Yes, I am home again, but home has changed.
And I within this cultivated space
That I have made my own, feel at a loss,
—May Sarton, “Letters from Maine”
I recently re-watched the 1990 classic, Home Alone, in which the large, affluent, Midwestern McCallister family heads to Paris for Christmas. On the morning of their departure, a power outage disables the alarm clocks, causing them to oversleep. In their unexpected haste to get their raucous brood to the airport, they accidentally leave their youngest son behind. So, their “completely helpless” eight-year-old, Kevin (Macaulay Culkin), is “home alone.” Or so his mother (Catherine O’Hara), whose maternal instincts turn out to be even more suspect than Moira Rose’s, keeps saying as she embarks on a tireless quest to get back to him.
But is Kevin really home alone? First, he goes out on several occasions (to the pharmacy, across the town’s crowded outdoor ice rink on his knees, to the supermarket, to church), and he even befriends a neighbor. Second, various people come over to the house. Though neither the pizza delivery boy, the policeman, nor the pair of persistent burglars are officially admitted, the “Wet Bandits” against whom Kevin spends much of the movie defending the homestead do eventually manage to gain entrance. I have it on good authority that Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (the first of the original’s four sequels) does not even take place in Kevin’s hometown, let alone in his home. Home Alone only glances at issues like solitude, unsociability, forced togetherness, isolation, homecoming, and cohabitation. The following list of fictions offers an even more sustained ramble through such concerns, assembled with readers in mind that happen to be spending an unexpected amount of time home alone—whether singularly alone or alone together.
Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart: Quite a ways into Things Fall Apart, Okonkwo, who has “risen so suddenly from great poverty and misfortune to be one of the lords of the clan,” commits a “female” crime. His gun explodes during the “last salute” at a funeral, accidentally killing the sixteen-year-old son of the man being laid to rest. Okonkwo’s punishment is seven years of exile. He leaves the life he has painstakingly made for himself in Umuofia and relocates his family to Mbanta, his mother’s homeland. There, he bides his time until he can get back to real life. Seven years is a long time, and Okonkwo prospers in Mbanta where he can’t quite help himself from “play[ing] a part in the affairs of his motherland.” When he finally leaves Mbanta to head home, Okonkwo takes stock of the things he’s lost in exile: position, time, opportunity. He’s determined to “return with a flourish, and regain the seven wasted years.” But it turns out that the tragedy is not that the world of Umofia has gone on, as ever, without him. The more devastating discovery is that the Umuofia to which Okonkwo eventually returns is not the same one that he left. Achebe notes that in Ibo culture, a man must either build his obi for himself or inherit it from his father. In the original iteration of this private residence, Okonkwo entertains guests, eats meals, and receives family members many times. But it is his friend, Obierika—a “man who thought about things”—whom Achebe places alone in his own obi after the accident, where he “mourned his friend’s calamity.” “Why should a man suffer so grievously for an offense he had committed inadvertently? But although he thought for a long time he found no answer. He was merely led into greater complexities.”
Anna Burns, Milkman: It is hard to find a scene in Anna Burns’s Milkman where the novel’s narrator, identified only as “middle sister,” is alone, never mind home alone. Gossip swirls and rumors fly, accompanied by threats both veiled and urgent in a surveillance culture that runs on relentless observation. How did this eighteen-year-old attract the attention of a significantly older paramilitary, the milkman, who stalks her through the novel? Arguably, middle sister merits notice because of her signature form of public solitude: she reads books while she’s walking. Middle sister describes “relaxing into” a novel, the “enjoyment” of the book, and the concentration required for the “sinking into the paragraph coming up after the recently left-off paragraph,” but she also acknowledges that “by reading while I walked I was losing touch in a crucial sense with communal up-to-dateness.” This is what renders her reading habit “unfathomable,” an “unsafe procedure,” and “not dutiful to self” in other people’s eyes. Is the practice of carving out solitude—“walking and reading, walking and thinking”—wherever you can find it best described as “switching off,” as middle sister’s disapproving interlocutors charge? Burns’s novel shows that it really depends on how you view both freedom and escape. When middle sister does indulge her preferred pastime, she favors nineteenth-century fare: “I did not like twentieth-century books because I did not like the twentieth century.”
John Milton, Paradise Lost: Have you ever noticed how Eve repeatedly tries to get away from Adam in Paradise Lost? Finding (and heartily enjoying) her own reflection moments after her birth, a warning voice steers Eve toward Adam (“What could I do, / But follow straight, invisibly thus led?”). She takes one look at him, turns away and (unsuccessfully) tries to head back to the “smooth watery image” that she prefers to her new mate. By contrast, it is Adam’s profound unease with being alone that prompted him to ask God to make him a companion in the first place: “In solitude / What happiness, who can enjoy alone, / Or all enjoying, what contentment find?” Eve’s creation follows God’s admission that he “knew it not good for man to be alone.” Cut to the first couple, gardening. Eve suggests they split up in order to “divide” their labors; Adam can go where he pleases, and Eve will be over “In yonder spring of roses intermixed / With myrtle” until around noon, okay? Eve claims that she and Adam aren’t getting enough done; being “so near each other thus all day” means they end up distracted by looking and smiling at each other or getting drawn into “casual discourse.” But could Eve also maybe just want a little space? Eve does get her requested break from Adam but, famously, doesn’t end up enjoying much solitude; once she’s alone, the serpent perceives Eve as the easier mark and approaches her. It isn’t long after the “fatal trespass”—“she plucked, she ate”—that Adam joins her in taking a bite of fruit, ensuring that they will be in it together for the long haul.
Jhumpa Lahiri, “This Blessed House” in Interpreter of Maladies: This short story takes place in the house that newlyweds Sanjeev and Twinkle have recently purchased. The burgeoning supply of religious paraphernalia that Twinkle finds tucked away in various corners and cabinets, left behind by the previous owners, are surely signs of miraculous mystery, but they are also signs that we are never really alone. Sanjeev does not share his wife’s enthusiasm for the items she finds and claims “obviously” were “important to the people who used to live here.” He has his doubts that objects deemed precious would have been left behind (sorry, Kevin), but he doesn’t do much to stand in the way of Twinkle’s plans to display them. (She always claims the display will be temporary and it never is.) When Twinkle leads a drunken party of his co-workers up to the attic in search of more Christian treasures, he realizes that he has his new house “all to himself,” and he considers “all the things he could do, undisturbed” if he were to trap his spouse and guests up there with a “flick of his hand.” Things Sanjeev would do in an “empty house”: destroy and dispose of all relics; do some cleaning; pour a G&T; eat warmed rice; listen to and learn about classical music. But, as it turns out, “budging” the attic ladder would require “some effort,” so Sanjeev resigns himself to all the things he hates, and he even lets Twinkle display the big yield of the attic expedition—a solid silver bust of Christ—on the mantelpiece “for the rest of their days together.” In resigning himself to joining his life to a virtual stranger with whom his sensibilities sometimes seem mismatched, Sanjeev also embraces the obvious fiction of an empty house by keeping ever present the undeniable evidence that someone once lived where you now live even if, miraculously, you will never meet them.
Javier Marías, A Heart So White: When Mateu is found “playing with a disposable lighter and the edge of a Rembrandt” in Madrid’s Museo Nacional del Prado, we learn that the old museum guard has been driven to the brink of destruction because he can’t see the probably-pretty face of the painting’s servant girl; her back is to the viewer. Marías’s narrator, Juan, describes various people this way in the novel—backs turned so their faces remain just out of view. We are repeatedly invited to share Mateu’s frustration about possibilities just out of reach, “fixed like that for ever and now we’ll never know what happened next.” Newly married, Juan imagines matrimony—the “narrative institution” that builds “real togetherness” out of the “words one doesn’t keep to oneself”—as lamentably devoid of the “small unknowns” that pepper the pre-nuptial phase. Juan’s romance with Luisa kindled because she shirked her duty as “safety-net interpreter”; rather than intervening when Juan, the official interpreter, begins to introduce unsaid words and topics into a conversation between two politicians, she sits quietly behind him: “She didn’t betray me, she didn’t contradict me, she didn’t intervene, she remained silent, and I thought that if she allowed me that, she would allow me anything for the whole of the rest of my life, or rather for the half of my life as yet unlived.” Juan often laments the loss of the “abstract future” that you trade in for the relative security of a “concrete” one, but Marías also figures forms of togetherness that might ease the burden that comes from wanting to know what happens next.
Elizabeth Hands, “On an Unsociable Family:” According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, there is evidence to suggest that although the English poet Elizabeth Hands never received any formal education, she read poetry available to her in the households where she worked as a servant. The assistant master of a local school helped her publish her only volume of poetry by subscription in 1789. In The Death of Amnon. A Poem with an Appendix: Containing Pastorals and Other Poetical Pieces, one of those “other poetical pieces” is a poem that narrates an evening with an “Unsociable Family.” This “strange parcel of creatures” that “all are alone, though at home altogether” find themselves huddled around the fire where banal statements about the weather pass for conversation. In an unusually lively moment of this strained gathering, “silence profound” is interrupted when a “yawn epidemical catches around.” After that excitement dies down, the lyric ends with a portrait of benign, if disinterested, mutual toleration as circumstance drives this family’s unsociable sociability. Hands’s poem considers shared experience divorced from care (“To comfort each other is never our plan”). Still, her portrait of mutual solitude at the hearth strikes me as companionable with May Sarton’s “Letters from Maine,” which entreats its addressee to:
Read between the lines.
Then meet me in the silence if you can,
The long silence of winter when I shall
Make poems out of nothing, out of loss,
And at times hear your healing laughter.
J.K. Barret is Associate Professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin. She is the author of Untold Futures: Time and Literary Culture in Renaissance England.
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