Miss Brill

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Loneliness and Alienation Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Loneliness and Alienation Theme Icon
Delusion and Reality Theme Icon
Connectedness Theme Icon
Youth and Age Theme Icon
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Loneliness and Alienation Theme Icon

Miss Brill, the protagonist of the story, is a spinster – a word used, at the time of the publication of the story, to refer to an unmarried woman – who spends her days teaching schoolchildren and reading the newspaper to a half-dead man who cares little for her presence. Miss Brill yearns for conversation, yet both the students and the old man don’t listen to her.

Her weekly visits to the park are a result of her loneliness and alienation and her desire to exist and interact with a wider world. At the park, she watches and listens to the people and goings on around her and in that way feels like a part of the community. And though she is essentially alone in the stands—an old man and old woman sit next to her, but don’t speak—she finds a way to include herself in what she watches. She sees all of the people, in their separate interactions, as being part of an elaborate stage production. And she thinks of the people in the stands, including herself, not as audience members but rather as performers too. She thinks of herself as being such a part of the production that if she were missing someone would be bound to notice. Indeed, she thinks that she might tell the old man who cares little for her presence that “I have been an actress for a long time.”

Yet the only conversation Miss Brill holds in the entire story is with her fur coat. She is not a part of the community, and the reader understands this with the same pang of pain that Miss Brill feels when she overhears the boy and the girl mock her fur coat as old and shabby and speak about her as if she has no right to sit next to them. In this way, the community she thinks she belongs to rejects her, and Miss Brill retreats back to her apartment and lonely life. Her curiosity and desire to connect makes her vulnerable and ends up leading her to realize her alienation from the people she saw as a source of life’s excitement.

Loneliness and Alienation ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Loneliness and Alienation appears in each chapter of Miss Brill. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Loneliness and Alienation Quotes in Miss Brill

Below you will find the important quotes in Miss Brill related to the theme of Loneliness and Alienation.
Miss Brill Quotes

And when she breathed, something light and sad—no, not sad, exactly—something gentle seemed to move in her bosom.

Related Characters: Miss Brill
Related Symbols: Fur Coat and Garments
Page Number: 298
Explanation and Analysis:

As Miss Brill sets out for her weekly outing to Jardins Publique, she considers the fur she has chosen to wear, and here reflects the emotions involved in taking it out of its box earlier in the afternoon.

Miss Brill's "light and sad" feeling here indicates the harsh reality that, like Miss Brill herself, the fur has aged past its prime, and what once might have been beautiful has withered away. Also like Miss Brill, who lives unmarried and alone, the fur has been long stored away and isolated. The harsh reality is that both Miss Brill and the fur have grown old and lonely. 

Despite her feelings of sadness and nostalgia over this reality, Miss Brill is quick and purposeful in pretending that her feelings of sadness are in fact, something else, something "gentle." By denying herself the truth, she resists feeling the brunt of the reality that surrounds her and is able to go the gardens and feel content in her fur. Thus, we learn early on that it takes some level of pretending, some level of fantasy, for Miss Brill to process the world around her without despairing. 


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She had become really quite expert, she thought, at listening as though she didn’t listen, at sitting in other people’s lives just for a minute while they talked round her.

Related Characters: Miss Brill
Page Number: 299
Explanation and Analysis:

Though eavesdropping is often associated with nosiness and gossipy behavior, Miss Brill's expertise with it is a means to cope with her own loneliness and alienation from the people around her.

In Miss Brill's constant play between delusion and reality, the fact is that she is almost entirely excluded from the people around her. To feel at all connected to them, she must "sit in" for a minute on their conversations, which circle "round her" but never include her. 

Miss Brill's eavesdropping gives her the comfort of human contact without having to risk social rejection. As a perpetual eavesdropper, never setting out to make conversation herself, she can delude herself into thinking herself connected to other people without confronting the truth, which betrays otherwise. 

Often people sat on the benches and green chairs, but they were nearly always the same, Sunday after Sunday, and—Miss Brill had often noticed—there was something funny about nearly all of them. They were odd, silent, nearly all old, and from the way they stared they looked as though they’d just come from dark little rooms or even—even cupboards!

Related Characters: Fine old man and big old woman
Page Number: 300
Explanation and Analysis:

Miss Brill's perception of the city's elders is ironic in its condescension: every measured observation she makes about this "odd, silent...old" group of people who frequent the gardens every Sunday is equally applicable to her. Like the other old people, she lives alone in a "dark little room", and her criticism of them as having "something funny" about them is exactly how the young couple demeans her at the story's end. 

No matter the apparent irony, there is a sense that Miss Brill's criticism is deliberately harsh, for although she is really among people she criticizes, the act of criticizing itself is a means of distance and dissociation from this group. By adopting the attitude of younger people, Miss Brill is deluding herself into thinking herself among them, effectively denying the own oddness, silence, and elderliness that they perceive in her. 

The ermine toque was alone; she smiled more brightly than ever. But even the band seemed to know what she was feeling and played more softly…What would she do? What was going to happen now?

Related Characters: Ermine toque and Gentleman in grey
Related Symbols: Fur Coat and Garments
Page Number: 300
Explanation and Analysis:

Like eavesdropping, Miss Brill's intense people-watching in the park is one of the ways she attempts to connect with others and counter her loneliness. Here, she watches a woman, reduced by Miss Brill to the ermine toque (small hat) she wears, solicit a gentleman who immediately rejects her. 

Following the rejection, Miss Brill romanticizes the scene, dramatically wondering what the girl will do next or what will happen next, as if what she has witnessed is part of an entertaining play. Her observation that the band is playing to musical score to reflect the woman's rejection further hints at Miss Brill's fantasized theatricality. 

In the bustle of the garden and its many people, it is important to note that Miss Brill noticed this moment in particular. It is likely she identifies with the ermine toque, who not only also wears fur, but experiences social rejection--the very thing Miss Brill avoids through her self-delusions and is forced to confront at the story's end, when she too is rejected. 

They were all on the stage. They weren’t only the audience, not only looking on; they were acting. Even she had a part and came every Sunday.

Related Characters: Miss Brill, Ermine toque and Gentleman in grey
Page Number: 301
Explanation and Analysis:

By reworking the reality of the garden and its people into the fantasy of a play, Miss Brill is able to discard her sense of loneliness, casting herself as one of many in a community of "actors." Miss Brill's perception of herself as having a part in the scene around her--a recurring part at that--not only connects her with others, but also gives her a sense of importance among them.

Just as all parts in a play, however small, serve some integral function to the whole show, so too has Miss Brill reinvented herself as essential to the lives of the people around her. Under the guise of a play and actors, Miss Brill is able to perceive herself as necessary and special to the community, when in reality, seemingly no one else perceives her in this light. 

“Why does she come here at all—who wants her? Why doesn’t she keep her silly old mug at home?”
“It’s her fu-ur which is so funny,” giggled the girl. “It’s exactly like a fried whiting.”

Related Characters: Boy and Girl (speaker), Miss Brill
Related Symbols: Fur Coat and Garments, Fried Whiting
Page Number: 302
Explanation and Analysis:

Contented by the lull of the band, her imagined connection and mutual understanding with the other "actors", a peaceful Miss Brill admires the young couple, whom she calls the "hero and heroine" of her fantasized play, as they sit down near her to listen to the music. 

When the young woman playfully rebuffs the boy's advances, the boy concludes that it's the presence of Miss Brill, whom he calls "that stupid old thing," that makes his partner uncomfortable, and the two joke crudely about her age. The young woman likens Miss Brill's fur, which had hence served as a source of happiness and pride, to "a fried whiting," pointing out the reality of age and ugliness Miss Brill had tried to counter with fantasy. 

In this pivotal moment, Miss Brill's carefully constructed fantasy of connectedness and self-importance cracks, and we witness the reality of how harshly people perceive her. Not unlike her earlier description of the elderly people in the garden, others reduce her to a funny, old, and unwanted "thing." The disconnect between how Miss Brill has aggressively portrayed herself versus how others view her suggests that she is aware of her obsolete position in society-- in this city, no one has much value or respect for an old spinster-- and that all her fantasizing has, in fact, been her only way of achieving happiness in a society that painfully excludes her. 

If there was an almond it was like carrying home a tiny present—a surprise—something that might very well not have been there.

Related Characters: Miss Brill
Page Number: 302
Explanation and Analysis:

Following the young couple's cruelty, a crestfallen Miss Brill takes off for home, forgoing the baker's where she usually stops after to treat herself to slices of honey-cake, which sometimes contain the unexpected "tiny present" of an almond inside.

The act of treating herself and romanticizing something as everyday as the occasional almond as being a surprise gift to her, we witness another example of Miss Brill's desire to feel her own specialness, to cling to whatever small pleasures are available to her. 

The fact that she intentionally skips the baker's indicates that Miss Brill no longer seeks the delusion of specialness or importance, as she has just been forced by the young couple in the garden to confront the reality of her own inconsequentiality. To pursue another fantasy--even the small one of a surprise almond in a honey-cake--now feels like a futile thing to do.  

She unclasped the necklet quickly; quickly, without looking, laid it inside. But when she put the lid on she thought she heard something crying.

Related Characters: Miss Brill
Related Symbols: Fur Coat and Garments
Page Number: 302
Explanation and Analysis:

In contrast to the beginning of the story, where Miss Brill slowly and tenderly removes the fur from its box and fantasizes it to have a life and beauty of it's own, here, she stuffs it away in haste without so much as looking at the garment. 

The change in Miss Brill's perception of the fur demonstrates her transition from comforting delusions to harsher reality. Like the funny, "fried-whiting" fur in its box, Miss Brill is old and alone in a city that seems to celebrate only its youth. 

Whereas in the beginning, Miss Brill chalked down the "light and sad" feeling in her chest to "gentleness," in these final lines, she is truly despairing, unable to turn the harder truths of age into more easily digestible euphemisms. 

Despite the fullness of Miss Brill's transition from delusions into reality, the close-third narration suggests that she still is attempting to soften the blow of her sadness via the ambiguity of who is crying. The line in which Miss Brill "thought she heard something crying" suggests she wants to attribute the crying to the fur rather than herself (if she is physically crying, that is). The purpose of this delusion--an inanimate fur cannot cry--is not to brighten the world around her, as were her past delusions, but to deflect her shame and embarrassment over the truths she now has no choice but to confront.