Study Guide


Alone Summary

"Alone" starts off with our speaker doing some serious soul-searching. She's feeling pretty isolated, but she thinks she just might have come up with an answer to her problems: people need community in order to get by.

As it turns out, money won't buy you happiness. Even the very, very rich get lonely. So, don't try to make more money. Make friends instead.

Our speaker fashions herself into something like a prophet, warning the "race of man" that things aren't about to get any easier anytime soon. The solution is (all together now….) to realize that no one can make it on their own!

  • Stanza 1

    Lines 1-2

    Lying, thinking
    Last night

    • You know how your teachers always ask you to locate the time and place of the action in a literary piece? Well, Maya Angelou is making it pretty easy for you to get that little bit of tediousness out of the way in the first few lines. Our speaker's relating something that happened last night as she (or he) was drifting off to sleep.
    • You could think of this as the "pre-flight" messages of this particular poem. You're still on the tarmac, but the flight attendants make sure to let you know where you're at and where you're going (along with passing along nifty information like how to tighten your seat belt and maybe even how to ask for more peanuts). You can almost feel this poem revving its engines and getting ready to take off.
    • Notice how the first two lines are almost half the length of the other lines in this stanza? It's almost as if Angelou split the first line in two.

    Line 3-5

    How to find my soul a home
    Where water is not thirsty
    And bread loaf is not stone

    • If you're wondering why you get a whole bunch of religious websites on your screen when you Google this poem, look no further. These lines are the religious heart and, um, soul of the poem.
    • So, what are they all about? Well, for starters, the speaker seems to think that her soul is a-wandering. You'd think that it would be safely lodged in her body, but no. It turns out that the soul needs somewhere else to live.
    • And here's where these lines really get interesting: have you ever heard of water being "thirsty"? For one thing, water isn't a sentient being. It doesn't really get hungry or tired or worry about being late for school. It's just… water.
    • But that's beside the point. Even if water did feel things, it probably wouldn't feel thirsty, would it? After all, what do you usually drink to quench your thirst? (If you said "Diet Pepsi," we really need to talk.)
    • Nope, you usually drink…water. So, Angelou's turn of phrase suggests that something is seriously screwed up in the natural order of things. If even water can recognize its natural qualities in this world, then maybe the soul does need to go searching for another world in which to live.
    • …and BAM. That's where we get into God's territory. See, a fundamental component of Christian theology is the belief that the human soul is in God's care. In other words, its "home" is not in this world (Earth) but in the heavens (with God).
    • The next line might seem to reinforce this belief, but it does so with a weird twist. See, the whole bread/stone thing is actually a reference to the Bible, specifically Matthew 4:3, when Satan tries to tempt Jesus to turn stones into bread. (Jesus, of course, doesn't fall for it.)
    • So, how does this particular reference fit into the poem? Well, here are our best guesses:
    • Option 1: Angelou's suggesting that Satan has won: stones turn into bread (so bread, conversely, is actually stone). We're a little worried about what that means for Jesus, but hey, that's not our concern right now.
    • Option 2: Angelou's using the reference loosely, suggesting that bread which is anything but bread is a bad thing. We'd be inclined to agree!

    Lines 6-7

    I came up with one thing
    And I don't believe I'm wrong

    • OK. Here it is. After hours and hours of sleepless searching, our speaker's figured it all out. Stay tuned, folks….
    • …but before we get there, we should mention that it seems a little strange that our speaker needs to assert how right she is before she tells us what she's figured out. Doth our speaker protest too much? Right now, it's still too early to tell.

    Lines 8-10

    That nobody,
    But nobody
    Can make it out here alone.

    • Ah. Here's the wisdom acquired by that sleepless soul searching. People need other people.
    • And just so you don't think that you're excluded from that statement, our speaker makes sure to say it twice: Nobody can get by all by themselves. That means you, too.
    • Notice how the speaker puts herself in the same boat as the rest of us? She doesn't say that people can't make it out "there" alone. Nope. The speaker is in the same mess as the rest of us. We're all "here" – wherever that is. And believe us, "here" isn't all that pretty.
  • Stanza 2

    Lines 11-13

    Alone, all alone
    Nobody, but nobody
    Can make it out here alone.

    • In case you missed it the first time around, our speaker repeats herself. People need other people. Got it?
    • And we should point out that this stanza is actually a repetition of the last couple of lines of the first stanza. This structure sets up a sort of call-and-response within the poem. You can almost imagine one person singing the last few lines of stanza one and then an entire chorus of people responding by singing the exact same words.
    • Such call and response structures are actually pretty common in black spirituals, which tend to have an almost identical format: first a story, then a chorus, then the repeated version of that chorus, and then more story. By crafting her poem along these lines, Angelou allows it to carry echoes of a long and well-developed tradition.
    • Interestingly, spirituals tend to be sung by groups of people. In other words, when the "chorus" gets around to singing this verse, there would be lots and lots of people singing. Notice any irony here? They wouldn't be singing "all alone." In some ways, then placing this poem in the spiritual genre allows the poem to become its own solution!
  • Stanza 3

    Lines 14-15

    There are some millionaires
    With money they can't use

    • Think this poem is only about the speaker? Oh, no. Everyone – even the millionaire – gets discussed when the speaker tackles this particular problem.
    • Why pick on millionaires? Well, they're sort of a stand-in for the people who are supposedly happy and successful. After all, they make millions! But how do they really fare in the world? Let's find out…

    Lines 16-17

    Their wives run round like banshees
    Their children sing the blues

    • Well, it turns out that they don't fare so well.
    • A "banshee" is a rather loud and annoying spirit who wails – loudly – and tends to show up when someone is about to die. They're rather unpopular figures in Irish mythology. In other words, they're not all that much fun to be around.
    • And then we get to the kids. As far as our speaker is concerned, the kids are isolated and singing their own "blues."
    • It turns out that this "family" of millionaires is actually isolated and fragmented. Each person operates on his or her own. There's no sense of community.

    Lines 18-19

    They've got expensive doctors
    To cure their hearts of stone.

    • Hmm. So, it turns out that these problems are not, in fact, medical problems. More importantly, as far as our speaker is concerned, the choice to fix your body without fixing your soul is a big, big mistake.
    • We've got to admit, our speaker has a point. If you think about it, healthcare is sort of omnipresent these days. If you're feeling sad, try some antidepressants. If you look too old, there's always Botox.
    • Believe us, medicine has a valuable place in society. We're the first ones to sign up for flu shots! But when the speaker talks about the rich people's "hearts of stone," we're guessing that she's speaking metaphorically. She's not interested in the heart as a giant muscle. She's interested in that thing the Tin Man was missing in The Wizard of Oz – a heart that helps you connect and feel.

    Lines 20-22

    But nobody
    No, nobody
    Can make it out here alone.

    • …hmmm. We feel like we've heard this one before.
    • Moral of this particular story: the speaker can't make it alone. And rich people can't make it alone, either.
    • You could think of this part of the stanza as a sort of checking back in with the central message of the poem: the speaker tells a little story, and then this chorus comes back to hammer home the point. We all experience the same sort of isolation.
  • Stanza 4

    Lines 23-25

    Alone, all alone
    Nobody, but nobody
    Can make it out here alone.

    • Sigh. Yet more alone-ness.
    • Want to hear our spiel on why this repetition is interesting? Check out what we have to say about Stanza 2.
  • Stanza 5

    Lines 26-27

    Now if you listen closely
    I'll tell you what I know

    • Aha. Now we're getting to the good stuff. We've followed the speaker through her own trials and troubles. We've seen how she relates those troubles to other folks who seem to have happier, better lives. And now we're about to get the big pay-off.
    • Notice how our speaker has somehow morphed into an authority figure over the course of these past few stanzas? She's gone from your run-of-the-mill insomniac to a person we trust to change the most fundamental problems of our life.
    • How in the world did this happen?
    • Well, we're not totally sure. But we're betting that it has something to do with all of that repetition we mentioned earlier. If you repeat something often enough, chances are that your listeners will start to believe it. And our speaker's banking on precisely this phenomenon.
    • But it looks like there's even more that she's about to reveal. Are you sitting on the edge of your chair?

    Lines 28-31

    Storm clouds are gathering
    The wind is gonna blow
    The race of man is suffering
    And I can hear the moan,

    • Wow. So nature (the clouds and the wind) is starting to participate in the turmoil of the human soul. What in the world is going on here?
    • Option 1: It could be like that amazing children's book, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. You know, the one where the elements tend to mirror people's desires? In this case, we get storms and not food, but you get the general idea.
    • Option 2: Angelou could also be tapping into a pretty Romantic tradition. (Just to be clear: we mean the literary period – Romantic with a big "R" – not the warm fuzzy hearts and love sort of romance.) For the Romantics, like Wordsworth and Tennyson, feelings could be described by aligning them with elements of the natural world. In other words, it's not storming outside because we're all unhappy. We see a storm and realize that it neatly mirrors our own rather crappy situation. It's a subtle difference, we know, but it's a pretty important one.
    • Notice how Angelou's speaker is clearly establishing herself once again as the authority figure in this particular scenario? She's the one who's in tune with the problems and sufferings of man. But don't worry. We're about to hear the solution. After all, that's what she promises us right at the beginning of this stanza.

    Lines 32-34

    'Cause nobody,
    But nobody
    Can make it out here alone.

    • Hey, wait a second! What happened to our solutions? We were promised solutions! And all we get is this refrain? C'mon. We've heard this one before!
    • Whew. Now that we've got that out of our system, maybe we can talk about why this poem doesn't offer any solutions. After all, it's not a twelve-step program or a self-help manual. It's a poem. Deal with it.
    • Maybe Angelou doesn't offer any specific answers because there aren't specific answers. People make friends in different ways. People define communities in different ways. You could have 2,078 Facebook friends and still be lonely. You could have 2.078 Facebook friends and feel surrounded by love. You could have a pet turtle and feel surrounded by love. Who are we to judge?
    • However you define community (or, as this poem would say, a "home" for your soul), though, you need it. And you need it now.
  • Stanza 6

    Lines 35-37

    Alone, all alone
    Nobody, but nobody
    Can make it out here alone.

    • Seriously? You want more analysis of this refrain? C'mon, folks. It's the sixth time we've read it. SIX. That's a lot of times.
    • OK, fine.. Check out Stanza 2. That's all we've got.