Eleanor Oliphant can only be described as somewhat strange and unlikable when you are first introduced to her. She seemed to be neurotic and unapproachable. Although she seemed quite intelligent, she was socially unskilled, often abrupt, always formal, and usually abrasive. She rarely thought before she spoke and her judgments of others were sometimes painfully critical, showing little regard for their feelings. She interpreted everything literally, but seemed naïve or completely unaware of how her responses were affecting those with whom she interacted at work or in public places. She seemed unaware of most things that others took for granted, like concerts and McDonald’s. What a manicure entailed was foreign to her. Her hair hung down to her waist and had not been cut for years. She required little in the way of vanity.
The narrative hints at some evil doing in her past, but it rolls out slowly as the story evolves and nothing is elaborated or explained until very late in the book, although, early on, it is obvious that Eleanor’s childhood home life was not stellar. She had little memory of her past, although she might be unconsciously refusing to bring it to the light of day. She had been abused, and as a child she learned exactly how she was expected to behave at the hands of a very disturbed parent. She carried the same lessons into adulthood, and she spent most of her time alone seeking refuge and company from the vodka bottle rather than other human contacts. She was friendless, except for a plant that was a childhood gift. She had no physical contact with any other human being. She followed the same routine, day in and day out. She did not believe that she was worthy of respect, but rather she believed she was incapable of success or of having a normal happy life. In addition, her face was somewhat scarred from a previous event in her life which is not revealed until late in the book. Early on, though, it became obvious that her mother was and she had an adversarial relationship. It was she who was responsible for Eleanor’s lack of confidence and odd behavior. Although at first she was not a character that you became endeared to, by the end, as she blossomed with the help of her friend and co-worker, she became a far more sympathetic figure.
This co-worker, Raymond, was walking with her, one day, as they left their place of work. Although she was trying not to encourage this conversation, when they both suddenly witnessed an elderly man taking a bad spill in the street, Raymond insisted they help the unconscious man. He ran over to see what he could do. Eleanor wanted to flee the scene and mind her business. She did not like social interaction and preferred total privacy. Soon, however, Raymond shamed her into helping him and a friendship of sorts developed between the two of them and, eventually, the family of the man they helped to rescue. It was about this same time that Eleanor discovered a musician that struck her fancy, and she fantasized a love affair and life with him sometime in the future. She convinced herself that it was written in the stars for both of them to be together. She was sure that once he met her he would be as smitten with her as she was with him.
It felt like a tragic story, but Eleanor and Raymond brought a certain amount of humor and levity to the novel with their camaraderie. Often Eleanor’s comments were so outrageous, they filled the pages with an awesome, unintended wit. She had no understanding of the nuance of certain of her remarks. As she began to “come of age”, with the help of her first, and pretty much only, friend Raymond, she experienced a period of self-discovery and began to remake herself, finally letting go of her painful past and welcoming others into her life; She discovered that she might not be so bad after all. She morphed from a wallflower that remained outside the perimeter of life, into a more communicative human being as she learned how to share feelings and experience emotions and love, without fear.
Her character was completely and authentically developed by the author. She began as a kind of tragic heroine but with Raymond’s kind heart and his attention and friendship, which he almost forced upon her, Eleanor discovered her own heart and capabilities and saw a path to happiness.
One lesson of the novel is that relationships can be both positive and negative and can change the outcome of a life if allowed to flourish for either good or evil. It is up to you to improve your circumstances and leave excuses behind. The positive support and concern of professionals, friends and family is very important and influential!