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).
More posts on the Beatles at Culture Club:
- Analysis: Here, There and Everywhere by The Beatles
- The Beatles’ Revolver and the Universal
- The Beatles’ Yesterday and the Nature of Belief
- Happy Birthday Sgt. Pepper