Looking for stories about people living in isolation and happy solitude
September 29, 2019 11:15 AM   Subscribe

Could you recommend books, short stories, essays, graphic novels etc. featuring people who are alone (ideally physically isolated) and enjoy their solitude, or come to enjoy it? Examples and more details inside!

My house has been full of people for the past several weeks, and we'll have (very welcome!) house guests and visitors for more than half of the remaining weeks and weekends this year. It is enjoyable but a bit overwhelming! I re-read Circe by Madeline Miller last week and found that I really relished the passages where she was alone and learning to live happily on her island.

I'd love more recommendations of stories of people living in happy / contented solitude to read amid the hustle and bustle of my life right now!

- I'm open to fiction and non-fiction of any genre and length;
- Any setting or type of isolation works - space, sea, wilderness, etc;
- It's fine if the isolation initially makes them unhappy as long as they eventually come to enjoy it;
- I'd prefer stories about individual people, but I'm open to stories about couples, families, or small communities if they do a good job capturing the feeling of enjoyable solitude and isolation;
- I'm fine if the happy solitude is just in certain passages or chapters rather than throughout the whole work; and
- Not at all mandatory but extra bonus points for happy or happy-ish endings.

Thank you so much in advance!
posted by cimton to Writing & Language (24 answers total) 48 users marked this as a favorite
Dick Proenneke in the books and his self filmed documentary "Alone in the Wilderness" is a wonderful example.
posted by tipsyBumblebee at 11:33 AM on September 29, 2019 [9 favorites]

Wordsworth: I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud
posted by Gymnopedist at 11:35 AM on September 29, 2019 [1 favorite]

Kamo no Chōmei, Hōjōki, a.k.a. An Account of My Hut
Xavier de Maistre, A Journey Round My Room
posted by Wobbuffet at 11:36 AM on September 29, 2019 [1 favorite]

How about a doctoral dissertation? A Room of One's Own, Revisited: An Existential-Hermeneutic Study of Female Solitude by Karin Leah Arndt is chock full of insightful and happy solitude stories. She quotes from many books featuring the kinds of stories you're seeking (e.g., Gift From The Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh).

The Hermitary is also a very helpful starting point for finding writings by happy hermits.
posted by velvet winter at 11:40 AM on September 29, 2019 [2 favorites]

I think Sara Maitland is someone who has written about a solo life in a very isolated location - it wouldn't be for everyone, but she seems an interesting person.
posted by AuroraSky at 11:47 AM on September 29, 2019

Sailing Alone Around the World by Captain Joshua Slocum, published in 1900. Capt. Slocum was the first person recorded to have performed that feat. The first section is about finding and rehabilitating his now-legendary sailboat Spray, and then about the journey. It's not a non-stop voyage; not in the late 1890s, but he does have interesting encounters with people, along with pleasant stretches of isolation. Link goes to Project Gutenberg.
posted by Sunburnt at 11:47 AM on September 29, 2019 [2 favorites]

May Sarton, Journal of a Solitude, about a year spent alone when she was 60.
posted by the Real Dan at 11:49 AM on September 29, 2019 [1 favorite]

You might like the novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog.
Dewdrops on a Lotus Leaf: the Zen Poems of Ryokan is another one of my favorite books. He writes beautifully & accessibly about his life as a hermit monk.
posted by bleep at 11:58 AM on September 29, 2019

“Deep Country” by Neil Ansell should fit this bill! He leaves the hubby of London and lives in a cottage, alone, in rural Wales for five years. It’s a lovely memoir.
posted by stillmoving at 12:10 PM on September 29, 2019 [1 favorite]

I'll second A Book of Silence by Sara Maitland. She moved to an isolated rural part of Scotland and lived by herself among the cliffs. She talked about hallucinations, both hers and similar stories from myth and other autobiographies. Fascinating.

To follow up on Joshua Slocum above, there was a documentary on the show Ideas on CBC Radio One where they talked about Slocum and about people who have sailed solo around the world in recent competitions. They talk about things like when you are sailing through the southern Indian Ocean you realise that the closest person to you is in the international space station.
posted by philfromhavelock at 12:27 PM on September 29, 2019 [7 favorites]

The Outermost House by Henry Beston

Woodswoman by Anne LaBastille
posted by jgirl at 12:46 PM on September 29, 2019 [2 favorites]

Lolly Willowes! Middle-aged maiden aunt finally escapes her family obligations to become a witch in the countryside. Her new-found solitude is temporarily threatend by the visit of a nephew but there's a happy ending.

(It must seem like that's the only book I've ever read, because I've already recommended it so often here, but I just like it a lot, I guess. Sometimes my recommendation is a bit of a stretch, but it really fits the bill here. Talk about a character who luxuriates in hard-won solitude. And it's so convincing, as a reader you deeply long for her to get rid of the nephew.)
posted by sohalt at 1:20 PM on September 29, 2019 [2 favorites]

Party of One
posted by rhizome at 1:25 PM on September 29, 2019

John Muir's books. My First Summer in The Sierras formed me.
posted by humboldt32 at 2:08 PM on September 29, 2019

Left Hand of Darkness or The Dispossessed
posted by Lawn Beaver at 3:23 PM on September 29, 2019

Ring of Bright Water by Gavin Maxwell - man and otter in an isolated house on the west coast of Scotland.
posted by penguin pie at 4:24 PM on September 29, 2019

Remnant Population by Elizabeth Moon.
For forty years, Colony 3245.12 has been Ofelia’s home... And it is here that she fully expects to finish out her days–until the shifting corporate fortunes of the Sims Bancorp Company dictates that Colony 3245.12 is to be disbanded, its residents shipped off, deep in cryo-sleep, to somewhere new and strange and not of their choosing. But while her fellow colonists grudgingly anticipate a difficult readjustment on some distant world, Ofelia savors the promise of a golden opportunity. Not starting over in the hurly-burly of a new community... but closing out her life in blissful solitude, in the place she has no intention of leaving. A population of one.
posted by spamandkimchi at 6:43 PM on September 29, 2019

It's aimed at much younger readers, but I found Island of the Blue Dolphins to be really soothing in this way. Her solitude is involuntary but ends up being an exercise in self-sufficiency. Could be a nice easy reread (I assume) at a tumultuous time.
posted by babelfish at 7:35 PM on September 29, 2019 [3 favorites]

My Side of the Mountain is a children's story about a boy who runs away and lives in the hollow of a tree. I wanted to do this when I was a kid!

However, the ending really disappointed me, ymmv- (SPOILER>>>when the Dad builds a house there. <<<SPOILER)
posted by freethefeet at 2:27 AM on September 30, 2019 [1 favorite]

Jeremiah Johnson
posted by misanthropicsarah at 7:13 AM on September 30, 2019

I've got some fiction: The Wall (orig. Die Wand) by Marlen Haushofer. I've only seen the movie version, which I will describe: It's about a woman visiting friends in the Austrian Alps. She is alone in their cabin napping (while her friends went into town) when an invisible wall cuts her off from life outside the wall, which, as far as she can see, is frozen in time. It's not a dome; she still has weather, but she, and all the land (several days travel on foot across), and animals in that land, are trapped. When she realizes her fate, she has to learn to cope, and then survive.

The Martian. It's very much about someone with unique survival challenges as well as difficulties getting rescued, but also the loneliness of having been left behind during the emergency evacuation, and Mark Watney's initial sense that he can't survive long enough for rescue. The parallel story of the NASA crew attempting to rescue Watney is much thinner in the book; it's very much about Watney's efforts, both solo and coordinated with Earth and the spaceship Ares (during the period in which he's able to communicate with them).

Maybe The Captive of Nootka, Or, the Adventures of John R. Jewett [sic], a true account of the English sailor and smith who was captured by the Nootka tribe (who exist to this day on northern Vancouver Island), enslaved, and rescued years later. He was not in physical isolation, and for the most part not treated badly, but he experienced a tremendous cultural isolation.
posted by Sunburnt at 3:03 PM on September 30, 2019 [1 favorite]

Possibly Sylvain Tesson's "Consolations of the Forest" (now also a motion picture, apparently.)
posted by wavelette at 3:07 PM on September 30, 2019

The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa. It's not only a paean to solitude and the kind of worldview that results from adopting that attitude, but some of the best literature from the 20th century.

In your OP, you mentioned settings like "space, sea, wilderness, etc." If this physical sense of isolation is key to what you're asking for, this recommendation doesn't really work. But if you're interested in other aspects of solitude--the emotions, beliefs, desires, etc. that go alongside it--then I highly recommend it.
posted by davedave at 12:41 PM on October 1, 2019

Joan Barfoot, Gaining Ground, also published as "Abra"
posted by runincircles at 7:16 AM on October 3, 2019

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