If you’re feeling a little lonely in the midst of COVID-19, well, you are not alone. I’ve watched with interest some of the news coverage about people struggling with feelings of loneliness and isolation. Social distancing has been hard for many people, and yet I can’t help but marvel at how lucky we are to be living in the Age of Technology. The internet, cell phones, television, FaceTime, zoom, and other communication advances have helped many of us feel connected in a time of disconnection. Imagine how isolated people must have felt during the Spanish flu in 1918.
Feeling lonely is nothing new. It’s part of the human condition and has been around for as long as we have. Loneliness is not necessarily an external condition, but an internal one. With that in mind, for my second COVID-19 post (read my first here), I’m recommending three of my favorite classic tales in literature that deal with themes of isolation. I’ve focused on the decade of the Spanish flu, a pandemic eerily like the one we’re living through now. All three books are in the public domain, and you can read them for free thanks to Project Gutenberg.
Although we cannot travel very far from our homes today, these tales will take us from the Gilded Age in New York, to Austria, and to Paris. Enjoy!
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton is one of my all-time favorite stories, and it’s the first novel by a female author to win the Pulitzer Prize. It originally appeared in installments in The Pictorial Review from July to October 1920 before it was published as a novel that same year. In this story, Countess Ellen Olenska becomes the object of gossip and derision among high society New Yorkers after she seeks a divorce from her philandering husband. She makes the mistake of falling in love with Newland Archer, a loving but weak lawyer among the social elite who struggles with the moral codes of his times and cannot find the strength of character he needs to commit to her. Wharton’s tragic love story, so beautifully rendered, still resonates with readers today. (Read it here for free.)
The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka, first published in 1915, tells the story of Gregor Samsa, a man who wakes up one morning from his troubled dreams to find himself transformed into a huge insect (in German, ungeheures ungeziefer, or “tremendous vermin”). Samsa’s bizarre predicament is very much about alienation, social isolation, and the loss of personal identity. It’s also a reflection of the economic and family pressures of his times. Kafka himself is widely considered one of the 20th century’s major authors, and this brilliant work of imagination and introspection certainly proves the point. Like much of his other work, in this novella, Kafka masterfully blends the real and the fantastic into an absurdist tale that invites us to reflect upon what it means to be human. (Read it here for free.)
Before The Phantom of the Opera musical, there was the novel by French author Gaston Leroux. The story was first serialized in the Belgian daily newspaper Le Gaulois in 1909 and 1910, about a deformed man named Erik, hiding from humanity in an opera house in Paris, France. Erik falls in love with Christine, a young, Swedish soprano who steals his heart. Was there ever a more tragic and isolated character in literature than the tortured masked man who haunts the Palais Garnier and kidnaps the ingenue he has fallen for? Well, maybe, but this is a fine novel nonetheless. The millions of people who have enjoyed one of the many stage productions would likely be surprised and delighted to read this book. Leroux was a journalist before he began writing fiction, and his style is still remarkably accessible today. (Read it here for free.)