'A Single Man' Study Guide

Christopher Isherwood's Classic and Socially Relevant 1964 Novel

British-born writer Christopher Isherwood (1904 - 1986)

Jack Manning / New York Times Co. / Getty Images

Christopher Isherwood’s "A Single Man" (1962) is not Isherwood’s most popular or most lauded work, even after the recent Hollywood movie, starring Colin Firth & Julianne Moore. That this novel is one of the “lesser read” of Isherwood’s novels speaks volumes for his other works because this novel is absolutely beautiful. Edmund White, one of gay literature’s most respected and prominent authors, called "A Single Man" “one of the first and best models of the Gay Liberation movement” and it’s impossible to disagree. Isherwood himself said that this was the favorite of his nine novels, and any reader might imagine that it would be quite difficult to top this work in terms of emotional connectivity and social relevance. 

Main Characters

George, the main character, is an English-born gay man, living and working as a literature professor in Southern California. George is struggling to readjust to “single life” after the death of his long-time partner, Jim. George is brilliant but self-conscious. He is determined to see the best in his pupils, yet knows few, if any, of his students will amount to anything. His friends look to him as a revolutionary and a philosopher, but George feels he’s simply an above-par teacher, a physically healthy but noticeably aging man with little prospects for love, though he seems to find it when determined not to look for it.

Major Themes and Literary Style

The language flows beautifully, even poetically, without seeming self-indulgent. The structure — like short bursts of thought — is easy to keep pace with and seems to function almost in tune with George’s day-to-day musings. This is not to say that the book is an “easy read.” In fact, it is emotionally and psychologically haunting. George’s love for his deceased partner, his loyalty to a broken friend, and his struggle to control lustful emotions for a student are effortlessly expressed by Isherwood, and the tension is brilliantly constructed. There is a twist ending which, had it not been built with such ingenuity and genius, could read as something quite cliché. Fortunately, Isherwood gets his point across without having to sacrifice his (or the reader’s) immersion into the plotline. This was a balancing act pulled off immaculately — truly impressive.

One of the more disappointing elements of the book may be the result of the novel’s length. George’s simple, sad life is so ordinary but has so much promise; our understanding of this is largely due to George’s internal monologue — his analysis of every action and emotion (typically literary-inspired). It is easy to imagine that many readers would enjoy getting more of the back story between George and Jim and more of the relationship (little as it existed) between George and his student, Kenny. Some might be disappointed by George’s kindness to Dorothy; indeed, readers have consistently expressed that they would not have been able, personally, to forgive such a transgression and betrayal. This is the only inconsistency in an otherwise wholly believable plotline, though, and will likely be subject to reader-response, so we can hardly call it an outright fault.

The novel takes place in the course of one day, so the characterization is about as well-developed as it can be; the emotion of the novel, the desperation, and sadness, are genuine and personal. The reader at times might feel exposed and even violated; sometimes frustrated and, at other times, quite hopeful. Isherwood has an uncanny ability to direct the reader’s empathy so that she might see herself in George and thereby find herself to be disappointed in herself at times, proud of herself at other times. Ultimately, we all are left with the sense of knowing who George is and of accepting things as they are, and Isherwood’s point seems to be that this awareness is the only way to live a truly satisfied, if not happy, life.

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Your Citation
Burgess, Adam. "'A Single Man' Study Guide." ThoughtCo, Aug. 29, 2020, thoughtco.com/a-single-man-741768. Burgess, Adam. (2020, August 29). 'A Single Man' Study Guide. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/a-single-man-741768 Burgess, Adam. "'A Single Man' Study Guide." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/a-single-man-741768 (accessed June 1, 2023).