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Literature / A Single Man

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"Just get through the goddamn day."
George Falconer

A Single Man is a 1964 novel written by Christopher Isherwood, who also wrote Goodbye to Berlin, the source material of Cabaret. In 2009, Tom Ford directed and co-wrote the film version, starring Colin Firth and Julianne Moore.

The eponymous single man is George Falconer, a middle-aged British college professor who lives in Los Angeles. His closest friend is Charlotte, and his secret lover is Jim. Then, sometime in early 1962, Jim dies unexpectedly in a car crash. After that, George must re-evaluate his purpose in life as he tries to get through a single day.


This work features examples of:

  • Ascetic Aesthetic: George's house and clothing.
  • Ambiguously Gay or Ambiguously Bi: Kenny.
  • Bookends: The film begins with a shot of Jim's dead body lying in the snow, being approached by an out of place George dressed in a crisp black suit. George lies down and gives Jim a kiss and then moves away. The film ends with Jim in the same sort of black suit, walking into the room where George lies, dying, and giving him a kiss, before leaving. It is impossible for either man to see the others death as George is across the country when Jim dies, and Jim has been dead for months by the time George dies., which is what makes this example of Bookends memorable, heartwarming and depressing all in one
  • Bury Your Gays: Jim died in a car crash before the events of the film and George dies of a heart attack at the end.
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  • The Cameo: Jon Hamm, of Mad Men fame, is the man who makes the phone call regarding Jim's death. A very fitting cameo given the similarities in production values and setting of the two works. (Dan Bishop is behind both as production designer).
  • Chekhov's Gun:
    • Charley asks George if he's OK after that heart attack thing he had. Which, it transpires, he isn't.
    • Did anyone else think the second missing dog was also a Chekhov's Gun?
    • Was the dog George meets later on supposed to be the missing dog?
    • Nope, not in the book; that was probably just meant to be a sweet/sad moment of loss and remembering.
  • Death by Despair: Possibly. Rather than a Diabolus ex Machina, it seems likely that the heart condition that kills George was aggravated - if not outright caused - by his grief over Jim's death. It happens.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: Many examples, but the biggest is probably George carrying a gun in his briefcase at both an educational facility and inside a bank. A person doing this in the present would be in very hot water if discovered, even if they had no plans of robbing or hurting anyone.
  • Downer Ending: George dies of a likely heart attack right after having an epiphany and deciding not to commit suicide, as he was so busy preparing to commit suicide that day that he forgot to take his heart medicine.
  • Driven to Suicide
  • Hot for Teacher: Implied with Kenny.
  • Incompatible Orientation: Charlotte and George.
  • May–December Romance: Played with but never explicitly stated between George and Kenny.
  • No Antagonist: While it can be argued George might not have gotten to such a bad place if he lived in a less oppressive society where he could freely express the extent of his heartbreak, there are no truly antagonistic characters. Grief and depression are what George struggles with rather than overt discrimination or targeted unkindness. In fact, aside from one thoughtlessly hurtful comment from Charley, everyone who knows that George is gay is kind and wants to help him.
  • No Bisexuals: Interestingly averted. After George admits he's slept with Charlotte in the past, Jim asks him why he's with him if he sleeps with women. George doesn't say that it was experimentation or a mistake, he just says that even though he sleeps with women he only falls in love with men, implying he may actually be attracted to women. His fixation on his secretary's beauty, with all the close-ups of her eyes and hair, may have been a small nod to this.
    • Likewise, assuming Kenny has a romantic/sexual interest in George, he says he and his female friend, Lois, slept together in the past but are just friends. He doesn't expand on why they stopped having sex or even if there was a romantic relationship between them when they were.
  • Oscar Bait
  • Race Lift: Lois was Japanese-American in the book. The script deliberately called for a white, blonde actress to play the part.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: George is blue, and Kenny is red. They even somewhat acknowledge/discuss this trope when Kenny buys a red pencil sharpener for himself and a yellow one George picked out for George. Kenny shows surprise George didn't pick blue. All of George's relationships fit this mould, actually, and there's some hints Kenny's best friend is also a blue to his red.
  • Snow Means Death: Jim dies on a snowy road.
  • Stalker with a Crush: Whether the crush applies or not is ambiguous, but Kenny finding out George's address from the school secretary, wandering around George's neighbourhood in an attempt to run into him, and implying he's been watching George out-of-class while George was unaware of his presence covers the stalker aspect.
  • The Oner: the phone-call scene.
  • Uptight Loves Wild: All of George's important relationships fit this. Jim wasn't wild, but he was more emotionally open and comfortable in his own skin. If not for Incompatible Orientation, George and Charley likely would have stayed together. Kenny had characteristics of both Jim and Charley and was the catalyst for helping George reconnect to life. Even Carlos, the male prostitute who George talked to, could be argued to fit the trope.
  • The Voice: Jim's relative, voiced by Jon Hamm, who calls George to tell him about the accident.
  • What Beautiful Eyes!: A lot of the camera work focuses on eyes.


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