(Note: This is a paper I wrote for my Introduction to Poetry class in college back in 1988. The assignment, as I recall, had to do with using what we had learned about delving into the deeper meaning of poems and applying it to popular songs; the professor assigned each of us a different song and, knowing that I was a Beatles fan, he gave me "Eleanor Rigby". He made a point of saying later that he didn't really agree with my interpretation of the piece, but gave me an "A" anyway. I don't know if this is the same paper I would present if given the same assignment today, but here it is for what it's worth...)

 "All the lonely people,
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people,
Where do they all belong?"
("Eleanor Rigby," J. Lennon & P. McCartney, 1966)


"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 first of their many collaborations which serious students of the genre consider to contain true poetic qualities, marking a creative progression beyond such earlier, simpler works as "She Loves You" or "I Want To Hold Your Hand."

Unlike so many of these earlier examples of their work, which for all their energy were mere variations of the traditional love song, "Eleanor Rigby" is an attempt by Lennon and McCartney to make a serious social statement. In doing so the piece evokes a powerful sense of despair, as experience 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 who is watching and describing their lives as they unfold, 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 reportd the tragedy of their lives in much the same wat 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.

But what man? Immediately after we read the line "Who is it for?" we are introduced to Father McKenzie, who we assume to be the minister at the church where Elanor is living and working. 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 of his situation. 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 read 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? We mentioned previously that she would appear to not be a young girl, but neither does she appear to be elderly. (After all, she dreams of finding love, does she not?) 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." This passage raises a number of unsettling questions.

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 could have loved one another; this is mere speculation. 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 priest, by Eleanor's sense of insecurity, by a certain hardening of both their hearts brought about by life's experiences.

Perhaps, in another reality, the two of them might have expressed their feelings for one another. Perhaps they might even have married, and thus propvided one another with the happiness both so desperately have been seeking.

We will never know.

The song's main refrain, quoted at the beginning of this paper, 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 beyiond what record buyers of the time had come to expect from a "simple 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.

(Copyright © 1988, 2011 by John A. Small)