In this blog, placement student Emma Bishop reviews ‘Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine’ and explores research in this field.
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman came out in 2017 and, at first glance, it follows 30 year old Eleanor as she tries to win the affections of a local musician. However, as the story unfolds it becomes clear that there is a lot more to Eleanor. Through her eyes, we get to see the complicated ways in which loneliness, depression, trauma and alcoholism interact. The book is in three sections: Good Days, Bad Days, and Better Days, which I have mimicked in my review.
Before reading, I want to point out that this blog discusses sensitive issues which some people may find distressing.
Loneliness: From the very beginning of the book, the extent of Eleanor’s loneliness is very apparent. Between going home from work on Friday and going back on Monday, it is rare she speaks to anyone. Eleanor herself is aware of this – ‘my phone doesn’t ring often’, but she seems ok with it. She is used to being on her own and describes this experience as being ‘fine’. However, her isolation from society and popular culture is apparent when she doesn’t know what Top Gear is, despite this being the theme of her favourite mug. Eleanor meets and starts to form a friendship with a work colleague called Raymond. As their friendship develops, Eleanor slowly becomes more and more confident within herself and is very excited when she has a successful social interaction, which involves her sharing a meal with other people for the first time since childhood. In Eleanor’s own words, ‘I was warm and full and comfortable in a way I couldn’t remember feeling before.’ This shows us that Eleanor is starting to step out of her comfort zone and away from the routine she’s made for herself. Alongside her developing friendship with Raymond, Eleanor sets her sights on a local musician at a concert she won tickets to. From this first meeting, she investigates his social media and secretly plans out their future together. Eleanor gets quite invested in this hypothetical relationship and spends a lot of her time thinking about him, and planning for their next meeting where she imagines he will confess his love for her. Doing this highlights Eleanor’s desires for social interaction and a meaningful relationship. What she doesn’t realise however, is that the source of this will be Raymond, not the musician.
Depression: Initially, Eleanor’s depression is seen primarily through her loneliness and her low self esteem. For example, she doesn’t look at her reflection in mirrors ‘as a rule’ because half of her face is scarred from a fire she was in when she was a child. Eleanor is self conscious about this and feels like people stare at her. There are also some hints that Eleanor experiences regular negative thoughts. When reflecting on her relating to the character of Jane Eyre, Eleanor explains this away by saying ‘Everything seems worse in the darkest hours of the night.’ When she’s awake in the middle of the night she is often burdened with remembering unpleasant memories. This insomnia Eleanor experiences is also a hint towards her depressive tendencies.
Alcoholism: Within the first few chapters, it becomes clear that Eleanor has an unhealthy relationship with alcohol. She describes vodka as being ‘a household necessity, like a loaf of bread or a packet of tea’. This level of alcohol dependency is often associated with depression because it can be a coping mechanism for a lot of people. For Eleanor, drinking alcohol, particularly vodka, is part of her daily routine and she buys two new bottles every weekend to see her through until Monday morning.
Trauma: From the beginning of the book, there are signs that Eleanor has been through a lot in her life, and has experienced considerable mental pain. Eleanor recounts the trauma of experiencing facial scarring during a fire in childhood. She states that ‘pain is easy: pain is something with which I am familiar’. This is further explained when she slowly reveals that, over the course of her childhood, Eleanor experienced physical and emotional abuse at the hands of her mother. Eleanor’s scars are traumatic for her because they are a symbol of the pain she went through as a child. Every Wednesday Eleanor has a phone call with her mother who she refers to as ‘Mummy’. Her mother is very manipulative and constantly tells Eleanor that she isn’t good enough, she’s an embarrassment and a failure. The harsh and critical parenting she has received from her mother is a well-replicated risk factor for depression and other mental health problems. These phone calls often end with Eleanor crying and drinking which links back to Eleanor’s depression and alcohol dependence.
“Eleanor has been through a lot in her life, and has experienced considerable mental pain.”
Loneliness: When the time comes for her to see the musician again, Eleanor has her hair done, gets a new outfit and prepares a card with a poem to give him. However, during the concert, the way the musician behaves makes her realise that he isn’t the wonderful person she thought he was. Eleanor feels childish for romanticising this man whom she doesn’t know and will never know. She says ‘I had convinced myself he was the one, that he would help to make me normal, fix the things that were wrong with my life.’ The musician symbolises Eleanor’s longing for companionship, and realising that this isn’t going to happen is a big trigger for Eleanor which results in a serious depressive episode.
Depression: Eleanor describes her depression as the ‘familiar black, black mood’ revealing that she has experienced it before. During this time, she sleeps a lot, drinks huge quantities, never allowing herself to become sober, doesn’t get dressed, and gets stuck in a loop of negative thoughts. All of these are common symptoms seen within those with clinical depression. During this time, Eleanor reaches her lowest and starts to feel suicidal. Mental health conditions such as depression are known risk factors of suicidality. Eleanor says that she doesn’t want to die but that she ‘doesn’t really want to be alive.’ Whilst lying on the floor of her apartment, she decides she doesn’t have to, and doesn’t want to, wait for death. At that moment, she wants to end her life.
She falls asleep again and dreams of the fire in her childhood, remembering all her guilt from that night. Eleanor survived this fire but has an unsettling sense of guilt about this which she tries to repress. When she wakes again, Eleanor expresses the chronic loneliness that she has felt for years, ‘After the fire, I never managed to find anyone who could fit the spaces that had been created inside of me.’ She craves simple human contact and touch but feels like she can’t talk to anyone about it. If someone asked her how she was, she knew she was ‘meant to say FINE.’ This is a message that a lot of people struggle with because it is generally accepted that you should say you are fine even when you may not be due to the stigma surrounding mental health. Eleanor wakes again a few hours later to Raymond banging on her door, frantic with concern for her.
“If someone asked her how she was, she knew she was ‘meant to say FINE.’”
Alcoholism: As a way of silencing the depression that Eleanor experiences after realising the relationship with the musician is not to be, she turns to alcohol. When Eleanor is in her darkest place, she acknowledges that she is going to kill herself but states that ‘it’s just a matter of how much vodka I drink before I do it’.’ This dark point in the story really highlights the dangerous consequences people can face if they turn to alcohol when struggling with depression and trauma.
Trauma: On their next phone call, Eleanor lets her mother know that she has stopped pursuing the musician. Her mother gets very angry but Eleanor keeps quiet as she has learnt that this is ‘usually the safest course of action.’ Eleanor’s loneliness hits her again as she realises she doesn’t have anyone who can ‘help me deal with Mummy’. She wishes she had someone who could help ‘block out her voice’ when she tells her ‘I was bad, I was wrong, I wasn’t good enough.’ She understands that her mother is bad for her and that she needs to distance herself, but feels as if she can’t do it on her own. This conversation with her mother takes Eleanor back to the night of the fire and she relives it again.
Loneliness: By the end of the book, Eleanor and Raymond have a very strong friendship and she finally feels like she has someone she can rely on, ‘my first pal! It had certainly taken me a long, long time to acquire one.’ Raymond’s support leads Eleanor to seek professional help in the form of a counsellor who helps her process her trauma.
Alcoholism: As Eleanor emerges from her depression, she decides she must no longer drink, as she realises she had come to rely on it to block out the world. Instead, she now feels she wants to experience life in full. After her therapy sessions, Eleanor often feels very emotional due to the nature of what she is describing, and would leave them feeling drained and raw. Previously, feeling like this would have made her reach straight for some vodka, but as she says ‘in the end I never did.’ Her new found strength from her friend and the counselling allows her to resist the temptation of alcohol.
Trauma: Through therapy, Eleanor eventually acknowledges that she used to have a sister, who died in the fire. She also recognises that her mother abused both her and her sister throughout their childhood, and tried to kill them both in the house fire. Although Eleanor had thought her mother survived the fire too, the process of therapy slowly allows her to acknowledge that her mother also died, and her communications with her have all been in her imagination. These memories were previously repressed due to the extreme psychological distress they caused her. As Eleanor addresses these issues, she understands that everything her mother told her about her not being good enough, and her fears of becoming her mother, are holding her back. She realises that she does actually have control over her life and who she is as a person. Eleanor rings ‘Mummy’ and tells her that she remembers what happened the night of the fire. In doing this she purges herself of her mother’s criticism and abuse, and ‘just like that, Mummy was gone.’ Through allowing herself to remember and begin to process the trauma that she went through, Eleanor was able to rid herself of the voice of her mother that lived in her head.
“She realises that she does actually have control over her life and who she is as a person.”
Eleanor’s story is a powerful message about a trauma survivor whose mental health has suffered through her life. Due to her fear and loneliness, she never felt that she could talk to someone about what she was going through. However, after stepping out of her comfort zone and regularly attending therapy, she felt much more at peace with herself and in Eleanor’s own words ‘I’m fine thanks.’ This time, she knew she really meant it.
Effective treatments are available for the difficulties Eleanor experienced and I encourage anyone who is struggling to seek help. Below are some resources which can offer support and guidance.