Eleanor is at once an elitist and also an outcast, which places her somewhere near Ignatius O’Reilly from Confederacy of Dunces. Her “cryptic crossword” puzzles represent her superior intellect. Yet her bottles of wine and vodka drinking habit say “depressed.” Or is she? She claims to be content and self-contained. It is only to please her mother that she feels the need to find a romantic partner. We all have our reasons.
She explains to her mother:
“I’m fine on my own.”
Published in 2017, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine features a truly singular protagonist. Eleanor has always been fine on her own, as the novel’s title insists. As the readers, we tend to agree, drawn in by the internal logic of Eleanor’s quirky preferences and her kind of anti-charisma. This need for a partner, then, has been imposed on her by her mother, who has apparently been institutionalized.
While her colleagues and other “normal” people find Eleanor strange and subject her to ridicule, it is heartening that from her perspective, she disapproves of them. She disapproves of the way they make their tea, their dirty cups, and their cheap tea brands. It is ironic that while they place themselves above her in the social pecking order, it is in fact Eleanor who passes judgment on them. She is operating on a different value system than them, one which is possibly superior.
Her last name indicates her gigantic intellect, the judgements she passes on those around her, the singularity of her personality, and her unlikely self-assurance.
Eleanor, our first-person narrator, has a refined contempt for most people around her. She finds that they have “underdeveloped social skills,” which is frankly a just observation of where we are as a society.
Eleanor is glib and skilled in conversation in her own quirky way. She observes a wedding reception:
“For hours and hours, there was a disco, and terrible people danced in a terrible way to terrible music” (37).
Like Igantius Reilly, she speaks in an overly formal tone to people around her, whom she considers to be ignorant and incomprehensible. She deals with them abruptly. When Eleanor and her coworker see an old man collapse on the street, her coworker, Raymond, asks her to call an ambulance. She responds:
“I don’t possess a mobile telephone…although I’m open to persuasion with regard to their efficacy” (40).
When we see with what little concern she regards the fallen old man, whom she unkindly assumes to be a drunkard, we begin to understand how much of a misanthrope Eleanor really is.
Eleanor is a profoundly alone woman–which is not to say lonely. Her loneliness does not perturb her as society says that it should:
“I cleared my throat before I spoke, realizing that I hadn’t uttered a word for almost twelve hours, back when I told the taxi driver where to drop me off. That’s actually quite good, for me–usually, I don’t speak from the point at which I state my destination to the bus driver on Friday night, right through until I greet his colleague on Monday morning” (73).
She insists that loneliness does not bother her:
“Some people, weak people, fear solitude” (134).
Yet if solitude is such a wonderful arrangement, why does she find herself at the supermarket buying three bottles of vodka?
Eleanor has a complicated relationship with her own femininity. She considers the accouterments of womanhood, such as make up or flattering clothing, to be silly and pretentious. Yet she is more than willing to acquiesce to what she perceives as arbitrary standards when it comes to preparing to attract her prospective true love, the local rock singer Johnnie Lamond. Eleanor tends to view courtship in terms of animal mating, noting to a make-up artist that she looks like a “North American racoon” after receiving smoky eye shadow. Though she didn’t ask for it, the stylist covers up Eleanor’s scars.
Is it Eleanor who is strange, or is it the outside world which fails to meet her standards? Considering Eleanor’s charm and burning intellect, I lean towards the latter. But as the novel unfolds, one disappointingly realizes that her persona is the result of trauma more than a conscious moral choice.
In the voice of the novel is an ineffable sadness, a pain simmering just below the surface. This becomes more tangible in the last third of he novel. Though Eleanor seems cold and almost beyond the reach of humanity, this freeze does begin to thaw gradually. She is a traumatized women, who frequently resorts to vodka, as it becomes increasingly clear that she uses alcohol to numb her pain and keep at bay unpleasant memories and malevolent voices.
Eleanor is inadvertently thrown into human interaction when she leaves work at the same time as Raymond, an IT worker in her office, whom she bumps into on the street. She cannot avoid but to walk with him, given the timing of their exit, when they witness an elderly man collapse. They call an ambulance, and check on the man.
Attending to this old man, whom we later learn is named Sammy Thom, gives Raymond and Eleanor a reason to continue interacting, though Eleanor regards Raymond with contempt. For Raymond’s part, he is much more normal than Eleanor, in that he has friends and a more healthy social life. Nevertheless, he invites Eleanor to “grab a pint” at a nearby pub.
Though Eleanor antagonizes almost everyone she interacts with, Raymond is tolerant of her. At the bar, though, he slowly realizes how strange she is. Her ulterior motive for going to the bar is to study how people interact in such an environment, because the man she is obsessed with, a singer in a band, might want to go to such a place. The pint of beer, then, is more like reconnaissance for her.
Eleanor finds the musician’s address by one of his social media posts, and from there manages to enter his building. She stands outside his door, listens and peers inside. Perhaps without even meaning to, she is stalking him.
As Raymond and Eleanor repeat visits to Sammy Thom, Eleanor unexpectedly becomes emotional as Sammy grabs both her hands and thanks her for saving his life, as he terms it, referring to her affectionately as “lass” and “hen.” Because Sammy’s daughter Laura seems to disappoint him, being 35, divorced, and not really conforming to Sammy’s idea of a wholesome life, perhaps Eleanor is a surrogate daughter for him. Sammy likewise is a surrogate father for her. Finally there is a fissure in Eleanor’s frosty exterior, as she tears up outside of the hospital.
On the way back to the hospital, Raymond invites her to his mom’s house. They have tea and enjoy a pleasant evening. When Raymond’s mom asks her if she has a close relationship with her mom and dad, she reveals that she never knew her father, and that her mother is “inaccessible.” It is as though a dam has burst and we see Eleanor is harboring great emotional wounds in her psyche and how meaningful this social interaction has been for her.
Laura is found wanting in Eleanor’s eyes, who describes Laura as consisting of “mammaries and peroxide” (104). Nonetheless, Laura invites both Eleanor and Raymond to a party to celebrate Sammy’s release from the hospital.
The more we get to know Eleanor’s mother, meanwhile, the more sinister she seems. She hurls abuse at Eleanor in one of their weekly phone calls, enraged that Eleanor was not available for the last one, when she was out with Raymond at the hospital.
At Laura’s party, Eleanor delights Laura with her offbeat behavior–Laura somewhat misreads Eleanor as being facetious when Eleanor states that she hasn’t met her boyfriend yet. Nonetheless, Eleanor agrees to an appointment to have Laura style her hair.
In an intimate and buzzed conversation with Raymond at the party, Eleanor reveals that her ex boyfriend had abused her, broke her bones, and cheated on her. Raymond is shocked at this level of violence in her past. Raymond’s tender response and their tentative parting after he calls Eleanor a cab give the first hint that maybe there is something between them after all, and Eleanor will disabuse herself of her silly fantasy, the musician, Johnnie Lomond. Raymond is like what happens to you on your way to a journey, and then realize it is in fact the destination.
Yet Eleanor continues to find fault with Raymond’s slovenly appearance and actually finds him a little disgusting, especially when he’s eating. She nonetheless delights in their interaction, and even manages to forget about her crossword puzzle for the day: “Strangely, I felt no concern about the crossword whatsoever” (159). One hopes that Eleanor will also realize that Johnnie Lomond is a silly dream and that Raymond is the reality right in front of her.
Eleanor’s mother is an increasing presence in the second half of the novel. While her malevolence is merely hinted at early in the book, now she becomes verbally abusive, perhaps a source of Eleanor’s bizarre and unhealthy self-conception.
The long awaited meeting with Johnnie Lomond goes disturbingly bad. At the concert, which Eleanor attends solo, she finally realizes that she has been deluding herself:
“He wouldn’t be drawn to a woman like me. He was, objectively, a very attractive man, and could therefore select from a wide range of potential partners. He would choose an equally attractive woman a few years younger than himself. Of course he would.” (221)
This epiphany is a harsh one; it pops Eleanor’s fantasy bubble mercilessly. What follows is a period of self-disgust and attempted suicide. Johnnie was not what she made him out to be. In a sense, it isn’t that Johnnie rejected her, but that she rejected him (without ever speaking to him).
What follows is an unspoken but simmering rivalry between Laura and Eleanor for the affections of Raymond. Eleanor ultimately wins this rivalry, as Laura is deemed by Raymond to be “high maintenance.” In the final third of the novel, Eleanor sees a counsel and the secrets of her past are revealed.
It is curious as to why Eleanor would be so unfamiliar with the most basic aspects of social interaction, despite her traumatic past. She often compares human interaction to the animal world:
“The strange thing–something I’d never expected–was that it actually made you feel better when someone put their arm around you, held you close. Why? Was it some mammalian thing, this need for human contact?” (187).
The reference to animal life in analyzing humans is humorous, but author Gail Honeyman never adequately shows how this came to be her perspective. She’s not familiar with how to put on make up, using abbreviations in email, or even having a smart phone. It is dubious as to whether such a person of 30 exists nowadays, regardless of whether they’ve had a traumatic past. The Guardian explains in a review of Eleanor Oliphant:
“...without social interaction, our ability to understand what is appropriate behaviour in the world simply withers away.”
That might be true to an extent, but we all have the same reference to culture via TV, etc., so even bereft of social interaction, one is familiar with the cultural vernacular. Yet Eleanor’s weirdness works on a literary level, so we’ll have to let it slide.
Another criticism is that the final third of the book is not quite as punchy as the beginning. The tone changes to something more touchy feely, something more feminine frankly. This is inevitable because the plot is such that Eleanor’s prior trauma is slowly unrolled. On the other hand, the appeal of the book becomes less universal.
Eleanor’s persona in the beginning of the novel is quirky and compelling: she’s invulnerable, immune to human contact and emotional needs. Alas, the point of the book is that this state of affairs cannot last. As her therapist explains:
“Humans have a range of needs that we need to have met, Eleanor, in order to be happy and healthy individuals. You’ve described how your basic physical needs–warmth, food, shelter–were taken care of. But what about your emotional needs?” (261)
At first, Eleanor is something of an elitist, a grammar nazi, someone who delivered harsh but fair judgment on others. In the end of the novel, she has instead learned the trite lesson “don’t judge others,” as she sits on a bus, observing her less than perfect fellow citizens. That’s why the novel becomes less like Confederacy of Dunces and more like women’s fiction (chick lit).
But as far as I’m concerned, it’s also a good thing to have a feminine perspective in Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. We learn how different the process of falling in love can be for women. After all, Eleanor was if anything physically repelled by Raymond, yet she ends up falling for him. How many men can say they were physically repelled by a woman and had that feeling turn into love?
Honeyman, Gail. Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine. NY: Penguin Books, 2017.
Toole, John Kennedy. A Confederacy of Dunces. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1980.