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 []

[2] ‘Increase in numbers of middle aged people living alone’, The Telegraph, 2 Nov 2012 []

[3] ‘Half a million elderly people to spend Christmas Day alone this year’, The Telegraph, 20 Dec 2014, []

[4] ‘Loneliness amongst older people and the impact of family connections’, Royal Voluntary Service, 2012 []

[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.’