In Solitary Others We See Ourselves

Boo Radley

Boo Radley in “To Kill a Mockingbird”

The New York Times ran an interesting story the other day about a Maine hermit who has been arrested after 27 years of solitude for allegedly committing around a thousand burglaries to sustain himself. The article invoked two classic works of literature but my mind went directly to a Mary Oliver poem.

Here’s an excerpt from the article:

Residents and second-home owners here in the Belgrade Lakes area of central Maine were relieved to learn of the arrest of the hermit, Christopher Knight, 47. But they were unnerved that a local legend of a hermit-burglar had turned out to be true, that someone really had been lurking in the woods all this time watching them and studying their habits: when they would be home, when they would stock their freezers.

But to some, he was a figure of sympathy, like Boo Radley, the recluse in To Kill a Mockingbird.” Like Boo, Mr. Knight was initially feared but came to be seen not as someone who was dangerous but as someone who needed to be protected.

And further on:

Mr. Knight has yet to explain why he shed his life as a computer technician at the age of 19 or 20 in the small town of Albion just east of here, beyond a fascination with Robinson Crusoe.

There’s something archetypal about someone who turns his back on civilization, which is why people are projecting their stories onto Knight.

In Mary Oliver’s poem “Something,” the projection is explicit.  A couple hears someone skulking outside their house when they are making love and later, after a man two towns over commits suicide, they conclude it must be the same person. Their evidence is minimal, as is the poet’s conclusion that the skulker must be lonely, a “lone brother.”

This assessment becomes particularly powerful later on when the speaker finds herself alone and remembers the witness to her kiss. Desperate in her loneliness as the moon pours down on her, she understand why one might watch through windows. One “must have something./Anything. This/or that, or something else.”


By Mary Oliver

Somebody skulking in the yard
stumbles against a stone, it stutters
across the dark boards of the night
and we know. We know
he’s there. We kiss

anyway. This
is not a pleasant story.

And time loops like the woodbine
up into the branches
of new seasons, and two towns away
a man who can no longer bear his life
takes it, alone, in the dark woods.

The police know
And we know—since no one tramples again
the grass outside our window–
he is our lonely brother,
our audience,
our vine-wrapped spirit of the forest who
grinned all night.

Now you are dead too, and I, no longer young,
know what a kiss is worth. Time
has made his pitch, the slow
speech that goes on and on
reasonable and bloodless. Yet over
the bed of each of us moonlight
throws down her long hair until

one must have something.
Anything. This
or that, or something else:
the dark wound
of watching.

Who knows what the watcher—if he actually is a watcher—is really like? Who knows the real Mr. Knight. We turn to stories to make sense of the world, but often our stories tell us more about ourselves.

This entry was posted in Defoe (Daniel), Lee (Harper), Oliver (Mary) and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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