The feeling of loneliness is not most prominent when one is alone, but when proximity or intimacy is expected, yet absent. Loneliness is therefore most strongly felt in social contexts, where distance is not physical, but emotional. Feeling isolated or unaccepted can stem from different sources and manifest across a variety of mediums, such as language, experience, background and identity. The pain of loneliness within the family sphere, where a natural and loving connection is the norm, is a common theme across literary works. In their attempt to capture the universal patterns in loneliness within the family, stories such as Margaret Atwood’s “Widows”, Banana Yoshimoto’s “Kitchen”and Kurt Vonnegut’s Lonesome No More examine both the individual choices and the inescapable forces that create people’s isolation in one of the most intimate social units. Despite people’s unique existential experience, which separates even the most close-knit families, the uncrossable divide between individuals need not be a inevitable source of loneliness if families choose to recognise the limitations of sharing experiences, while still showing acts of care and intimacy.
In Margaret Atwood’s “Widows”, the reader is let into the hidden perspective of a widow, whose decision to not send her honest letter shows her hopelessness in communicating across the divide of experience. Nell, the writer of the letter, describes how she lives in isolation after losing her husband, Tig. She is concerned with cleaning up and spending time with other widows, all “a little obsessive” over the death scenes of their life partners (214). Intimate and candid, the letter is touching and generates sympathy and understanding for Nell, but she says: “ I don’t intend to share any of this with you. I don’t want you calling my younger friends and relatives in a state of concern and telling them something must be done about me.” (213-4) Assuming, perhaps rightfully so, that she will be misunderstood when opening up, she decides not only that it would be unwise to share her true state of being, but also that Stevie and others would never be able to understand. She decides unilaterally that Stevie’s attempts connect are “well-meaning”, from a “kind heart”, but ultimately pointless and insincere: “You asked me how I was doing, another social pleasantry. No one wants an honest answer to that one.” (213) This demonstrates how her isolation, caused by her unique experience of widowhood, is reinforced by her conviction that others would not understand her and would be better of not knowing her true feelings.
Even among her fellow widows, or “those who have lost their life partners” (214), Nell feels she cannot safely express herself, indicated by her refusal to tell anyone that she feels Tig is still present in an inexplicable way. After her husband’s death, she is aware of a “prescribed grieving process” that she is expected complete, to “come out the other end, all cheery and wearing bright colours and loaded for bear” (213). The expectation of her environment is that after a due mourning period, she will move on and stop to “cast a pall” (215). However, she is convinced she will not come out of mourning, which she tells the readers, but not Stevie:
No. Because it’s not a tunnel. There isn’t any other end. Time has ceased to be linear, with life events and memories in a chronological row, like beads on a string. It’s the strangest feeling, or experience, or rearrangement. I’m not sure I can explain it to you. And it would alarm you unduly if I were to say to you, ‘Tig isn’t exactly gone.’ (213)
Two essential divides between Nell and Stevie become apparent here: Nell’s perspective on the world, her experience, which she cannot communicate, and the idea that Stevie would be alarmed, which leads Nell to conclude that she should not even attempt to communicate. Together, they isolate her by reinforcing each other. Stevie cannot learn to respond effectively to something they don’t understand and might never understand, because Nell has already decided to the attempt will be futile.
This double isolation is not exclusive to Nell and Stevie, but is part of Nell’s unique situation, isolating her even from other widows. This leads her to seal the uncrossable divide of experience with her decision to not attempt any crossing. She states that the other widows would not appreciate her saying her honest thoughts out loud. However, she phrases this not as a choice, but as an impossibility: “I could not have said, ‘Don’t be silly. Tig is still here.’ (…) So we keep such notions to ourselves, we widows.” (216) It is a fact of widowhood that their experiences are kept silent and solitary. Even among people with similar experiences, it remains impossible to utter the feelings Nell experiences, generalised to all widows. They cannot connect across the difference in experience which separates them, even among themselves or when invited to by relatives.
Similarly, in Banana Yoshimoto’s “Kitchen”, the reader is shown the most intimate loneliness experienced by the main character, Mikage Sakurai, who is plagued by the feeling that every human being is ultimately alone. After the death of her last remaining family member, she feels an isolation that she links to an endless absence of light:
When my grandmother died the other day, I was taken by surprise. My family had steadily decreased one by one as the years went by, but when it suddenly dawned on me that I was all alone, everything before my eyes seemed false. The fact that time continued to pass in the usual way in this apartment where I grew up, even though now I was here all alone, amazed me. It was total science fiction. The blackness of the cosmos. (4)
This blackness and sense of being alone persists even when she is offered unexpected help by Yuichi Tanabe, a young man who knew Mikage’s grandmother from the florist he worked at. He invites her to come stay with him and his mother, and bemused by the self-assuredness with which he proposes this, she accepts. Although comforted by their well-lived kitchen, she still feels profoundly lonely. “Usually, the first time I go to a house, face to face with people I barely know, I feel an immense loneliness. I saw myself reflected in the glass of the large terrace window while black gloom spread of the rain-hounded night panorama. I was tied by blood to no creature in this world.” (10). However, despite Mikage hardly knowing Yuichi and his mother, Eriko, she feels welcome to stay there, and the change of atmosphere brings some relief. Staying the night on the sofa, she thinks: “Wrapped in blankets, I thought how funny it was that tonight, too, here I was sleeping next to the kitchen. I smiled to myself. But this time I wasn’t lonely.” (16) Although Yuichi and Eriko do not try to discuss Mikage’s sadness with her or claim to know what she’s going through, their presence and the quirky positivism of their lives helps to quell some of Mikage’s loneliness.
Over the next half year, Mikage is allowed to live with them, slowly recovering from her depression and becoming a part of their family. Their continued recognition of her pain and unyielding support is symbolized by the relationship with the kitchen. Mikage’s focus on the kitchen as a place of comfort becomes transformed as she starts to cook for the Tanabe family, a quintessential act of care that is the only payment they require for her staying there. Where before, the kitchen was the only place Mikage would not feel completely alone, it now channels the acts of reciprocity that can cross her sadness, because these acts are unspoken and a natural part of daily life. The meals she prepares are treasured by the whole family, and cross Yuichi’s emotional aloofness and the distance to Eriko’s dazzling night life. It allows Mikage to feel connected to these people she barely knew, to the point that she experiences the intimate moments of their life in the apartment. For example, one morning she sees Eriko water the plants, and listens to her talk about her past life, when, before the transition into becoming a woman, her wife died of cancer. There is a mutual acknowledgement that these experiences are impossible to convey fully, yet:
Her hair rustled, brushing her shoulders. There are many days when all the awful things that happen make you sick at heart, when the path before you is so steep you can’t bear to look. Not even love can rescue a person from that. Still, enveloped in the twilight coming from the west, there she was, watering the plants with her slender, graceful hands, in the midst of a light so sweet it seemed to form a rainbow in the transparent water she poured. (41-2)
Despite the recognition that Eriko’s former life and the suffering it brought are inexpressable, both Mikage and Eriko find happiness in the fact that the other person is present. The respectful understanding that the other person’s pain is their own does not prevent connection. In fact, it allows Mikage to feel part of a family, each with their own suffering and unspeakable experiences.
In part 2, “Full Moon”, Eriko’s death creates a divide of sadness between Yuichi and Mikage that threatens to disconnect them. However, despite the knowledge that the feeling of isolation might never be understood, acts of kindness and closeness still manage to keep them together. Mikage has moved out of the Tanabe apartment and has become a chef’s assistant when she belatedly learns that Eriko has been killed by a confused admirer. Yuichi, at first unable to inform Mikage because of emotional distress, finally calls her. Mikage’s first response is to come over, stay the night, and make dinner for him the next day. Again, proximity and an effort to care are the core of the response, even though Mikage is aware that the loneliness they both feel is impossible to share. She dreams:
Yuichi and I are climbing a narrow ladder in the jet-black gloom. Together we peer into the cauldron of hell. We stare into the the bubbling red sea of fire, and the air hitting our faces is so hot it makes us reel. Even though we’re standing side by side, even though we’re closer to each other than to anyone else in the world, even though we’re friends forever, we don’t join hands. No matter how forlorn we are, we each insist on standing on or own two feet. (66)
Their actions are limited by the events of their lives and the forces both inside and outside of them. On the outside, societal expectations and jealousy are voiced by a classmate of Yuichi, who urges Mikage to stay away from Yuichi (72-74). There have been rumours and complaints about her living in his apartment before, and they cannot become romantically involved because of the forces inside them: the grief and pain they both experience in their individual ways. They are unable to connect fully, kept apart by their unique suffering, even if it overlaps. Later, when Yuichi has fallen asleep after the extravagant dinner, Mikage breaks into tears: “Of course it wasn’t over having to wash all those dishes; I was crying for having been left behind in the night, paralysed with loneliness.” (67) The loneliness is not resolved by their mutual attempt at reconnection. Their individual feelings of grief prevent them from finding solace in each other.
However, Mikage overcomes the forces and emotions that keep Yuichi and her apart through a symbolic act of care, literally crossing a dark and unfamiliar distance to deliver a hearty meal to Yuichi, who has isolated himself. After their shared dinner, Mikage is asked to join her employer on a culinary journey to Izu. She agrees to go, overwhelmed by the grief she feels herself and the pain she feels from Yuichi. Hoping to put distance between pain and themselves, both Mikage and Yuichi travel away from Tokyo and find themselves in lonely inns, separated from everyone else. Having eaten little, Mikage leaves the inn late at night, and orders a katsudon meal. Waiting for her meal, she decides to call Yuichi, but realises “I had felt as if Yuichi were in some other world, at the other end of a telephone line. And that other world was darker than the place where I was. It was like the bottom of the sea.” (89) The distance between them seems endless, but still, Yuichi picks up, and Mikage says she “closed her eyes, just listening to that voice I missed so much. It was like lonely waves against the shore.” (90) These three images all emphasise the distance between them, revealing how even though they are as close as family, as close as lovers, their individual experiences separate them as the bottom of the sea and the shore.
After they hang up, Mikage eats the katsudon which is “outrageously good” (92). Then, she feels a single opportunity to cross the divide:
At that moment I had a thrillingly sharp intuition. I knew it as if I held it in my hands: In the gloom of death that surrounded the two of us, we were just at the point of approaching and negotiating a gentle curve. If we bypassed it, we would split off in different directions. In that case we would forever remain just friends. I knew it. I knew it with absolute certainty. (91)
She finds herself at a crossroads, where she could decide to act or to surrender to the hopelessness she feels: “Now I felt really alone, at the bottom of a deep loneliness that no one could touch. People aren’t overcome by situations or outside forces; defeat invades from within, I thought.” (92)
Motivated by this realisation, she orders an extra serving of the katsudon and hails a taxi to drive her through the icy night, to the inn Yuichi is staying. Since the inn is closed at night, Mikage climbs the back wall in order to reach Yuichi’s balcony. When he lets her in, she offers him the food, but it does not initially work to cross the divide. “Suddenly all the time we’d spent together, even the fact that we’d lived in the same place, seemed like a far-off dream. Yuichi was not in this world now. His cold eyes frightened me.” (98-9) Despite their physical proximity, they have not come closer across the gap of loneliness. It’s only after Yuichi’s sees the cut Mikage suffered while climbing to his balcony, and he finally starts to eat the katsudon, that they become closer. The efforts Mikage has made remind both of them of “more family memories” (100), which finally dissolves the barrier between them. Mikage thinks back to the details of living together and remembers:
When was it that Yuichi said to me, “Why is it that everything I eat when I’m with you is so delicious?”
I laughed. “Could it be that that you’re satisfying hunger and lust at the same time?”
“No way, no way, no way!” he said, laughing. “It must be because we’re family.” (100-1)
Notably, the concept of family becomes defined not through the absence of loneliness, but through the shared living through loneliness, recognising that each of the two has felt their own unique pain, and still still continuing to care for each other. Crossing the distance between the two inns represents the effort of trying to imagine the other person’s experience, even though Mikage is aware she can never know exactly what Yuichi is feeling. It’s not through the understanding of the experience, but the understanding of the distance that she shows her care for Yuichi. In response, Yuichi, not because he feels understood, but because understands the distance Mikage crossed for him, has a hope for returning to a shared life. After Mikage has returned to her own inn, and later finishes her work journey, the story ends with Yuichi promising to pick up Mikage from the station, another act of kindness and care that shows an effort to cross physical distance to represent an effort to communicate across the uncrossable divide between two people.
In both “Widows” and “Kitchen”, the untranslatable experiences of the main characters emphasise the forces that separate people, which are outside of human control. No matter the effort, Nell could not share her experiences with Stevie, nor could Mikage and Yuichi make each other know how they feel. The choices the characters make follow the acceptance that they are fundamentally alone, unable to cross the river, but where Nell has decided that others aren’t interested in her story and that any attempt at communication is therefore pointless, Mikage manages to see the worth in the attempt. The imagery of an uncrossable river and the depth of the sea both emphasise the distance between characters, even if they are part of a family. Though the river cannot be crossed, acts of care and kindness can come across, and through a recognition of the unknowable emotions in others, awareness of people’s situation can bring comfort and proximity. It requires an open mind, mutual effort and emotional proximity to communicate across the divide. This is what family is, in essence: staying together despite the divide. This explains why the combination of loneliness and comfort is often felt among blood relatives, where the divide might be big due to wide difference in personality, history and experience, and yet a connection always persists. Loneliness that rises from feeling the divide is common. Loneliness felt at the idea that the divide is uncrossable is common, too. Yet the feeling that comes from the persistent attempts at communication, the willingness to stay together and keep in contact even when the experiences can never be translated, is a sense of family.
In Lonesome No More, Kurt Vonnegut describes a bleak future where the narrator, Wilbur, runs to become the president of a splinted United States of America through one essential campaign promise: to eradicate loneliness by providing everyone with a family. In typically absurdist Vonnegut fashion, this is achieved by a “simple and workable anti-loneliness plan” (112): giving everyone a new middle name of a “noun, the name of a flower or fruit or nut or vegetable or legume, or a bird or a reptile or a fish, or a mollusk, or a gem or a mineral or a chemical element – connected by a hyphen to a number between one and twenty” (114). Everyone with the same name is of the same family and everyone of that group with the same number is a sibling. This way, every inhabitant of the United States would have “ten thousand brothers and sisters” and “one hundred and ninety thousands cousins (113). Although there is a plethora of disasters to overcome, with fluctuating gravity, the Green Death and civil war, the extended families create a shift in the way people see themselves and others. For example, when one family vehemently against war, Wilbur has a sudden insight. “I realized that nations could never acknowledge their own wars as tragedies, but that families not only could but had to.” (149). The proximity that is enclosed in the idea of family does not solve all problems, nor does it make every person understood, but it succeeds in awakening people’s best intentions towards large groups of people. Wilbur, who is half of a twin that becomes a telepathic genius when they are touching, is another symbol of how proximity and intimacy are able to transcend the divides between individuals, even if after their communion they do not remember their shared experiences. Through these extreme examples, Lonesome No More also reinforces the idea that the essence of family is the continued effort to care for another person across the many barriers between individuals.
In conclusion, the feelings of loneliness that occur within families are the result of a variety of forces and choices. Through different life experiences and different personalities, people’s inner lives are fundamentally unknowable and untranslatable, even if they are related or live in a shared space. The attempt to communicate across this uncrossable divide seems futile, as is concluded by Nell in “Widows”. She expects others to shun her for having the idea that her late husband is still present in some way and therefore censors her sincere expression of loneliness by not sending her original letter. She is unable to communicate and therefore chooses not to try. In contrast, “Kitchen” shows how despite the emotions and grief of losing family members being overwhelming and ineffable, the continued decision to care for each other and attempt to share proximity can prove enough to dispel some of the loneliness that can occur. Though the metaphorical river between people is uncrossable, even among family members, the acceptance of this divide should not discourage the attempt at mutual communication, but should inspire a kind of exchange that is open to the wisdom that one cannot know exactly what the other is experiencing. If this acceptance is combined with continued care and proximity, the loneliness within families can be assuaged across the uncrossable.
Atwood, Margaret. “Widows”. Old Babes in the Wood. 2023. Doubleday, New York.
Yoshimoto, Banana. “Kitchen”. 1988. Translation: Megan Backus. 1994, Faber and Faber.
Vonnegut, Kurt. Lonesome No More. 1976. Vintage, 2008.