Novels About Loneliness, Isolation or Alienation

These novels feature characters who are alone more than they would like, or who feel isolated or alienated from others.

This common literary theme is related to its opposite: Friendship | Community | Connection

Novels with Lonely, Isolated, or Alienated Characters

Winter in the Blood | James Welch

The unnamed narrator is a thirty-two-year-old Blackfeet Indian man living on a reservation in Montana. He lives with his mother; his father and brother have both died. He deals with his sense of alienation from his family, girlfriend, and Indian and white people alike. He comes home after a night of drinking and fighting to find his girlfriend Agnes has left him. He soon sets out to find her.

Hotel du Lac | Anita Brookner

Edith Hope is a thirty-nine-year-old romance novelist. She has left London, at the urging of her friends, for a break in a Swiss hotel. She plans on finishing her latest project during her stay, but she gets distracted with meeting and interacting with the other guests.

Smilla’s Sense of Snow | Peter Hoeg

A funeral is being held for Isaiah, an Inuit boy. Smilla remembers the scene of his death, and believes it wasn’t an accident. She starts an investigation into Isaiah’s death, using her keen mind and training as a glaciologist, an expert reader of ice and snow.

Ethan Frome | Edith Wharton

This novel is the tale of its namesake, a man who was seriously injured in an accident 24 years earlier. The narrator, a visitor in Ethan’s rural New England town, had pieced together Ethan’s history. When his wife became ill, her cousin Mattie came to help them out. An attraction developed between Ethan and Mattie.

Read “Ethan Frome”

Nausea | Jean-Paul Sartre

Antoine Roquetin, a thirty-year-old man, lives in Bouville, a small seacoast town in France. He is working on a biography of an obscure political figure. Roquetin notices a subtle change in his perceptions of himself and others. He grapples with his existence, and the existence of objects and others.

“I am alone in the midst of these happy, reasonable voices.”

Read “Nausea”

Cane | Jean Toomer

This novel doesn’t have a continuous plot. It’s divided into three sections made up of sketches, short stories and poems, and finishing with a novella about a mixed-race teacher who is disgusted by the way blacks are treated. He has to deal with the way the educated, prominent members of society view black people.

Ender’s Game | Orson Scott Card

Ender is six when he has a government monitoring device removed, a year later than usual. He is the third child in his family; usually, families are only allowed two children. Ender is recruited for Battle School. Earth has been invaded twice by the Buggers, insectoid aliens, and they were barely repelled. Ender shows promise as a military leader. He excels at the training scenarios, but he has many conflicts with the other boys.

Read “Ender’s Game”

The Women of Brewster Place | Gloria Naylor

This novel tells the stories of seven women who live on a dead end street, Brewster Place. They all have had difficult lives, and some have experienced tragedy or various kinds of abuse.

All Quiet on the Western Front | Erich Maria Remarque

Paul joins the army (WW I) along with several of his classmates. He realizes that neither school nor basic training have prepared him for war. The diary-like entries intersperse episodes of mundane life, including his leave, with the horrors of war.

Read “All Quiet on the Western Front”

Things Fall Apart | Chinua Achebe

It’s the 1880’s in the Nigerian village of Umuofia, a time before any outsiders have influenced the clan. Okonkwo is strong and determined, becoming a great warrior and successful farmer. His abilities make him a revered member of his community. His success goes to his head, and his extreme masculinity causes friction. Eventually, an accident causes a major rift between Okonkwo and his clan.

Flowers for Algernon | Daniel Keyes

Charlie Gordon has an IQ of 68. He’s going to undergo a surgical procedure to vastly increase his intelligence. He records his experience in a series of diary style “Progress Reports”. He describes how he is treated by his workmates, his interpersonal interactions, and his childhood.

Read “Flowers for Algernon”

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant | Anne Tyler

Pearl Tull is on her deathbed. She remembers events from her life, including her children and when her husband, Beck, left the family. Pearl was tough on herself and her children; she wonders if they blame her for how their lives turned out. The subsequent chapters are told from the point of view of one of Pearl’s three children.  Some of the things overlap, giving us multiple perspectives on a single event.

Wide Sargasso Sea | Jean Rhys

Antoinette lives on her family’s plantation in isolation on a Caribbean island. The slaves have recently been emancipated, and there is tension among the population. She tries to make connections with people, but has difficulty. Her mother marries Mr. Mason, a man with money who engenders hostility from the black population. The clash builds to a breaking point. The story continues from the perspective of Antoinette’s husband.

This novel is a prequel to Jane Eyre. Antoinette is Rochester’s first wife, better known as Bertha.

Heart of Darkness | Joseph Conrad

Marlow is a riverboat captain working for a company that trades in the Congo. On his journey to meet with Kurtz, a chief in the company’s Inner Station, he finds the company’s practices are inefficient and brutal. Kurtz is a successful ivory dealer, and feelings about him are mixed. Kurtz’s isolation has had a profound effect on him.

“We live, as we dream—alone.”

Read “Heart of Darkness”

Ellen Foster | Kaye Gibbons

Ellen remembers her past with her abusive, alcoholic father and overwhelmed mother. She also describes some scenes with her present foster family. Her living arrangements changed several times in a few years.

The Death of the Heart | Elizabeth Bowen

Portia is a sixteen-years-old who goes to live with her older half-brother, Thomas, and his wife, Anna, after her parents die. She meets Anna’s friend Eddie, who flirts with both of them. She tries to adjust to her new home, school, and acquaintances, and learns about love.

When the Legends Die |Hal Borland

Thomas, a Native American, is orphaned at a young age. Blue Elk befriends Thomas and tricks him into attending school where he learns the ways of white men. He struggles with his identity. Eventually he shows some ability as a rodeo performer, and learns the trade.

Great Expectations | Charles Dickens

Miss Havisham, a wealthy and eccentric spinster, asks for a young boy to be sent to her house to talk. Pip is sent and falls in love with her young ward, Estella. He continues to visit until it’s time for him to be apprenticed as a blacksmith, the trade of his guardian, Joe. Exposure to Estella and the world of wealth has left Pip dissatisfied with his life. He gets some news that could change his fortunes.

Read “Great Expectations”

The Accidental Tourist | Anne Tyler

After the death of their son, Macon and Sarah divorce. Macon has to travel for work, and he writes guidebooks for those who have to travel on business but don’t like it. Before a trip, Macon boards his dog at an animal hospital and meets Muriel Pritchett, a woman who is supportive of him. He becomes increasingly isolated, staying at home. He starts to worry about where he’s headed.

As I Lay Dying | William Faulkner

Addie, the matriarch of the Bundren family, is on her deathbed, while her oldest son Cash is building her coffin. She dies soon after. The family is going to respect her request to be buried in her family’s burial ground, so they prepare for the forty mile journey. Friends and neighbours are advising against this difficult trip, but the family goes anyway. It’s narrated by many different people who each give their perspective.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter | Carson McCullers

It’s the 1930s in a small Southern town. John Singer, a deaf mute, is an important presence in the life of the other main characters. Biff runs a cafe, has a distant relationship with his wife, and says that he like freaks. Jake is educated and a fighter for equality, but he is drunk a lot, which undermines his credibility. Mick is a twelve-year-old girl who looks after her brothers and loves music. Dr. Copeland is a black man educated in the North, isolated and keenly aware of the racism around him. Their lives intertwine for a while, but mostly in a superficial way.

The Phantom of the Opera | Gaston Leroux

When the directors of an opera house are retiring they turn the place over to new owners, and tell them about the phantom living there and his demands–Box 5 is not to be rented, and he is to be paid 20,000 francs a month. A former understudy, Christine, gives a powerful performance. Raoul, a young man from a prestigious family, is in love with her. The new owners get a letter from the phantom when they ignore his instructions.

“Why do you condemn a man whom you have never seen, whom no one knows and about whom you yourself know nothing?”

Read “The Phantom of the Opera”

Body and Soul | Frank Conroy

Claude Rawlings is the young son of a single mother living in New York. The owner of a music store starts teaching Claude after finding he is a natural. Claude is introduced to some of the finer things in life while expanding his musical instruction. His mother, Emma, is under pressure because of some ties to the Communist Party, bringing on some mental problems.

The Woman in the Dunes | Kobo Abe

An unnamed man looks for an unclassified insect. He comes across a village that is being buried by drifting sand dunes. It is arranged for him to stay overnight in one of the homes, so he lowers himself by a rope ladder and stays with a woman who feeds him. She makes some statements that the man finds unusual. The next morning, the rope ladder is gone; he panics, unsure how to get out.

Seize the Day | Saul Bellow

Tommy Wilhelm is in his mid-forties. Years earlier he had tried to become a movie star, but now he is unemployed, poor, and separated from his wife. He argues with his father, who is ashamed of him. Tommy put his last bit of money into stocks, and he’s worried about losing it.

The Plague | Albert Camus

In the town of Oran, in North Africa, rats begin dying in the street. Shortly after, a person gets sick and dies. When others die, it is suspected that the strange malady is bubonic plague. The authorities convene and take measures against it, but they’re half-hearted.

Oliver Twist | Charles Dickens

Oliver is an orphan who is sent to an “infant farm”, a workhouse, and then is apprenticed to an undertaker. Along the way he is underfed and bullied. He runs away to London and gets in with a crowd of child criminals led by Fagin, a filthy, selfish man who trains the children to steal.

“He felt frightened at first, for the wind moaned dismally over the empty fields: and he was cold and hungry, and more alone than he had ever felt before.”

Read “Oliver Twist”

The Painted Bird | Jerzy Kosinski

World War II begins and Eastern European Jews are being killed or sent to concentration camps. A six-year-old boy goes into hiding, bouncing around from village to village and home to home, experiencing varying degrees of mistreatment and help and witnessing acts of violence and sexuality.

Notes from Underground | Fyodor Dostoevsky

The narrator, an ex civil servant, expatiates on consciousness and how it leads to inaction, and self-interest. He visits some old friends but feels ignored and unwanted.

Read “Notes from Underground”

A Bend in the River | V.S. Naipaul

Salim is an Indian Muslim in the Congo (Zaire) where he owns a shop. There is an uneasy peace in the region. Salim’s people are a minority in this area, and he is alienated. He can’t go back home as his family is scattered due to instability in that area. The Big Man is a dictator who is trying to squash the uprisings of the rebels. Salim tries to build his business, but eventually the dictator’s authority interferes with him.

Speak | Laurie Halse Anderson

It is Melinda Sordino’s first day of high school. She doesn’t fit in with any group, and her middle school friends now shun her. Melinda does well in art, but her grades are below usual in everything else. It seems that Melinda called the police at a party for an unknown reason, and this has alienated her from her peers.

A Day No Pigs Would Die |Robert Newton Peck

The Peck family lives in the 1920s on a farm in Vermont. They belong to an austere religious group, the Shakers. When the son,twelve-year-old Rob, does a good deed for a neighbor, he is rewarded with a piglet, Pinky. They become very close. Rob matures while balancing schoolwork with the practical work of the farm.

Ulysses | James Joyce

This complex narrative follows the lives of Leopold Bloom, a reserved, caring married man in his late thirties, and Stephen Dedalus, an educated, aspiring poet.

Read “Ulysses”

Quartet in Autumn | Barbara Pym

Four aging office workers – Marcia, Letty, Norman, and Edwin – are nearing retirement. They all have lives of varying degrees of solitude. Each has plans for retirement, but they encounter challenges adapting to a new routine.

Stones from the River | Ursula Hegi

This novel takes place in Germany from 1915 to 1951. Trudi is a dwarf, which isolates her from others. Her father runs a pay library from their home. Trudi eventually mingles with people in the library, finding out a lot about their lives. A portion of the narrative deals with the persecution of the Jews under Nazi rule.

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