Fairy-Tale Files: How Loneliness Hurts

Fairy-Tale Files

Fairy-Tale Files, published once weekly, feature three variations of a fairy tale chosen by one of Fairy Tale Review’s editors, readers, editorial assistants, or contributors.

In Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, “The Snowman,” the eponymous protagonist sees what he believes to be a female stove through a window, and falls head over heels in love. Even though a friendly dog warns the snowman that this love would certainly end in the snowman’s demise, he isn’t deterred. But, in typical Andersen fashion, the story ends with the snowman dying, love unrequited, during the springtime thaw. Andersen biographer Jackie Wullschlager claims “The Snowman” is metaphor for Andersen’s pining over Harald Scharff, which led to a short-lived relationship that seemed to temper Andersen’s loneliness.

Many writers like to characterize themselves as introverts who prefer the company of books or the blank page over other people. That might be true in many cases, but writers have long wondered about the balance between writing—an inherently solitary act—and maintaining community. Michele Filgate asks, “Is loneliness worth it, then, if it sometimes leads to great works of art?” Dorothy Day once wrote: “We have all known the long loneliness.” In “On Risk and Solitude,” Adam Phillips examines the difference between (fertile) solitude and loneliness. Yahoo Answers might have devolved into a meme factory, but people are still looking for answers there.

Now, there’s strong scientific evidence to conclude that loneliness is much more than a psychological inconvenience—it causes genuine, chronic, and potentially catastrophic damage to our cells. Loneliness can cause near-permanent inflammation, which is tied to arthritics and cardiovascular disease. High blood pressure isn’t great, either—as Brian Resnick writes in the link above, loneliness “literally breaks our hearts.” My alma mater, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is notorious for Henry Harlow’s experiments on rhesus monkeys, which sort of proved the trauma of loneliness about six decades ago.

Which also proves that we still have much to learn, not only about our brains and our bodies, but also about ourselves.