Loneliness and the Need to Be Heard
The main character of “Someone to Talk To,” Aaron Shapiro, is coping with the departure of his live-in girlfriend of six years. In addition, he is far from home, in an unfamiliar country torn by years of civil war. As the story progresses and the reader learns more of Aaron’s history, it becomes clear that even when Caroline was still living with him, he was dealing with loneliness of a different form— the loneliness of not being heard or understood. Caroline did not want to hear anything from Aaron that contradicted her view of the world as a happy, benign place where troubles are temporary and easily remedied.
To compound this sense of isolation and impotence, not a single character in the story really listens to Aaron Shapiro. Penwad and his wife are too wrapped up in themselves to care, especially since they consider Shapiro to be beneath them, socially. Ironically, Beale is so consumed by his own need to be heard and understood that he talks almost incessantly, leaving Shapiro few opportunities to speak at all. The reader gets a sense of Beale’s lonely childhood from the speech he makes about the wonders of radio: “It’s raining outside, your mum’s still working in the shop, you haven’t a friend in the world, then you turn on the radio, and someone’s talking—to .” Perhaps this is why Shapiro feels sympathetic towards Beale at the end of the story, when Beale is insulted by the haughty young man at the concert; Shapiro recognizes that he and Beale are searching for the same thing: someone to talk to, someone who will actually listen and understand.
Shapiro is even thwarted when he attempts to express himself through his music. The acoustics of the hall are so poor that the sound “sloshed and bulged, gummed up in clumps, liquefied, as though the air were full of whirling blades.” On a larger scale, the persecuted native peoples of this country are also without a voice. As Shapiro walks through the poor neighborhoods of these people, they are described as “People who were almost invisible, almost inaudible. People to whom almost anything could be done: other people.” Their cries for help are unheeded by the wealthy elite, who choose, as Caroline would, to ignore them and their unhappy, unpleasant situation.
The attitude that Caroline takes towards Aaron’s despair is similar to the attitude that the wealthy elite takes towards the poor and suffering in their country. Caroline is described as being “deeply sympathetic with, and at the same time deeply insensitive to, the distress of others.” In the same way, the wealthy people here employ the native people as servants, admire their art and textiles in museums, and yet choose to ignore their desperate living conditions and starving children. Even Beale, who laments the plight of the native Indians at length, does not mention any plans or theories for improving the situation.
On a more political scale, this criticism is extended to the United States. First, Beale makes his comment about how Americans “killed their Indians.” Secondly, if readers assume that the country in this story is Guatemala, much of the suffering in that country was aggravated by the aggressive U.S. support of any non-communist government that sought power. In an effort to keep communism off America’s doorstep, the United States aided ruthless political groups that persecuted, tortured, and murdered thousands and thousands of native Indians from the 1950s through the 1980s. Yet few Americans were aware of or interested in the situation. As Eisenberg says in an interview included in the paperback version of All Around Atlantis , “In what way can we be said to ‘not know’ or ‘not understand’ certain things that are happening very much within the compass of information available to us?”
Within the story, there are definite distinctions between classes of people. At the top are wealthy elite who support the arts, such as Penwad and his wife, and the hostess of Shapiro’s reception. Penwad’s discomfort in dealing with Shapiro indicates that he considers him a step below him on the class scale, perhaps because Shapiro is Jewish, or simply because he is a musician, and not a particularly prominent one. Beale, with his odd way of dressing and his slovenly manners, is clearly lower on the scale than Shapiro, so low that even the son of Shapiro’s hostess has no qualms about insulting him to his face. At the very bottom of the scale are the native Indians, whom the elite consider so insignificant they never even mention them directly, even though they encounter them often as servants. Only Joan refers to them at all, and she calls them “those people Shapiro realizes where he stands with the elite group; after the concert when Joan summons him to leave for the reception, tugging the lapel of his tuxedo, he reflects that “He might just as well be wearing grease-stained overalls with his name embroidered on the pocket.” To them, he is an employee, one more servant, summoned for their amusement. Even the locations where people live are arranged according to class, from lowest to highest. Down at the bottom are the ravines, “encrusted with fuming slums,” where the native peoples live. Further up on the hills are the homes of people like Penwad and his wife, and then, highest on the slope is the “Gold Zone,” where the most powerful and wealthy reside.
Ira Mark Milne – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 24, Deborah Eisenberg, Published by Gale Group, 2006