she remains silent. Because Hamlet speaks aloud, he summons an audience.” While Hamlet is solitary, Ophelia is the one who is lonely.

Before there was loneliness, there was “oneliness.” Like its corollary “solitude,” “oneliness” in and of itself was not seen as undesirable, melancholic, or socially lacking. When “loneliness” began to make its first tentative appearances in the English lexicon, its first uses were to describe one’s vulnerability as they ventured away from society, to regions far from the help of others. Applying the word to Ophelia added new connotations. Worsley suggests it describes a new form of isolation, a gendered one in which silence is paramount. Shakespeare applies it to describe women who do not speak, even when among others. And when Ophelia winds up dead, it happens offstage, her silence as final as when she was living.

It is hardly surprising, then, that solitude (vocal) is preferred over loneliness (voiceless). The right of women to claim solitude has gone hand in hand with the feminist projects of female sexual and economic liberation. The result is that now, the single, independent woman is hardly a new trope in culture. Hardly silent, these women have a lot to say, filling entire books, from Doris Lessing’s iconic novel The Golden Notebook to Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman to Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays to Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying. With the rise of these narratives, far from being pitiable, the uncertainties of the life of the single woman were counterbalanced by her unimpeachable air of cool.

One critic, writing on Elizabeth Hardwick’s 1979 Sleepless Nights, describes Billie Holiday in aspirational terms: “[She] embodies the freedom and stylishness available to those who dare to live in a state of radical non-attachment… a space of occasionally melancholy disconnection, but also of thrilling independence.” In recent times, the free woman, the female bachelor, the liberated divorceé, and the spinster-by-choice, have only increased in popularity as a cultural subject: Sheila Heti’s How Should A Person Be, Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City, Kate Bolick’s Spinster, in which she proudly declares, “I never shall be an old maid, because I have elected to be a Girl Bachelor.” Marriage plots are out; Samantha Jones is in.

The data line up with this: The US Census reports a 10 percent increase in the percentage of women who have never married since 1950, even more significant given that the US population has more than doubled in that time. 53 percent of women today are unmarried. These days, of the 32.7 millions adults who live alone, 18 million are women. At this point, it is badass to be an independent woman.

The problem with the valorization of female independence is that is inherently shames women from being anything but.

Spoken and unspoken in these narratives is the fact that the liberation of women goes hand-in-hand with their ability to be capitalistically self-sufficient. In the last decade, this can be seen in the “Lean In” feminism espoused by Sheryl Sandberg and her corporate ilk, which purports to empower female workers and their individual ability to succeed in the marketplace. Women’s increased ability to finance their own (#)goals adds fuel to the narrative that they no longer need anyone else to get what they want.

On the surface, this seems to be a triumph for feminism, with empowered-single-woman narratives reaching wider and wider audiences. But this emphasis on the “freedom and stylishness” of the unattached woman erases the fact that, even now, the dominant narrative of such a woman does not allow room for weakness or failure. The problem with the valorization of female independence is that is inherently shames women from being anything but. About needs that cannot be met alone, women are expected to remain silent, and therefore lonely.

Similarly, the right of men to soliloquize the struggles of their solitude continues today. Haruki Murakami, for instance, is said to be a master craftsman of loneliness, but he only writes about lonely men, not lonely women. While Murakami’s characters are all isolated, his female characters must assert their strength and independence, their lack of need for anyone, least a man—or else they wind up dead.

Take Norwegian Wood and the contrast between the vivacious, independent Midori and the suffering, silent Naoko (who dies). The same binary exists in Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki, with the no-nonsense, forceful Sara and depressive, delusional Shiro (who also dies). The examples go on, but the point is the same. Murakami’s emotional landscapes have no room for lonely women who cannot cope. Their loneliness is a poison; Ophelia’s offscreen death occurs time and time again. It is only the men who are allowed to wallow in feelings of longing and lack, who can listen to jazz, drink whiskey and gaze mournfully at the moon, lost in the memory of lovers from time past. Reading many of the other so-called writers of alienation—Albert Camus, Patrick Modiano, even Patricia Highsmith—and you will find that they, too, default to a male universal. Their novels are full of disappeared, opaque women.

But recently, an emerging strain of stories has interrogated the pressure on women to remain silent.

*

Why might women choose to be alone? The answer is less obvious than it seems. In her 1972 essay “On the Third World of Women,” Susan Sontag cites Juliet Mitchell, who wrote that the nuclear family was the only social institution where unalienated personal relations were still permitted.

This is a necessary part of capitalism, she writes; in order to extract the maximum productivity out of its human workers, its people still require some token space for non-alienation outside of the machine of labor. Thus the nuclear family, a small, politically non-threatening unit, which must continue to exist in order for the mechanisms creating consumerist desire and demanding ever-increasing productivity to still run. And yet, Sontag notes, “virtually all known forms of the family define women in ways that subordinate them to men.” To remedy this, Sontag calls for the reconstruction of family life into “alternative institutions that will pioneer the development of a new praxis of group life.”

There is no widespread satisfactory model offered as a viable alternative to the two poles: nuclear family or solitude—that is to say, loneliness.

But no such alternative model of group life has become widespread. For the most part, those outside of the family model still go at it alone. One example comes from Vivian Gornick’s 1996 essay collection Approaching Eye Level, which describes Gornick’s involvement in the 70s feminist movement, during which she realized she could no longer settle for anything less than a love between equals. With that seemingly increasingly impossible (at least between a man and a woman) then “if that meant doing without I was prepared to do without”—an early rallying cry for spinsterhood over subordination. Her stout resolve was bolstered by the community of feminists around her, whom she viewed as her “company for life.”

But eventually the solidarity of the movement unraveled, and without her feminist community, she found urban life fragmented, that “without domestic companionship… daily connection was by no means a given.” Not satisfied to return to unequal relationships, but dissatisfied by the loneliness of a non-communal life, decades on, she wonders, “Who could have ever dreamed there would be so many of us floating around … who live alone … in possession of the most educated discontent in history.”

In the interests of still being seen as free, any obstacles the free woman encounters must be overcome alone. After all, if the narrative is that the independent woman is strong, capable, can and is proud of being able to do everything alone, then to admit needing help even once is to admit weakness and failure. The expectations enforced by empowered-single-woman narratives erases the fact that even now, there is no widespread satisfactory model offered as a viable alternative to the two poles: nuclear family or solitude—that is to say, loneliness.

In Nell Freudenberger’s novel Lost and Wanted, published this year, we meet Helen Clapp, the very archetype of one of those superhumanly successful career-and-family women: someone who has managed to have it all, and have it all alone. Helen is a tenured professor of physics at MIT, a successful popular science author, and a single mother by choice who selected the father through a cryobank.

How Helen escapes coming off as holier-than-thou is the cool honesty with which she admits the difficulty of her path. She takes her still-nursing son with her to a conference she doesn’t technically need to go to, and as she pumps milk in the car she admits to herself, ”The fact is that I like doing things the hard way. I’d turned down an epidural at the birth for the same reason… because I wanted to prove something to myself.”

The more emphasis is placed on the ability of women, and the greater the levels of competence women show themselves capable of, the greater, too, the burden of proof lies on them to show that they can do everything, and the greater the stakes if they “fail.” If women choose this self-sufficient independence, we must make our peace with giving up the right to be lonely, because to be lonely is to imply lack. The solution, then, is to continue to deny that there are needs that are not being met. In an essay this summer published by The Paris Review, CJ Hauser writes in the aftermath of a broken engagement, “There is nothing more humiliating to me than my own desires. Nothing that makes me hate myself more than being burdensome and less than self-sufficient … I told myself: who are you to complain, you with these frivolous extracurricular needs?”

*

The inconvenience of need is depicted, too, by the snarling narrators of Ottessa Moshfegh’s novels. In My Year of Rest and Relaxation, the unnamed narrator, an independently wealthy, beautiful, disaffected young woman, tells her best friend, whose mother is dying of cancer, “You’re needy. Sounds frustrating.” But as she herself prepares to go into a year-long pill-induced hibernation, she tells her psychiatrist, “I want downers, that much I know… And I want something that’ll put a damper on my need for company.”’

A damper on my need for company. For despite herself, our narrator cannot help but seek worldly attachment. She describes the “romantic urge” that resurfaces over and over with Trevor, her first and only, ex-boyfriend, a finance bro who unashamedly asks her for head in the back of company cabs, talks down to her about her “emotional development,” mansplains topics like Zeno’s Paradox and is overcome by his own generosity the few times he has “knelt at the altar,” meaning gone down on her. He is a loser and a moron, the narrator admits, but she can’t stop herself from calling him back. How to fix herself? She seals her phone in Tupperware, locks her doors, and gets the drugs to put herself into a state of ceaseless, narcotic oblivion, drugging the want out of her.

This arc of identifying and then killing a desire for company parallels the one in Moshfegh’s earlier novel, Eileen, in which her titular main character remarks, “A grown woman is like a coyote—she can get by on very little.” As Eileen reflects on her isolated youth in the miserable town of X-Ville, she recalls, “I’d mourn the lack of love and warmth in my life, wish on stars for angels to come and pluck me from my misery.” But does future Eileen get what she wants? Despite hints of a glamorous life of the lovers and city life in the ensuing decades, it seems Eileen wound up where she started, but has learned to make her peace with it. “I learned the long way about love, tried every house on the block before I got it right,” she says dismissively from a vantage point of years in the future. “Now, finally, I live alone.”

*

Both Moshfegh’s novels show the pressure on women living in a world where their needs can’t be met, and attempting to reach for the ideal state of having no needs at all. Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman tells the story of a woman who achieves the blessed state without trying. The novel follows Keiko Furukura, a woman in her mid-thirties whose only job has been working a minimum-wage job at a Japanese convenience store for the last 18 years. She is single, has never had a boyfriend, never had sex. Nor does she want any of that. Instead, she feels fully satisfied with her function as a “normal cog in society.”

In her own words, every cell in her body exists for the convenience store: the sleep schedule and “feed” she prepares for herself so she can stand for her long shifts, the nails she kept clipped short, the walk she takes to work to analyze consumer needs in the neighborhood.

Furukura is the pinnacle of the development of the independent woman, a late capitalism wet dream of an optimally efficient worker who has successfully transcended any feeling of personal lack by trading her womanhood for a labor function. “Here in the convenience store we’re not men and women,” she says bracingly. “We’re all store workers.”

Happy ending, right? Not exactly. As Worsley wrote of Ophelia, whose sexual purity is questioned and picked at over and over, “A lone woman, in the eyes of a patriarchal society, is often a guilty woman.” Furukura is happy with her unconventional life, but she is constantly badgered by acquaintances asking her why she doesn’t want a better job or a husband. To get them off her back, she allows a man to live with her—Shiraha, an embittered male incel coworker, who was fired for stalking a female customer and is on the run for not paying his rent. Shiraha is all too happy to sleep in Furukura’s bathtub. To mold herself to the image of a respectable young couple planning to start a family she and Shiraha are attempting to portray, Furukura decides to quit her convenience store job to look for less physical work.

And indeed, though Furukura broadcasts Shiraha’s many flaws, everyone in her life is excited to welcome her into the fold of “normal people.” Her sister is only too excited to visit Shiraha and scold him, prompting Furukura to realize that her sister was “far happier thinking her sister is normal, even if she has a lot of problems, than she is having an abnormal sister for whom everything is fine.” Once her manager, with whom she’d had pleasantly efficient work-related chats until then, starts asking after her “relationship,” Furukura laments, “It felt like he’d downgraded me from store worker to female of the human species.”

But at the end of the novel, she revolts against Shiraha’s plans. “It probably is convenient to have you around,” she tells him—it is what’s keeping her friends and family quiet—but after all, the convenience store worker in her has simply no use for him.

He shouts, “You’re not human!”

“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you!” Furukura thinks—before going back to work, back to the convenience store and out of her life trying to exist as a woman. For her, the happy alternative to the dissatisfactions of social life is the comfort provided by unadulterated labor. Furukura doesn’t have to choose between traditional social pressures or the silence of loneliness. Her triumph is won by her dismissal of her gender, her denial that she is a human at all. She is purely a worker, in need of nothing.

Angela Qian
Angela F. Qian
Angela F. Qian is a writer and translator. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming from The Common, Gay, Catapult, Glass: A Journal of Poetry and others. She co-curated The Sweet & Sour Readings in New York City.





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