Loneliness is such a common experience we discuss it little. Are you lonely only without a significant other? Can you be lonely even with many good friends? And what if there is no one — absolutely no one — in your life, like Robinson Crusoe before he met Friday? What if you are the last person on earth?
The depth and slow, mind-twisting anguish of loneliness is captured in a 1959 episode of Rod Serling’s old Twilight Zone series, appropriately titled The Lonely. Serling, who also wrote and narrated this particular half-hour drama, transports us to a stage of the future:
Witness if you will, a dungeon, made out of mountains, salt flats, and sand that stretch to infinity. The dungeon has an inmate: James A. Corry. And this is his residence: a metal shack. An old touring car that squats in the sun and goes nowhere – for there is nowhere to go. For the record, let it be known that James A. Corry is a convicted criminal placed in solitary confinement. Confinement in this case stretches as far as the eye can see, because this particular dungeon is on an asteroid nine-million miles from the Earth. Now witness, if you will, a man’s mind and body shriveling in the sun, a man dying of loneliness.
In Serling’s conception, isolation affords no capacity to communicate with anyone on Earth or elsewhere. The protagonist’s punishment is a seclusion as total as society can create. There is no internet to divert him, no newspaper to read, no TV, not even a prison guard. Though a convicted murderer, he claims self-defense. Corry’s only human contact comes every three months when a supply-carrying space ship might stay for a few hours or a few minutes to unload the prisoner’s necessities.
James does his best to pass the endless time. The prisoner reads, journals, repairs the broken-down car mentioned by the narrator, and builds a chess board. Corry also owns a deck of cards, with which he can presumably play solitaire. An old-style record player creates background music. Beyond this there is only the heat. Not even vegetation colors the vista. He yells in order to hear a living human voice. Would your echo be a life partner worth living for? James is finding it hard to come up with reasons to say yes.
This intelligent but pitiable creature believes he is slowly losing his mind. One possibility keeps him alive: there is a political movement back on Earth protesting the inhumanity of punishments such as his. Perhaps, just perhaps, there will be a pardon.
The quarterly supply ship returns with something extra for him. What might it be? (Spoiler alert). He opens the large, vacuum-sealed container to discover a machine that activates itself by exposure to the air.
A robot. A woman, if you can call a robot by a human signifier. “Alicia” claims she can feel things. Not just the pain of things physical, but emotional pain — loneliness. Does the title, The Lonely, speak of the man alone or both of them? Surely, Rod Serling wished us to ask whether a robot might be so constituted as to become “human.”
James feels mocked by the likeness of a female who is actually a machine. He rejects her. Does Alicia experience hurt, as would a woman made of blood and flesh? The relationship develops nonetheless. How much of what James comes to see in Alicia is what he wishes to see in her and how much by what she is? How much do any of us try to sustain relationships, imperfect as they are, because of the need to love and be loved? Corry — still nine-million miles from humanity — is no longer lonely.
Twilight Zone was famous for surprise endings, unforeseeable twists. I am not so cruel as to spoil the tale for you, but I will say the conclusion further informs our understanding of loneliness. Consider this story of exquisite pain and artificial redemption a small masterpiece on the human condition. I imagine you will identify moments of your life in James A. Corry’s predicament, as he is portrayed by Jack Warden. You may even see yourself in Jane Marsh as Alicia.
After all, we have all been The Lonely. Click on the link and watch.
Jack Warden and Jean Marsh are pictured above in a still photo from The Lonely. The second image is James Corry’s “dungeon,” as seen from a distance.