Arts/Literature

Eleanor Rigby: the real and the imagined…

It would be enlightening to hear McCartney explain how he came to create such an effecting portrait of loneliness and existential pain.

“I thought, I swear, that I made up the name Eleanor Rigby like that. I remember quite distinctly having the name Eleanor, looking around for a believable surname and then wandering around the docklands in Bristol and seeing the shop there. But it seems that up in Woolton Cemetery, where I used to hang out a lot with John, there’s a gravestone to an Eleanor Rigby. Apparently, a few yards to the right there’s someone called McKenzie.” – Paul McCartney

Paul McCartney – pondering the existential dilemma, perhaps (image courtesy The Internet Beatles Album)

Any artist who has ever tried to explain the genesis of a work has had the experience. When the work is a significant one, such as Paul McCartney’s “Eleanor Rigby,” interest in the genesis of such a work is high; fans, critics, and music historians all have keen interest in understanding the how and why of such a song.

A song that explores the existential pain of loneliness, “Eleanor Rigby” is the tale of Eleanor and Father McKenzie, the priest in the church where Eleanor “picks up the rice…where a wedding has been….” Eleanor deals with her painful loneliness, McCartney tells us, by living “in a dream.” Father McKenzie, the person that conventional expectation would assume could serve as a comforter for Eleanor, is as lonely and isolated as she is, writing sermons “that no one will hear” and “darning his socks in the night when there’s nobody there.”

Father McKenzie trying to help Eleanor Rigby is a case of a lonely soul unable to help another lonely soul.

Part of the song’s power comes from the listener’s dawning sense that the plight of Eleanor Rigby and Father McKenzie is in some way the plight of us all:

Eleanor Rigby

Ah, look at all the lonely people
Ah, look at all the lonely peopleEleanor Rigby picks up the rice in the church where a wedding has been
Lives in a dream
Waits at the window, wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door
Who is it for?All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?

Father McKenzie writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear
No one comes near
Look at him working, darning his socks in the night when there’s nobody there
What does he care?

All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?

Ah, look at all the lonely people
Ah, look at all the lonely people

Eleanor Rigby died in the church and was buried along with her name
Nobody came
Father McKenzie wiping the dirt from his hands as he walks from the grave
No one was saved

All the lonely people (Ah, look at all the lonely people)
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people (Ah, look at all the lonely people)
Where do they all belong?

The story of Eleanor Rigby and Father McKenzie is framed with the haunting refrain “All the lonely people/Where do they all come from?” (The even more haunting “Ah, look at all the lonely people” line is attributed to George Harrison.)

The overall effect – existential angst – is enhanced by the urgency of the strings. The sonorous glissando of the strings in “Yesterday” has been replaced by a slight staccato that suggests subtly the ticking of a clock, a clever way to indicate life slipping away. Indeed, Eleanor’s death – which takes place in the church – provides Father McKenzie with his only opportunity to be of service to her. The chilling message in the last stanza lyric – “…wiping the dirt from his hands as he walks from her grave” – reminds the listener of the line from the burial service: “…dust to dust….”

As noted in the quote above, McCartney has been asked – and, evidently inadvertently – offered incorrect explanations for the origins of Eleanor Rigby’s and Father McKenzie’s names. While these are interesting questions, it would be even more enlightening to hear McCartney explain how he came to create such an effecting portrait of loneliness and existential pain.

 

1 reply »

Leave us a reply. All replies are moderated according to our Comment Policy (see "About S&R")

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s