Despite recent studies and articles about introversion, the general perception of introverts as timid, shy, and antisocial persists. Being an introvert, I can tell you that we’re really just like everyone else, except for one big difference: while extroverts gain energy from interacting with people, introverts lose energy in social interactions and need to recharge by being alone. But although the prospect of small talk fills us with dread, we enjoy deep, stimulating discussions with one or a few people.
“Solitude matters, and for some people it’s the air they breathe,” says Susan Cain, who wrote a definitive book loved and lauded by introverts around the world: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. After reading the book, I finally realized that I no longer needed to feel guilty for wanting to get away from friends and family whom I loved. I was just an introvert.
Part of the magic of reading books is that we can feel profoundly connected to the world around us without leaving our homes, our rooms, our beds. It’s no surprise then, that literature has always been a safe haven for introverts. Extroversion may be the cultural ideal, but I've always felt a strong affinity to these remarkable introverted characters who've shaped my understanding of the world and even of myself. Maybe you will, too.
Konstantin Dimitrich Levin
I loved Anna Karenina the novel, but the character I identified with most was Levin. A classic introvert, Levin is happiest when he is alone to contemplate the world, engaged with thoughts that are often at odds with conventional wisdom. He avoids the city at all costs, preferring the solitude and authenticity of the countryside.
Tolstoy’s portrayal of the country is the antithesis to the decadent, affected and always-on-display society of the city (in Joe Wright’s film adaptation, the city scenes literally take place on a stage.) Levin finds joy in the intense labour of the muzhiks on his estate and works with them morning to night. Most of the time, he just wants to be alone and think deeply about life. He even proposes to Kitty silently, in one of my favorite romantic scenes in literature.
Aaliya is a divorced and childless 72-year-old with an insightful sense of humor. She lives alone in her apartment in Beirut, and has spent her entire adult life working in a bookstore, reading, and translating her favorite books into Arabic. No one has ever read these translations; they are stored in cardboard boxes in the unused maid’s room.
To an outsider, her life would seem lonely, but her sharp mind is filled with the books and authors she has read. She describes how it feels to fall in love with a book: “the first crush all over again, the smile of the soul.” After a particularly taxing encounter, she feels as if “being around so many people yesterday unhinged me, unhinged my soul.” The only conversations she enjoys are those with her close friend, Hannah; a young boy who frequented and ended up working at the store, Ahmed; and eventually, with her neighbours, ‘the three witches.’
3. Mr. Darcy
Ah, the age-old "misunderstood" man who appears to be rude but in reality has a heart of gold, and goes out of his way to find your runaway sister and her not-quite-husband. When we first see him, Darcy appears reserved and pompous, as if he can barely stand being at the assembly ball. “I certainly have not the talent which some people possess,” he confesses to Elizabeth Bennet, “of conversing easily with those I have never seen before.” He masks his reticence with rudeness.
In a society where your worth was measured by your performance at galas — which, by definition, required you to be social, or at least pretend, Darcy didn’t stand a chance. He was judged harshly, but as the novel progresses we see that he is a caring friend to Bingley, and a doting brother. And his housekeeper loves him. Darcy is a much nicer person when Elizabeth meets him at Pemberly, his home, where he can be himself.
Anne has always felt different from her family. As a young girl, Anne fell in love with a young, dashing sailor, Frederick Wentworth. But the match was considered inappropriate because of Wentworth’s lack of financial means and she was persuaded to break off her engagement to him. Eight years later, Captain Wentworth returns, with, you guessed it — financial means. Anne is wiser, but also older. At 28, she is considered a spinster. Ouch.
Anne has a rich inner life, but no one cares enough to know about it. This gives the novel a tender, poignant quality. Anne seems to be the dull girl no one wants to marry, but the reader, who has access to her inner world, her thoughts and feelings, knows she is so much more than that. And so, eventually, does Captain Wentworth.
When we first see Jane Eyre, she is immersed in a book, having mounted the window seat and drawn the blinds, “shrined in double retirement.” Jane may be quiet, but she is one of the most resilient heroines I've come across in literature. Orphaned as a child, forced to live with her awful aunt and cousins, Jane finds what solitude she can in books and develops a rich imagination as an escape.
During her journey, Jane forms intimate relationships with kindred spirits. At Lowood, the boarding school for orphans, she befriends Helen and a teacher, Miss Temple. Later, as a governess at Thornfield, she falls in love with her employer, Mr. Edward Rochester. Their evening conversations are deep and stimulating; none of the polite chatter Jane would find dull. She is also deeply compassionate despite the suffering and sorrow she has faced. Jane Eyre possesses a quiet, powerful strength that would not be apparent in a first impression.
Jay Gatsby and Nick Carraway
Gatsby is charismatic and lives an ostentatious lifestyle. But as we find at the beginning of the novel, his charisma has more to do with his reputation than with his personality. He throws lavish parties, but while the party is raging outside, Gatsby is inside, alone. His only two close relationships are with Daisy, and Nick Carraway, the novel’s narrator. In fact, the only reason Gatsby throws all those wild parties is to lure Daisy to him. The theme of isolation is evident throughout the novel, and is exemplified in Gatsby’s character.
Nick Carraway is happy to sit on the side-lines and observe the world and people around him, but he is not simply a passive observer (if he was, he wouldn’t make a very good narrator and The Great Gatsby would not make a very captivating novel.) His mind is engaged with what is happening around him, and he has an opinion. But he rarely shares his thoughts with those around him. Nick is also an excellent listener, making him an ideal person for Daisy and Gatsby to confide in.
All Bilbo wants to do is sit on his chair with a cup of tea in the comfort of his cosy hobbit hole. He is horrified when a group of dwarves descends on his fortress of solitude (by the way, Superman was an introvert too), wreaking havoc on his peace of mind. In The Lord of the Rings, Bilbo tells Gandalf that he feels “thin, stretched out, like butter scraped over too much bread,” an apt description of a tired introvert desperately seeking a long stretch of solitude.
Bilbo shows that an introvert can be adventurous and brave, even if he wants nothing more than to go back to the comfort of his home. When he returns, the hobbits in the Shire can only guess at Bilbo’s adventures, as he is a total recluse and hates unwarranted knocks on his door.
Renée Michel and Paloma Josse
The novel is told from the alternating points of view of two introverted narrators, and tells of their unlikely friendship. It is a goldmine for the introverted reader, filled with passages about books and tea, and the “jewel of infinity in a single moment.” Renée is the concierge of a posh building in an upscale neighbourhood in Paris. A 54-year-old widow and self-taught philosopher, Renée maintains the façade of an ignorant, uneducated concierge, hiding her rich intellectual life.
Paloma is the 12-year-old daughter of wealthy Parisians who live in the building. Like Renée, she hides her curious, contemplative mind from those around her. Paloma feels isolated from her family and plans to end her life on her 13th birthday. “Life has meaning and we grown-ups know what it is’ is the universal lie,” she decides. It’s not until a curious new tenant moves in that both Renée and Paloma learn to embrace who they really are.
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