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Analysis: Eleanor Rigby by The Beatles

Eleanor Rigby statue, Liverpool, by Tommy Steele, 1982.

Eleanor Rigby statue, Liverpool, by Tommy Steele, 1982.

Eleanor Rigby is perhaps the Beatles’ most shocking song. Not simply because of the sound of it, which was an abrupt departure for its time, but because of its theme. It is hard to think of a more desolate statement in any work of art, let alone popular music.

This song marked a sudden break with the optimism that was a hallmark of The Beatles’ earlier work, and in its place presented an almost unbearably dark cynicism. Two lonely people, living in a church community, cannot find a way to connect and end up living their entire lives alone and apart. Their destiny is not that they will end up together, but that one buries the other, a grim irony that would be humorous if it weren’t tragic (the poet Ezra Pound is said to have ‘smiled lightly’ when he first heard the song).

But the song suggests even greater despair. We learn that Eleanor dies in church, which ought to be a comfort, and ‘was buried along with her name.’ Even Hodge, in Thomas Hardy’s war poem Drummer Hodge, leaves his name behind. In Eleanor Rigby’s death we see the death of hope itself. As Ian MacDonald says in Revolution in the Head:

MacKenzie’s sermon won’t be heard – not that he cares very much about his parishioners – because religious faith has perished along with communal spirit (‘No one was saved’).

The novelist AS Byatt remarked that it has ‘the minimalist perfection of a Beckett story’, pointing out that had Eleanor Rigby’s face been kept in a jar by the mirror, it would suggest the less disturbing idea of make-up, but behind the door, inside her house, it suggests she ‘is faceless, is nothing’ (from a talk on BBC Radio 3, 1993, quoted by Ian MacDonald, Revolution in the Head).

The song avoids sentimentality by keeping a distance from its subject throughout. The action is presented like a film script –  ‘Look at him working…’ – and uses various tenses to imply shifts in perspective: Eleanor Rigby ‘died in the church’ (past tense) while in the same scene Father MacKenzie is ‘wiping the dirt from his hands’ (present tense).

Positioned as the second song on Revolver, Eleanor Rigby casts a shadow over the whole album. We already have a hint of death in the opening track Taxman (‘my advice for those who die…’), but here we have an all-encompassing despair. As Jonathan Gould says in his book Can’t Buy Me Love:

The questions the song poses aren’t rhetorical; they’re unanswerable. They’re the sort of questions people ask when they don’t know what else to say, and by raising them as he does, Paul calls attention to the inadequacy of his own response.

Nevertheless, we can see the rest of the Revolver album as an attempt to present an answer to the issues raised in the song Eleanor Rigby. Whether it’s a turning away from old age and a return to childhood, in Yellow Submarine and the ‘When I was a boy, everything was right,’ section of She Said She Said; or the escape into the unconscious of ‘I’m Only Sleeping’; or the drugs pedalled by ‘Doctor Robert’; or the urgent embrace of sexual love in ‘Love You To’ (‘Love me while you can, before I’m a dead old man’); or the attempt to reach a more spiritual, omnipotent love in ‘Here, There and Everywhere’, which starts with the line ‘To lead a better life…’.

Meanwhile other songs on the album serve to remind us of Eleanor Rigby’s bleak message: the desperate emptiness presented by the death of love in ‘For No One’, and the difficulty of communication that prevents attachment in ‘I Want To Tell You’. It is not until the album’s extraordinary climax, ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, that we finally get an answer, one that transcends the failure of the Christian Church in Eleanor Rigby by re-asserting a progressive belief in universal love.

Eleanor Rigby can be heard on Revolver by The Beatles (Amazon affiliate link).

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{ 6 comments… add one }

  • ttucker23 December 4, 2009, 11:09 am

    Culture Clubber Ian Smith asked me to post this comment:

    Tim, I like the post a lot, but I don’t subscribe to the view that ER is an entirely bleak and hopeless song. I think it’s an imprecation against isolation and withdrawal – doing things that “nobody cares” about, “wiping your hands” and keeping your face “in a jar by the door” are things that create barriers and loneliness. Relying on the church (“lives by the church”), which is dead, brings comfort to no-one as “no-one is saved”. The song is one of pity, but more one of warning and a call, more fully enunciated in the later songs on the album, to live a different way or risk ending up like Eleanor Rigby and Father McKenzie.

  • Jenny May Forsyth June 4, 2010, 7:58 pm

    A ‘warning and a call’ indeed, but alas, few are heeding the warning.

  • Frank September 28, 2010, 9:25 pm

    Excellent commentary. I love your reference to Eliot – the imagery of ER definitely brings “The Waste Land” to mind. Before I had actually seen the lyrics, I always thought Paul was singing, “died ALONE with her name”. Which is really bleak stuff. I do agree with the other commentator though that the song serves more as a warning and a call to action than as a sad resignation to fate.

  • Oscar February 15, 2012, 5:34 pm

    I know the post is a really old, but I wanted to say that this is my favourite song by The Beatles. I just thought that it was about how lonely people get lost in their own routines. It doesn’t seem to be a place for them in the world. I’d say it’s about those secondary characters whose name we never hear, those people who are just there to witness and clean up after the leads of the story. That’s why the name of the song is a person’s name, to acknowlege her. I know I’ve felt that way. It’s certainly a sad song, but I like to think that it means someone notices us even when we’re not at our brightest.

  • Ed Blaker January 8, 2013, 12:17 am

    I only wish John Lennon was around today, so we could ask him about the song now. In old interviews I have seen, I seem to have gotten the notion that their lyrics (and I mean collectively lead & influenced by Lennon in the case of most songs) were not to be taken so absolutely literally on any level. Call me crazy, but I feel strongly (based on hearing comments from the Beatles themselves) that even their seemingly deep metaphors were originally intended to be interpreted as much, much lighter than most people seem to interpret (if you we’re “in on” his little jokes). I know that John Lennon was a very deeply intellectual individual, but you might call it a “schtick” of his, that he seemed to like to lead his listeners on a “wild goose chase” of deep thought and emotions while all the time maintaining a personal attitude & perspective of a joker pulling your leg!
    To put it in “layman’s terms” (for lack of a better description) I think they were just four young (REALLY SMART) boys writing whatever the hell came to mind, because they knew the could, we’re themselves SHOCKED to all the high heavens, buy their STAGGERING success, yet remaining sort of humble and respectful at the same time JUST HAVING A WHOLE LOT OF FUN!

  • Giulio Braga October 5, 2013, 10:15 pm

    Inspiring article and commentary…
    Ed, those “four young boys” were and still are the real light in pop culture…
    and the strength of all this can’t be considered as if they were not aware of what they were doing…
    something amazingly beautiful came to life through the souls of those guys…
    A gift for which I will be forever grateful.

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