Storytelling and Solitude: Covid-19 pandemic edition
by Ella van Driel
We need isolation to create art, but we need connection with art to truly understand our own isolation.
Especially in 2020, isolation plays on all of our minds. The global pandemic has created a reality for most of us where we have to isolate ourselves within the confines of our own homes. We have to stay away from others like the plague, though it seems as if we’ve not learned our lesson from said plague at the same time.
It is surreal.
During self-isolation, during all of the stress that came with feeling as though reality itself was slowly fragmenting, naturally I turned to one of my old favourite distractions: novels. I picked up The Mercies before Covid-19 reached Europe properly. I hadn’t had time to read it yet; it had been on my bookshelf for a few months. Now there seemed to be all the time in the world. I started reading it when everything went from bad to worse, to try and escape for a little bit. It was oddly comforting to read about the trauma these women endured on the isolated island of Vardø. Despite how painful it was to read their perspective of feeling lost and alone, I had a realisation. The realisation that many of my favourite novels were centred around the isolation of the self in its many varieties. But what does this preference say about me? What does it say about humanity that these stories are so universal?
When I started reading for myself as a child, really got lost in the many fantastic stories available to me, I finally felt truly connected to the people around me. The Mercies seemed to exemplify that sentiment. Our heroines Maren and Ursa find each other against all odds. Distantly infatuated at first – unsure of the unknown – up until the point where they can’t help but drown in the other’s warmth. My reading journey was of a similar kind, a curiosity that I could not quell despite my initial hesitance.
Isolation can be found in humanity’s stories since we first started to record them. The Iliad, the Odyssey and the Bible; the topic has clearly been on our minds well before we could write about it. The topic that subverts all genres, that connects all of us. A fear for most, a comfort for many simultaneously. But what is the purpose of reading Victor Frankenstein growing obsessed during his isolation at university? Of reading about Jane Eyre’s social isolation? About Prospero and Miranda on their island, Odysseus and his journey home after the Trojan War?
The island, as well, has been a focal thematic point in literature. The thought of being free of society and getting to live in solitude on an uninhabited, isolated piece of land surrounded by water is one of delight – or so a few Dutch children’s songs describe. In Greek mythology, for example, the island has been a place of desolation or banishment. Vardø too, where The Mercies takes place, is an island isolated in Norway. On Vardø, they are not truly alone of course, as outsiders can still come visit, but nonetheless the isolation challenges their humanity and sanity.
As someone who watches crime documentaries on the daily, I am aware of the damage isolation can do mentally. There is a reason why solitary confinement is considered a method of inhumane torture by the UN. Psychological studies and analyses on prolonged isolation can seem horrendous and seem as if they fit better within a horror movie than our reality (BBC). Before the pandemic it was even a trend online to try isolation for as long as the volunteers could handle it to see how people actually reacted to it for entertainment. But if isolation is something to be feared, why are we so fascinated by it?
As I was reading these novels during quarantine – looking to lose myself in the stories of others – I realised something. I had a need to deal with these troubling times through the emotions and troubles of fictional others; catharsis was what I craved.
Aristotle’s catharsis theory – to release one’s emotions through art – is a literary device that I believe to be one of the most important aspects of any work and for every reader. Again, I had this sudden realisation that seemed so obvious. I had been self-isolating at home, trying my best to ‘flatten the curve’ by doing this small thing that seemed so easy: staying exactly where I was. Most people in self-isolation have still been able to talk to their loved ones regularly with the help of technology and social media. It is not comparable to in-person contact, however, and it is hard to process how quickly life has changed for us all. I truly needed catharsis in order to give myself time to process it all, and I found it in Maren and Ursa’s narratives initially as I started reading my way through my unread books, waiting to be picked up. I could understand these characters, I could relate, and in return I could process what I was feeling. The power of fiction to me is not only what it does culturally, but what it does socially and mentally on an individual level.
I think of ancient theories like Aristotle’s, and marvel at how people still feel similar emotions despite such wild time differences. Humanity has changed so much yet so little that we can still understand these people from so long ago. We believe that we are entirely different from the generations before us, but through the lens of fiction it shows time and time again that we are still quite similar. It is the principle of why we still perform Shakespeare’s plays 400 hundred years later, why we read accounts of the same people each generation anew; why we can consider ancient religious texts as literature as well. Even if a tale has been turned over a thousand times, even if it has become hard to read because of language change or the language being dead, we somehow are still able to feel what they felt. Is that not why we read? Why we crave to hear, read, and see stories?
Occasionally I revisit my childhood companions and thank them, thank them for making me feel less alone and help me process the world around me. I wonder if Charlotte, Anne and Emily Brontë felt less alone by writing, by sharing their literary company with women isolated from excitement and society as they were. Do we then read and write to feel less alone? To feel less abandoned when we are unwillingly isolated because of unforeseen circumstances?
More recently Murakami’s Sputnik Sweetheart has become one of my favourites. Not only Murakami’s lyricism, but Sumire’s and Miu’s solitude in society, their relation to others, was what stood out to me. They are only physically on an island later in the narrative, but both live on their own figurative island in society, removed from others by either trauma or the feeling of being displaced. Miu’s trauma earlier in life, that even turned her hair white if we are to believe her, is exemplified by her looking in on her abuse from far away disconnected from herself and the city around her. It is a perfect example that shows how isolation can have physical and psychological components that interact with each other. Social isolation, the feeling of otherness, or trauma can create this feeling.
I can’t help but feel about The Mercies similarly to Sputnik Sweetheart. Maren and Ursa can be seen as Norwegian equivalents to Miu and Sumire, despite the differences in time period. Likewise, The Mercies, too, has a double layer of isolation. The men that die in the Vardø storm, and the havoc and loss that follows, is for Maren both a social and physical isolation. All the women are too shocked to console each other much. They are only able to do so superficially because they are all traumatised by witnessing the event that killed all their sons, fathers, brothers and husbands. That this storm took place on an island on top of that makes me want to laugh and cry at the same time. The sea killed their loves, but they are surrounded by the danger all around. They are isolated by its force.
Female isolation seems most prevalent in my mind. The women in Vardø, Shakespeare’s Miranda, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Madeline Miller’s Hecate; there are so many examples. While I feel cathartic reading these narratives, reading this as a woman makes it so there is little true escapism in it for me. I can’t truly forget about the world, the people, the culture, that creates the narrative. I can’t forget the history, nor do I want to. I know that the power that books have is unimaginable when I can still hear Humbert whispering in my ear that it wasn’t truly his fault years after I dared to open Lolita. Greek tragedies sing in my blood as I understand their pain, still can understand, after all this time. But the realisation that isolation was the reality for many women, and sometimes still is, is something that haunts my dreams at night.
Again, I think of the Brontë sisters, and I think of how they were expected to stay home. Sure, in the company of their family, but nonetheless as bound to their homes as we are now during the pandemic, though for entirely different reasons. Was it not Virginia Woolf who said that women, and writers in general, need a room of one’s own to write? If isolation is needed for us to create art, what is its actual purpose? We need isolation to create art, but we need connection with art to truly understand our own isolation.
I cannot help but connect philosophy to fiction, cannot even deign to ignore its importance to the world. How many times has a book helped me cry? Helped me understand myself better than before because I understood the protagonist? Helped me feel a purpose in life?
That is exactly the point, I have to tell myself. There’s a reason why we need art for catharsis, why we need to read fictional pain in order to forget about our own pain for a bit. We need it to be able to work through our desires and fears in art, in a fixed setting. Afterwards we can thank the work of art for what it has helped us realise about ourselves or the world around us. I am confronting a possible past self when I look at Maren, or at Ursa, or at some of the other women in The Mercies. Who would I be? Or would I be someone else, someone invisible to the narrator? Or will I stay the silent spectator, only there to witness the atrocities committed in the name of a God that at that moment in time promoted hatred instead of love?
Despite the pandemic looming over every action I take in these times, I am comforted by the notion that I am neither the first nor the only one who has experienced this. We have had deadly viruses before. We have been isolated before. We have felt lonely before. Has the world actually changed as much as we think it has? Or am I simply facing similar isolation as the women generations before me have experienced, but just with a different colour sticker slapped onto this specific brand of isolation?
The true power of literature in the context of our efforts to keep each other healthy is not just that it’s a pretty or fun thing to read, but that it can help us process what is happening around us. The internet exposes us to so many atrocities every day, it becomes hard to process. That orange man was not helping in the slightest either. When the world seems like a bad science fiction novel, what else is there to do but dive back into tragedies set in the past, present, or future and realise that we are lucky to still be online and talk to our loved ones as easily as we can now.
We are not alone, never have been alone, and never will be in this world.
Nevertheless, I don’t regret reading it. Any of it.
Ella van Driel is a New Zealand/Dutch writer working on her M.A. focused on literature and publication at Utrecht University. Ella is Chief Editor for the spring issue of RevUU. Her interests are in metafiction and the contextual relevance of literary works, and she has a love for incorporating her interest in historical fiction and feminist works in her writing.
Photo by Ella van Driel
Hargrave, Kiran Millwood. The Mercies. London: Picador, 2020. Print.
Murakami, Haruki. Sputnik Sweetheart. London: Vintage, 2002. Print.
Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. London: Penguin Classics, 2014. Print.