‘Somehow, you just vanish.’ These are the words of Kristin Scott Thomas, who said in an interview with The Telegraph that ‘when you’re walking down the street, people slam doors in your face – they just don’t notice you.’ At a certain age, she claimed, you become ‘invisible.’ Earlier this year, researchers found that Scott Thomas isn’t alone. Two thirds of women over 51 said that they were ‘completely unnoticed’, and that they too felt ‘invisible.’

Invisibility is a metaphor we often grasp at when describing feelings of neglect. It’s how Virginia Woolf conceives of it in her 1925 novel Mrs Dalloway, when, to the 51-year-old Clarissa,

this body, with all its capacities, seemed nothing – nothing at all. She had the oddest sense of being herself invisible; unseen; unknown … being Mrs Dalloway; not even Clarissa any more; this being Mrs Richard Dalloway.

Being ‘unseen’ leads Clarissa to doubt her social standing, subsumed into her husband’s identity as ‘Mrs Richard Dalloway’. For Clarissa, feeling unseen may begin with her appearance, but quickly progresses to questioning her very existence, her ‘being Mrs Dalloway’. From unseen to unknown to non-existent, her sense of self erodes as she walks down Bond Street, a feeling she articulates in the same terms as women today.

Invisibility as a metaphor for neglect has existed for centuries, and so taken root in the English language. We see this in our idioms: saying that ‘people look right through me,’ that we are ‘overlooked’, and, as with Kristin Scott Thomas and Clarissa Dalloway, that we are ‘invisible’. We want to be ‘looked after’. We see this connection between sight and care in our etymologies: to be ‘respected’ is, etymologically, to be looked at often (re + spicere); whilst to be ‘disregarded’ is to have no one look back at you (dis + re + garder). As is often the case, these linguistic phenomena thread together a picture of our cultural psychology. Being seen is a primal human need, and it echoes through our language.

Without being seen, self-esteem can be ground down, or even disappear. Clarissa Dalloway doesn’t just feel invisible, she feels that she is ‘nothing’; Kristin Scott Thomas doesn’t just feel as though she is unnoticed, she feels as if she has ‘vanish[ed].’ Roger Ebert, in an essay on loneliness, suggests we are drawn to companionship to protect ourselves from this feeling: ‘someone once said that the fundamental reason we get married is because we have a universal human need for a witness.’ The prospect of going through life alone is, more properly, the prospect of going through life unseen.

But is matrimony a safeguard against invisibility? The breakdown of marriage or the death of a spouse has contributed to 3.5 million people aged over 65 currently living alone.[1] This number is set to soar: people aged between 45 and 64 are twice as likely to live alone today than they were two decades ago,[2] while the number of people that spent Christmas day alone last year jumped from 300,000 in 2013 to 489,00 last year.[3] We’re living in an era of isolation, where over one million people in the UK go days without seeing another person – and so, perhaps, go days without being seen either.[4]

Joyce Carol VincentJoyce Carol Vincent

This domestic isolation produces countless personal tragedies. Perhaps the most harrowing was Joyce Carol Vincent. Living alone in Wood Green, she died in her living room in 2003. It took two years for her body to be discovered. She was just 38 years old. When the bailiffs eventually broke in, they found her decomposing on the sofa, TV still on, a bag of shopping by her side. Hidden in a brick maze of bedsits, passers-by couldn’t see into her apartment. Her neighbours never stuck around long enough to report the smell. Her friends and her family didn’t notice she was missing. Vincent’s story exemplifies the shocking disregard for human life made possible in a society that facilitates invisibility.

Clarissa Dalloway is acutely aware of the relation of urban isolation to housing that facilitated Vincent’s tragedy. She notices her neighbour, ‘that old lady’, who occasionally comes to the window in the building next door. Despite having lived next to her for ‘ever so many years’, Clarissa doesn’t know her name. It is only at the window that Clarissa can even be aware of her existence. As Clarissa looks at her, they share a moment of heartfelt and excited contact: ‘Oh, but how surprising! — in the room opposite the old lady stared straight at her! … that old lady, crossing the room, coming to the window. Could she see her?’ It is strange that, despite living so close, this moment should be so unprecedented. ‘Life’s supreme mystery’, Clarissa comes to see, is that ‘here was one room; here another.’ Like the two clauses of that phrase, people are side by side, together but separated. In a community that is hermetically compartmentalised, it is only at the window that Clarissa and her neighbour can see each other.

Perhaps, then, it is no coincidence that the image of a solitary, city-dwelling old woman at the window has recurred in the past century.[5] One of the most poignant examples of this type is of course Eleanor Rigby, who

waits at the window, wearing the face

that she keeps in a jar by the door

who is it for?

With terms such as ‘door’, ‘window’ and ‘jar’, songwriter Paul McCartney conjures images that enclose spatial units, relating Rigby’s loneliness to the hermeticism of urban domesticity. In the phrase ‘she keeps in a jar’, he offers an especially chilling metaphor for the home. But the ‘window’ raises the possibility of reaching through that space to connect with the outside world. It’s there that she presents herself to passers-by, wearing a ‘face’ of make-up, courting their gaze. For Clarissa and her nameless neighbour, the window is a place of chance encounter, but for Eleanor Rigby the window is deliberately dressed in the hope of being seen. And yet, ‘who is it for?’ Anticipating Joyce Carol Vincent, Eleanor Rigby lives and dies in anonymity, laid to rest at a funeral where ‘nobody came.’

Yet McCartney’s elegy to modern urban loneliness is also defiant. ‘Ah’, the chorus erupts ; they, if no one else, will witness her tragedy. Their apostrophic wail is followed by a single demand: ‘look at all the lonely people’. In a society where so many are invisible, this song demands our attention. Not only this, but its choric unison acts as an aural metaphor for the dissolution of the spatial boundaries that separate us. There are so many, so close, and so alone. ‘Here … one room’, as Clarissa puts it, ‘here another.’ Somehow, we must break down those walls to witness all the lonely people, and so that all the lonely people can finally be seen.

[1] ‘Later Life In The United Kingdom’, Age UK, October 2015 [http://www.ageuk.org.uk/Documents/EN-GB/Factsheets/Later_Life_UK_factsheet.pdf?dtrk=true]

[2] ‘Increase in numbers of middle aged people living alone’, The Telegraph, 2 Nov 2012 [http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/9650120/Increase-in-number-of-middle-aged-people-living-alone.html]

[3] ‘Half a million elderly people to spend Christmas Day alone this year’, The Telegraph, 20 Dec 2014, [http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/health/news/11204477/Half-a-million-elderly-people-to-spend-Christmas-Day-alone.html]

[4] ‘Loneliness amongst older people and the impact of family connections’, Royal Voluntary Service, 2012 [http://www.royalvoluntaryservice.org.uk/Uploads/Documents/How_we_help/loneliness-amongst-older-people-and-the-impact-of-family-connections.pdf]

[5] One such recurrence is the 1997 Japanese film Shall We Dance, in which a lonely dance teacher is shown constantly staring out of her studio window. The sign on her door reads ‘watching is free.’ The film’s 2004 English remake strikes a similar position on marriage to Ebert: ‘‘We need a witness to our lives … in a marriage, you’re promising to care about everything … You’re saying ‘Your life will not go unnoticed because I will notice it. Your life will not go un-witnessed because I will be your witness.’