Quarantined reflections

November 29, 2020

A look at aspects of literature which involve the themes of quarantined existence; namely, isolation, loneliness, and solitude

Picture Courtesy: Tom Winckels on Unsplash

These are the most challenging times in the history of this planet; not because the world had not seen ravaging wars, haunting holocausts, sweeping pandemics, natural disasters or human atrocities, but because, in spite of all the historical vicissitudes, the 21st century humans had not predicted a surrender of control. Naturally, the power they exercised over the circumstances had to be relinquished to the sovereign pandemic which compartmentalised and contained human life. The world experienced oppressive physical, social, and emotional isolation.

This isolation is phrased, redefined, and reinterpreted in several ways in literary oeuvre owing to the specific impact it has on human life and activities. The pandemic proved to be a great equaliser not only in terms of how it affected various strata of society but also because it erased the connotative variations between the lexemes. It quarantined the corporeal presence, it isolated people both physically and emotionally, and it exposed them to the interned and controlling gaze of technology, which also proved to be their rescuer in the times of limited social interaction.

In this piece, I shall be looking into those aspects of literature which involve the themes of quarantined existence; namely, isolation, loneliness, and solitude. Quarantine encompasses more than just a phase of pandemic history. It has changed perspectives on human reach and freedom. It has simultaneously denied and offered a heterotopia to the creative and sensitive minds to reflect their feelings under detention and express their emotions freely. Here I touch upon the multifarious faces and manifestations of isolation.

Self-imposed isolation contrasts sharply with the isolation that is experienced under duress. Napoleon’s exile to Saint Helena and Nelson Mandela’s banishment to Robben Island, exemplify this contrast. This contrast particularises the preferences of the characters who may choose to be alone or are separated from others due to the threat they pose to an ideology, state, or agenda. The first type rises out of the factors that are specific to personal, psychological, and ideological issues. For instance, Emily Dickinson’s poetry, characterised by seclusion and abstraction, produces a variety which may rightly be labelled as the poetry of introversion. Similarly, the vacant and pensive moods of romantic poets were rooted in the solitude of unruffled nature. This solitude allowed growth and maturity to the poets.

Many of our much-loved books are about people faced with some kind of isolation or self-quarantine. Whether it is Crusoe’s literal isolation at the remote tropical desert island, Jane Eyre’s intense psychological broodings, or Lucy Snowe’s self-controlled reticence in Villette, one thing remains prominent, i.e., the correlation between the intrinsic and extrinsic forces brewing isolation that both inform and strengthen each other.

Crusoe’s isolation, however, is from his own society, since his expeditions involve encountersthose he describes as cannibals. Isolation, in this sense, attains interesting dimensions in that it is more of an ‘inside’ or rather ‘ideologically driven’ phenomenon than something imposed by physical or material circumstances.

Social ostracisation can be another reason for people to detach themselves from their surroundings. Hester Prynne of The Scarlet Letter and George Eliot’s Silas Marner are social outcasts who while living among people develop apeculiar relationship with loneliness, illustrated by their resilience and psychological withdrawal. This separation is suffused with a strong statement on social attitudes.

Self-desired isolation may also help writers to establish alternative domains of existence. Jean des Esseintes, an aesthete recluse of Joris-Karl Huysmans’ Against Nature, desires to give meaning to his isolation by creating a world of imagination. In some cases, the lives of characters punctuated by psychological drifts deny them the freedom of a fully functional life. This can be seen in Hunger by Knut Hamsun in which a delusionary existence characterises the life span of the protagonist. No less pertinent is Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, in which Victor has no choice but to entreat that “I am an unfortunate and deserted creature, I look around and I have no relation or friend upon earth.” This loneliness is characterised by self-separation and determines the force of tragic fate.

The clock’s loneliness in The Thought-Fox by Ted Hughes allows the poet’s sequestered existence to reify in moments of inspiration. Loneliness becomes a means to achieve the higher self, imbued with creative power. Then, there are those, like Wayne Cordeiro, who distinguish between solitude and isolation while claiming that “Solitude is a chosen separation for refining your soul. Isolation is what you crave when you neglect the first.” However, this distinction dissolves as soon as “the soul selects her own society” as in Emily Dickinson.

Bill Bryson turns his own world of isolation into an experience analogous to historical excavation. In At Home: A Short History of Private Life, while limited in his homely sphere, he takes his readers from room to room and narrates a history of domestic artefacts. Bryson makes the privacy of home a multi-versal experience, thus assigning isolation the status of an inquisition that goes beyond private life. On a different note, the sense of isolation can detach oneself from history, past, and memories, depriving one of roots and identity.

In My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh, the unnamed narrator attempts to reset her life by planning to do nothing but sleep for a year. This depressive lassitude is also a feature prominently depicted by absurdist writers. For instance, the trilogy by Samuel Beckett Molloy, Malone Dies, TheUnnamable shows a progression toward absolute loneliness and dispossession. Isolation may also affect individuals and communities adversely. Being bereft of home and relationships, Jerry in Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story, whiles away his time by talking to Peter or going to the zoo where animals fill in his isolation with some kind of meaning to sustain.

The loneliness projected by Charlotte Perkins Gilman in The Yellow Wall-Paper or Sylvia Plath in her poems expands upon social oppression that mars peace of mind and pushes the subjects in their shells haunted by isolation and loneliness. Plath associates this loneliness with a sense of acute self-realisation: “God, but life is loneliness, despite all the opiates, despite the shrill tinsel gaiety of ‘parties’ with no purpose, despite the false grinning faces we all wear... Yes, there is joy, fulfilment and companionship - but the loneliness of the soul in its appalling self-consciousness is horrible and overpowering.”

In reaction to Covid-19 and under complete lockdown and small-scale quarantines, many lessons have been garnered by scholars and writers. A recent collection of autobiographical essays edited by Kumar and Pickering illustrates the moments of loneliness as self-reflective musing focused on the gains and losses of life in quarantine.

Quarantine, in fact, has changed our acuity to realise our longings, desires, shortcomings, strengths, deprivations, needs, commitments, and obligations. It has changed our relationships and the way we treat them. It has both shaded us from and revealed us to people around us. By all means, these new perceptual realities can be used to redefine our priorities and make us assess our failings.

The writer has a doctorate in Nigerian drama. She serves at the Department of English and Literacy Studies, University of Management and Technology, Lahore, as Assistant Professor and Chairperson

Coronavirus: Quarantined reflections