Students on Isherwood: "Come Again, Sir. I Don’t Get You," on death and dissociation in A Single Man

Christopher Freeman and James J. Berg, editors of the forthcoming volume The American Isherwood (January 2015), have compiled exemplary essays about writer Christopher Isherwood’s craft from their students to share on the Press blog leading up to the publication of their book. If you are attending the 2015 Modern Language Association conference in Vancouver, stop by our booth (B327) to take a look at The American Isherwood, along with many other fantastic UMP titles.

This essay is printed with permission from the author. It has been edited from the original version. 

Student, University of Southern California

Preface: I took Chris Freeman’s class on Forster and Isherwood last year, where we studied texts by and about the two men. The reading list was exhaustive, and while I had some difficulty connecting to Forster’s work, Isherwood’s left me breathless; I can’t count the times I re-read the ending of A Single Man (which resulted in the essay below). Chris introduced us to his friend Jim Berg via Skype, whose critical work on Isherwood we’d discussed, and what resulted was a couple dozen Isherwood-crazed undergraduates and one equally enthused professor.

In “A Last Lecture,” Isherwood writes, “There should be a serious art of dying just as there is an art of living.” A Single Man taught me the art of dying is one as lonely as it is necessary, and this paper is my attempt at explicating George’s grief, as well as Isherwood’s mastery of language and the craft.


For such a slim novel, Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man is packed with more than its fair share of heartache, loneliness, and woe. As it follows George through one full day, it portrays self-destructive thought patters left in the wake of his recently deceased partner, Jim, many of which constitute one thing: dissociation. Indeed, George battles his grief by alienating himself from himself, thus precluding any possibility of residual pain—or so he believes. These defense mechanisms manifest themselves in various ways, among them perceiving his own self and body from an outside vantage point and voluntarily relegating his person to fulfill robotic, mechanical tasks. But neither of these techniques succeeds in prolonged comfort; throughout the novel, George drops his composed facade and lets loose on innocent acquaintances with explosive bursts of rambling, or on himself with indulgent fantasies. These lapses only further substantiate the internal conflict eviscerating his every waking moment, as they are peeks into the “real” George—as Isherwood asks towards the end of the novel, “But is all of George altogether present here?” (183). Examining George’s auto-alienation and violent slip-ups is fascinating, but all the more so because of the internal tension they signify . . . if George’s mind feels the need to create distance between him and himself, why is our first instinct to disapprove of it? Isherwood’s novel portrays these three processes—dissociation, self-mechanization, and loss of composure—as different lenses through which to examine grief, and ultimately make a statement about death and its necessary beauty.

The novel’s initial depiction of George is one of absolute distance from self. As he wakes up, George must reassemble his own identity, starting with the fact that he exists, then that he is in a place (his bed), as well as a time (now). His body works itself out, testing its motor functions, described as “that grim disciplinarian [who] has taken its place at the central controls . . .” (10). George’s brain is immediately differentiated from his body, which immediately marks dissociation, even in terms of specific parts, which are usually considered one complete entity. But the dissociation doesn’t stop there; without thinking about it, George backtracks and temporarily stops referring to himself by a gender at all, instead using the pronoun “it.” Before he gets dressed, he reflects, “Its nakedness has to be covered. It must be dressed up in clothes because it is going outside, into the world of the other people, and these others must be able to identify it” (11). The final step to George’s existential wake-up routine is remembering his name, which he does: “It knows its name. It is called George” (11). Isherwood plays with our conception of George by introducing him as this uncertain, self-skeptical automaton, emphasizing the dry torpidity in which he lives, and this absence-from-self continues—just a few moments later when, killing ants in the kitchen, he “has a sudden glance of himself doing this” (13). George is separated from his present experience by a buffer of auto-alienation, and by becoming a spectator of his own actions, he loses agency and the capacity to really do anything at all.

This attitude of basic dissociation permeates the novel, as George navigates from home to work and elsewhere, but it is only his first defense mechanism; the second is rendering himself a mechanical object, something to be used. When he gets to work, he is uncomfortable having nothing to do, and, as Isherwood writes, “Now he is a public utility, the property of STSC, he is impatient to be used” (49). What’s disturbing about George’s mentality isn’t that he allows others to use him in this way, or even that he desires it—he needs it. Putting himself in someone else’s hands lends George a utility, and thereby a purpose. In flight of his bereavement, George longs for something (or someone) to steer him in a direction . . . any direction, really, as long as he’s going somewhere. We see him fulfill a similar, dehumanized role when he visits Doris in the hospital and she holds his hand: “[Doris’] grip tightens. There is no affection in it, no communication. She isn’t gripping a fellow creature. [George’s] hand is just something to grip” (100). It’s no coincidence that George is continually shuffled into positions of mindless function; this second defense mechanism of relinquishing selfhood in the interest of manipulative others allows him to put off confronting his own feelings and regrets.

But neither of these practices is entirely successful; at several times in the novel, George loses possession of himself and starts on long rants loaded with misplaced aggression. At least three times he does this in public (lecturing his class, castigating the pretentious Cynthia, and talking to Kenny at his home), each more out-of-bounds than the last (70, 90, 174). These seemingly uncharacteristic verbal blasts are usually entertaining, and always thought provoking, but, more importantly, they give us a glimpse into the turmoil that Jim’s death has wreaked on George’s psyche. George’s thoughts are a frenzy of bottled emotion, and his (at times) intentional dissociation only exacerbates this, as they repress and misdirect. In particular, George’s lunchtime interaction with Cynthia reveals the turmoil within him; without warning, he cuts off her drab rambling by saying, “Honestly! Are you out of your mind? . . . My God, you sound like some dreary French intellectual who’s just set foot in New York for the first time” (90). George can be a curmudgeon, that much is certain, and his private thoughts about most of his contemporaries are anything but polite, but he is usually able to censor himself and say only what is appropriate. Most of George’s neighbors are spared his vitriol. Not so for Cynthia. George lashes out with displaced anger, and, when he has finished, he feels proud of himself.

In addition to releasing pent up energy on others, George also lapses out of his robotic stupor against himself. This comes in the form of long fantasies, driven by excitement or resentment. Before he goes to work, George daydreams about sabotaging a new apartment complex, which is innocuous enough, but he quickly waxes violent, dreaming up an entire vigilante organization whose chief goal is to intimidate anti-gay figures into terrified submission (37-40). For George, this is cathartic and necessary, as it provides a seemingly harmless outlet through which he can vent longstanding rage.

The terrorist fantasy seems to fulfill its purpose, but it isn’t until the end of the novel that George has a daydream more firmly planted in reality, both in its inception and execution. After Kenny leaves his house, George imagines him returning with his girlfriend Lois to have sex—a whimsical thought at first, but one that turns more serious when he replaces Lois with a Mexican tennis player from earlier in the day. This seriousness is reflected by the fact that, just two paragraphs later, George thinks, “No. That won’t work, either. George doesn’t like Kenny’s attitude. He isn’t taking his lust seriously; in fact, he seems to be on the verge of giggles. Quick—we need a substitute!” (179). George swaps Kenny out for the second tennis player, and he proceeds to masturbate to the thought. But these two details—the fact that this fantasy was a) more rooted in reality, and b) acted upon (through sexual release)—leave it far more mature than the past ones, perhaps indicating that George has matured in the short twenty-something hours over which the novel has followed him.

Perhaps the most shocking aspect of A Single Man is its ending—Isherwood poses a hypothetical (a thing that is “wildly improbable”) that in the exact moment when George first set eyes on Jim he began developing a lethal arterial blockage, and then, having established the hypothetical, Isherwood depicts George’s death that night, organ by organ, piece by piece (185). As the life leaves our narrator, Isherwood writes:

And if some part of the nonentity we called George has indeed been absent at this moment of terminal shock, away out there on the deep waters, then it will find itself homeless. For it can associate no longer with what lies here, unsnoring, on the bed. (186)

The novel ends with violent diction describing a peaceful moment, reflecting the turmoil within George from page one, but what kind of an ending is this? George’s self-alienation has been nothing but self-destructive, so why close in this way?

Maybe George’s problem hasn’t been succumbing to the dissociation, but rather not succumbing enough.

When George is with Kenny in the bar, he describes the future with one word: “Death” (156). The separation of soul and body (or dissolution of either entirely) marks the most perfect and complete form of dissociation. Whether or not it happens this night, it will eventually, and George is all too aware of this. His mind has been wretched and conflicted since Jim’s passing, and his natural response has been to detach himself from himself to mitigate the pain, but I think this is more than just a series of defense mechanisms; rather, it is George’s natural urge to follow Jim into the grave. We should have seen it coming. When George visits Doris in the hospital, he eyes a bedridden patient getting wheeled into surgery and thinks to himself, “This is the gate. . . . Must I pass through here, too?” (94). He isn’t thinking of the patient. He’s thinking of Jim. George’s inclination to follow Jim into death is the greatest possible testament to the love and devotion of their relationship. George’s mind is so set on surviving and rejecting any notion of the future (“Damn the future. Let Kenny and the kids have it”) that it can only allow half-assed dissociations which result in inappropriate outbursts and inordinate fantasies, when perhaps it subconsciously longs for more (182). A Single Man is a novel racked with dissonance, conflict, and stretched parts pleading for reunion, but the real reason the hypothetical death in the end reads so beautifully is because it’s exactly what George needs.


Works Cited

Isherwood, Christopher. A Single Man. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001. Print.

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