“Eleanor Rigby” is one of the most popular of the hundreds of songs written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney and recorded by the Beatles. It is also one of the best examples of their growing maturity as lyricists at the time, a song containing poetic qualities not found in such earlier works as “She Loves You” or “I Want To Hold Your Hand.”

Unlike so many of those earlier compositions, which for all their energy were merely variations of the traditional love song, “Eleanor Rigby” is an attempt by Lennon and McCartney to make a serious social statement. In doing so they evoke a powerful sense of despair, as experienced through the lives of two individuals for whom life has become an exercise in futility.

The writers’ treatment of the plight of both Eleanor Rigby and Father McKenzie, told from the point of view of an unnamed third party, is at once objective and personal. Personal because it is obvious that the speaker knows these individuals and is aware of their feelings of despair. Objective because the narrator simply reported the tragedy of their lives in much the same way a reporter would cover a fatal house fire or car accident; there is no attempt to move the reader (or listener) to help these people, only a detailing of the facts.

The feeling of despair is established early on, via the chilling refrain: “Ah, look at all the lonely people.” Immediately we are told that the two whose story is being told are but two of many such wretched individuals.

We are not told how old Eleanor is, but the impression from the beginning is that she is no longer a young girl. She is described as picking up the rice after a wedding, living “in a dream.” The dream would appear to be that of one day finding the right man and being married herself.

We are then told that she “waits at the window, wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door.” The “jar by the door” might be a reference to makeup on her vanity, which indicates that she probably has “made herself up” in a seemingly futile effort to attract the attention of a man.

We are then introduced to Father McKenzie, who we assume to be the minister at the church where Elanor lives and works. The good Father appears to be experiencing a crisis of faith; he is “writing the words to a sermon that no one will hear.” Does this mean that he will never give the sermon? Or, perhaps, that he knows his congregation will not take take the message of the sermon to their hearts?

The line “No one comes near” is obviously (to me, at least) the Father’s view. How are we to know that our Eleanor is not watching Father McKenzie “darning his socks in the night” from her vantage point in the window mentioned before? We are not to know; we only have the comment, “What does he care?” This is a man as lonely and as full of despair as Eleanor herself.

We next are told that “Eleanor Rigby/Died in the church and was buried along with her name./Nobody came.” Even with her death Eleanor seems to have left no mark upon this world. And just how did poor Eleanor die? Is she a suicide? This would be consistent with the tone of despair already established, but we simply are not told.

For this reason, the most intriguing passage in the entire piece is that which follows: “Father McKenzie/wiping the dirt from his hands as he walks from the grave./No one was saved.”

Does Father McKenzie grieve for her at all? Does he mourn the fact that he was never able to play a role in the salvation of Eleanor Rigby’s soul, or the possible salvation of her life? Does he see her as representative of the congregation which never hears his sermons?

Or does the good Father see at last the role that Eleanor might have played in his life, if only things had been different?  It’s possible these two lonely people might have actually been secretly in love.

This is mere speculation, of course. Still, we certainly get the feeling that any possibility of the two of them reaching out towards one another – whether as lovers or simply as friends – has been squelched by a variety of factors: by his position as a man of the cloth; by Eleanor’s sense of insecurity; perhaps even by a hardening of both their hearts, brought about by life’s experiences.

Perhaps, in another reality, the two of them might have reached out, might have expressed whatever true feelings they might have had for one another. Perhaps they might even have married, and thus provided one another with the happiness both so desperately have been seeking.

We will never know...

The song’s main refrain piles despair upon despair through the questions “Where do they all come from?” and “Where do they all belong?” But the real question might well be: “What am I supposed to do about it?” And so the despair carries over from the lives of Eleanor and the Father to the rest of us as well, revealing a complexity far beyond what record buyers of the time had come to expect from a “simple pop song.”

It asks the question: “What hope is there for any of us?”

And then it leaves us to find the answer on our own.

(Column copyright © 2017, by John A. Small; “Eleanor Rigby” lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC)