The Rejection Plot


On Books

Print from Trouble, by Bruce Charlesworth, a portfolio which appeared in The Paris Review in the magazine’s Fall 1985 issue.

Rejection may be universal, but as plots go, it’s second-rate—all buildup and no closure, an inherent letdown. Stories are usually defined by progress: the development of events toward their conclusions, characters toward their fates, questions toward understanding, themes toward fulfillment. But unlike marriage, murder, and war, rejection offers no obstacles to surmount, milestones to mark, rituals to observe. If a plot point is a shift in a state of affairs—the meeting of a long-lost twin, the fateful red stain on a handkerchief—rejection offers none; what was true before is true after. Nothing happens, no one is materially harmed, and the rejected party loses nothing but the cherished prospect of something they never had to begin with. If the romance plot sets up an enticing question—Will they or won’t they?the rejection plot spoils everything upfront: they won’t. There the story stalls; but, strangely, continues. Even with no hope of requital, desire can persist, even intensify, with no guarantee of ending. The lack of happening is the tragedy.

Rejection isn’t the same as heartbreak, which entails a past acceptance. A rejection implies that you don’t even warrant a try. From the reject’s perspective, the reciprocity of heartbreak looks pretty appealing. And if you’re going to suffer, it may as well be exciting. Who would choose the flat desolation of rejection over rough-and-tumble drama, especially if they end the same way? The cliché—tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at allis comforting to the heartbroken, but damning to the rejected. No matter how unpleasant or unequal, a breakup is at least something you share with someone else. Rejection makes only one reject. “Unrequited love does not die,” writes Elle Newmark in The Book of Unholy Mischief, “it’s only beaten down to a secret place where it hides, curled and wounded. For some unfortunates, it turns bitter and mean, and those who come after pay the price for the hurt done by the one who came before.” A story that begins with closure can never end.

The basic plot of rejection is simple. First comes the yearning, where “by the successive inventions of his desires, his regrets, his disappointments, and his projects, the lover constructs an entire novel around a woman he does not know,” as Proust writes. Eventually you make a proposition and are declined. You may try again, but only the same happens—nothing.

What science has to say about rejection is mostly what everyone already knows: it’s real and it hurts. In an fMRI study researcher Naomi Eisenberger demonstrated that being rejected lights up the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, the part of the brain that deals with physical pain, with a corresponding release of dopamine and cortisol. The social psychologists Roy Baumeister and Dawn Dhavale’s study “Two Sides of Romantic Rejection,” typical of much writing in their field, spells out common sense to a point of absurd rigor (they note that “it is better to be intelligent and beautiful than stupid and ugly”). They define romantic rejection as a situation in which “a person refuses the romantic advances of another, ignores / avoids or is repulsed by someone who is romantically interested in them, or unilaterally ends an existing relationship.” The measure of rejection is the “discrepancy between desired and perceived relational evaluation,” which is “the degree to which a person regards his or her relationship with another individual as valuable, important, or close”—in other words, you want your relationship to matter to the other person more than it does. Certain categories of people are more likely to be rejected: those considered “dangerous, having little to offer, as exploitative, or rejecting of us.” And the leading cause of rejection, they argue, is hypergamy: desiring people more desirable than oneself.

Most notably, they observe that “the culture has not provided them with good, effective scripts for rejecting love,” causing them to experience “a pervasive sense of scriptlessness.” Rejectors have their prefab lines (“It’s not you, it’s me,” “I’m not dating right now,” “We’re not a good match”), but rejects don’t. What is there to say, after all?

To whatever extent the mind is a part of nature, it too abhors a vacuum. Just as infatuation drives you to project intimate fantasies onto strangers, the blank slate of rejection, the lack of a script, invites you to devise an elaborate narrative about why you were rejected, and what that says about you. But even stronger than the temptation to dwell in the past (what might have happened) or dread the future (what won’t be) is the urge to wallow in an eternal present. Your life can’t move forward, so it moves sideways, to a parallel reality. At parties you imagine the date you didn’t bring, then go home to share your bed with a ghost. Absence becomes the realest thing in your world. So the true rejection plot is the one the reject devises in the absence of a plot.


Narrative is a way of giving not only shape and coherence to chaos, but progress and closure; its absence creates a feeling of endless languishing. For this reason one often sees rejection described as halting time, as Miss Havisham orders every clock stopped at the precise minute she was left at the altar, wallows in her moldering wedding clothes, and makes Estella and Pip reenact the romance that ended with her stood up at the altar. (“I sometimes have sick fancies,” she tells Pip, “and I have a sick fancy that I want to see some play.”) In Cut Loose, Helen Fisher quotes an anonymous eighth-century Japanese poet who writes, “My longing has no time when it ceases”; the men of Papua New Guinea’s Sepik River province who’ve had their marriage offers rejected compose songs describing the marriages that could have been.

In this way, the true object of your fixation may not be your rejector, but rather the fantasy devised in the process of yearning. The perfection of this fantasy makes it hard to give up. (Proust: “What is necessary is the risk—which may even be the object to which passion in its fretfulness tries to cling, rather than to a person—of an impossibility.”) Your secret hope is to become Pygmalion, convinced that your desire can somehow be made real through sheer agonizing persistence. Pygmalion, it’s worth remembering, is disgusted by real women (“dismayed by the numerous defects / of character Nature had given the feminine spirit, / stayed as a bachelor, having no female companion”) and only loves the one he creates by his own hand.

Devotion—putting someone in an exalted position, as Pygmalion places Galatea, on a literal pedestal—feels like empathy, in their shared sense of understanding someone deeply, but is actually the opposite. When wishful thinking becomes confused with reality, the real person vanishes, as does the entire world around that person. The thing you’ve been denied is always perfect. In “To a Magazine,” Mary Ruefle writes, “the rejected know another knowledge—that if they were not rejected, heaven would descend upon the earth in earthly dreams […] The rejected know if they were nonrejected a clear cerulean blue would be the result, an endless love ever dissolving in more endless love.” For all their power over the nature of your imagined reality, it can feel as if the rejector is a divinity of sorts—Borges writes, “To fall in love is to create a religion with a fallible god,” noting also that Beatrice had rejected Dante in life (“Infinitely Beatrice existed for Dante; Dante existed very little, perhaps not at all, for Beatrice. Our piety, our veneration cause us to forget that pitiful inharmony, which was unforgettable for Dante”). And so in his own poem he makes Beatrice the immortal docent of Heaven, a place he doesn’t belong. One is only rejected from Heaven, never Hell.


The rejection plot usually peters out, as over time the wound becomes less interesting and meaningful. But this isn’t always the case; what if they change their mind? What if you can help them change their mind? Such hope is often toxic, but not always unwarranted. Everyone has heard of a case where someone’s ill-advised, ethically dubious persistence paid off—He just wore me down!—which means you can never fully convince yourself that any rejection is truly final. (“In a surprising minority of cases,” write Baumeister and Dhavale in their study on rejection, “stalkers eventually become the romantic partners of the people they have stalked.”)

And so another way of answering rejection is to be willfully oblivious: to reject rejection, through sheer gumption or delusion. Pride and Prejudice is full of rejections issued and ignored, preemptive and rescinded. When the arrogant Mr. Collins receives Elizabeth’s firm refusal of his marriage proposal, he tells her:

“I am not now to learn,” replied Mr. Collins, with a formal wave of the hand, “that it is usual with young ladies to reject the addresses of the man whom they secretly mean to accept, when he first applies for their favour; and that sometimes the refusal is repeated a second or even a third time. I am therefore by no means discouraged by what you have just said, and shall hope to lead you to the altar ere long.”

He later adds, “As I must, therefore, conclude that you are not serious in your rejection of me, I shall choose to attribute it to your wish of increasing my love by suspense, according to the usual practice of elegant females.”

Not taking the hint is a strategy of attrition; keeping the proposition on the table indefinitely, you hope, will increase your odds. Since you can’t just switch off your feelings for someone, you hold out for the unlikely reversal, even at the expense of your well-being. The fact that this is possible (which is not to say wise, ethical, or appropriate) permits the reject to believe against all evidence that a mistake has been made, that everything could work out if enough of an effort is made. The reject haggles, disputes, demands to know why, tries to poke holes in something that isn’t an argument, until eventually he turns into something uglier: the creep. For its ability to repulse and coerce, creepiness can be a strange form of power, one perhaps even unsought by the one who wields it, since it can feel more like powerlessness. But no one said power always feels good.


One of the oddest stories of rejection in the internet age was authored spontaneously by dozens of people. Known informally as “The Saga of Denko,” it began in 2011 with a post on the anonymous Japanese message board 2channel (#OP is the original poster, and #2ch are his responders):

[Help!] The Girl I Like Won’t Respond to My Emails (´·ω·`)


There’s this girl I’ve had feelings for since high school, and now we’re in college together. We’ll call her Denko.

Once we hit second year, we went out drinking, and I worked up the courage to exchange numbers.

We started out talking often, but she hasn’t answered me in three days now.

I’m getting depressed just thinking that Denko might be sick, or that something happened to her… (´・ω・`)

Please, somebody give me some advice.

At first the reactions #OP gets range from earnest to mocking, until he reveals that he has been emailing her six hundred times a day with no response, at which point the board begins heckling him; #OP keeps asking for advice anyway. Across five threads totaling over 18,000 words in the English translation, #OP reveals himself by turns to be a guilelessly deluded, obsessive stalker. Convinced that Denko secretly likes him but won’t admit it, he interprets everything as encouragement, never questioning his own motives or Denko’s interest. By his own account, he begins calling her at home, then visiting her house to look for her. When she emails him to tell him to stop emailing her, and threatens to call the police, he wonders if she’s testing him, or if her mother put her up to it.

From this point on, the community’s tone shifts from jeering to morbid fascination: several try to egg him on further, suggesting he keep trying, or stuff thirty hamsters in a box and send them to her. Some try in good faith to shout above the noise and get him to see his own delusion, or convince him of Denko’s obvious lack of interest; in others, it’s less clear whether he’s being mocked, or defended by someone equally deluded:


Screw you guys. OP’s persistence should be COMMENDED.

Sending massive amounts of emails out of worry!

Buying clothes to improve his appearance!

And I say try even harder!

Send 1000 emails a day!

Girls love men who worry about them!


I know I’D hate you.


Serious post here.

If you don’t get a reply after three times, stop.

If she’s making excuses about work and busyness, she really doesn’t like you.

She’s only not saying it because she thinks it would hurt you.

Denko getting 600 emails from a guy who isn’t even her boyfriend is no doubt going to scare her.

But she’s probably a nice girl if she isn’t admitting it.

There are people out there who just can’t be blunt.

So stop it, please.


Even from a boyfriend, 600 emails in three days is scary.

#OP maintains his obliviousness, acknowledging the bullying replies with polite befuddlement, and he eventually shares an email that he sends to Denko:


Subject: This Is How I Feel


I’m sorry for making you worry.

I would never consider killing or raping you, Denko, so don’t worry. Is that what you thought I would do?

Now, I want you to take what I’m saying seriously.

I really, truly love you, Denko.

I think I would be willing to die for you, Denko.

I’ve always been trying to ensure your happiness first.

And I don’t think my feelings for you will ever change.

It’s very unfortunate things got like this right after we started dating, but we can start over.

That would be great, wouldn’t it?

Remember what I said when I confessed to you?

I still feel the way I did back then…

After nearly a month of these posts, OP signs off, the end of his saga inconclusive. As it often goes with internet folklore, the story’s provenance has become disputed. It’s not clear whether #OP was as guileless as he acted—the story’s coherence, and his willingness to ignore and carry on against overwhelming opprobrium, is highly suspect, and the post’s translator also unearthed a post from three weeks earlier by someone who used the same “(´・ω・`)” kaomoji, claiming that he’d sent six hundred emails to see if his crush was safe after an earthquake. It’s also possible #OP posed as some of his own hecklers.

Suppose this is the case—that it was a social experiment, a fictional story designed to elucidate something about rejection communally. Ordinarily the goal of trolling is to either make people angry, expose their gullibility, or draw out their ugly qualities. But mixed in with the trolls are attempts to communicate or commiserate with the hapless #OP; rather than ragebait, he managed to make empathybait, curiositybait. Here we are, contemplating him now. Can attention be a form of acceptance?


There may be no good way to accept rejection, but there are many terrible ways, and frustration often makes a turn toward anger. A 2015 article in The Cut, “Is There Any Right Way to Reject a Guy?,” describes an incident with Ben Schoen, the former host of a popular Harry Potter podcast. It began with Schoen sending flirtatious Twitter DMs to the BuzzFeed writer Grace Spelman; when Spelman didn’t reply, he took to Facebook (where seven years earlier, as a fourteen-year-old Harry Potter fan, Spelman had added him as a friend) and sent her a series of DMs:

Grace you do a remarkable job of making your personality shine through online

It’s hyperactively beautiful

And you seem really introspective

So what I’m saying here is you wanna get married at one of those drive thru places

If you can’t handle such spontaneity I understand how I might be getting ahead of myself

I’m starting a new podcast I would love for you to listen and if you like it I would love having you on an episode

You had me when you posted that Kendrick Lamar vid

That’s when I realized you are probably definitely a special soul (aka “the one”) 🙂

That smile emoji was unintentionally creepy

It’s interesting to observe how, consciously or not, the messages are crafted to preempt rejection. Though obviously motivated by sincere attraction, they move from over-the-top flattery (“hyperactively beautiful”) to facetious flirtation (“wanna get married”) that is intended to soften the pitch, so it can be played off as a joke if it fails. He then nods at the possibility of rejection (“I might be getting ahead of myself”), while implying that the only reason she might reject him is because she “can’t handle such spontaneity”—her fault, not his. The proposition is garnished with a career opportunity, followed by more hyperbolic flattery and self-deprecation.

Spelman let Schoen down easy, leavening her response with the type of exclamation points one might use in a work email: “Hi Ben! Thank you for the kind words but I actually have a boyfriend! Hope you stay well!” She then unfriended him on Facebook and blocked him on Twitter.

Soon after, Schoen flung insults at Spelman publicly on Twitter:

just bc you work at Buzzfeed doesn’t mean you’re good. Good luck finding meaning in all that garbage you call content

and u don’t even have the fortitude to tell me to fuck off? You have 10,000 followers bc of a good profile pic + listicles

the way you ghosted me was immature and insulting. I Messaged you to make u laugh nothing more

before you 86 someone maybe you should use your intellect and see if the person could be useful to your career?

it’s funny. You delete me off Facebook when I was about to offer you a job at a company in NY that pays at least double  

In the reverse-polarity of rejection, every quality he previously flattered her for is now wielded against her. If before she was “beautiful,” now she is nothing but “a good profile pic.” Her introspection is recast as rude and immature; having once praised her online content, now he uses it to trivialize her. He accuses her of lacking the “fortitude” to reject him properly, even though clearly stating your unavailability is a classically proper rejection. Any implication that his podcast offer was a veiled quid pro quo is now made explicit as a playground taunt: I was gonna give you something cool, but now I’m not gonna.

In the article, Spelman assessed Schoen’s response frankly: “You can’t win in these types of situations. Even if you are polite in your rejection, they’ll demand that you tell them WHY you did it. It’s just a mixture of entitlement and the fragility of the ego.” True enough; the demand for an explanation stems from a hope that the rejector can be somehow proven wrong. But except in rare cases of misunderstanding—the Mr. Darcy kind, far rarer than any reject would like to believe—the rejector is always right. If someone isn’t attracted to you, that’s neither their choice nor your business. And however convinced you may be that someone would be happier if they accepted your affections, their happiness is still their prerogative, and they aren’t obligated to let you prove otherwise. In fact, nobody is obligated to love anybody; it isn’t even possible to put anyone under those obligations, and as convenient as it would be if love were rational, it has no criterion other than whether it is felt. Love, we must repeat, is a matter of taste, and so cannot be disputed.


In Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior (1982), Judith Martin offers a pragmatic path to solace:

The rejectee’s first duty (and only available pleasure) is to turn down any such offer [of consolation or friendship]. One ought to reply, as the Republican Party is said to have done to Mr. Nixon when he offered to help with the 1976 election, “Thank you, but I think you’ve done enough already.”

The smartest thing a dumped one can do is to get out of sight, or at least to hide all traces of misery. This is not easy to do, but it is one of those rare instances in which the hardest work brings the greatest chance of success.

Success, in this case, must be defined as making the other person suffer as much as oneself … Such suffering is never caused by see-how-miserable-you-made-me-feel. It is caused, as the rejectee ought to know, by the realization that a person who used to love you doesn’t any longer. Thus, the proper behavior for someone whose heart is breaking is to be cheerful, not pained; ungrudgingly forgiving, not accusing; busy, not free to be comforted; mysterious, not willing to talk the situation over; absent, not obviously alone or overdoing attentions to others.

Here Martin plays the astute friend who, to avoid condescending to you, doesn’t try to minimize your pain. Instead she validates your desire for revenge, framing your rejector’s suffering as the “only available pleasure.” It’s a shame, then, her basic assumption—that rejectors suffer most when you move on—is plainly untrue. Rejectors, obviously, want you to forgive and forget, fast. Which means if you really wanted to make them suffer, you’d apply yourself single-mindedly to “see-how-miserable-you-made-me-feel.”

So while the classy, healthy, and ethical thing to do is move on, what would truly please you, following Martin’s logic, is revenge. As we’re told that you can only hurt the ones you love, the capacity to wound even furnishes proof of that love. Certainly this comes at the cost of their affection, but what can they do, reject you again? This might explain why, in lieu of love, certain desperates will fashion from rejection a different plot. They seek a bond that—like the idealized, imagined love they’ve lost—is exclusive and permanent: the bond of death, which has its own cliché: If I can’t have you, nobody will.


In the revenge plot, both in literature and life, a woman’s life is often forfeit. Roderigo, turned down by Desdemona, and Iago, passed over for a promotion, conspire to manipulate Othello into murdering Desdemona. Phaedra, spurned by Hippolytus, kills herself and frames him for it, leading to his death. In The Brothers Karamazov, Elder Zosima tells the story of a friend who in his youth killed a woman who rejected him, got away with it, and only years later confesses his crime. Even when Goethe’s Werther takes his own life after being rejected by Charlotte and the Weimar nobility, it’s mentioned in passing that “Charlotte’s life was despaired of.” (Not just hers—the book spawned an outbreak of real-world copycat suicides.)

Hannah Arendt called loneliness “the common ground for terror”—the double entendre being common. An analysis of fifteen mass shootings between 1995 and 2001 found that at least six perpetrators had “experienced a recent romantic rejection”; 97 percent of all 197 American mass shootings since 1966 were committed by men, and 46 percent of mass shootings between 2015 to 2022 targeted current or former romantic partners or family members. In The Bully Society, Jessie Klein writes that “in at least twenty-three school shootings, the perpetrators’ stated motives related to relationship stresses: rejection, jealousy, a desire to protect girls, or frustration or perceived failure with girls,” suggesting that the killers considered “their responses more understandable and perhaps even justified.” The mass shooters George Sodini, George Hennard, Marc Lépine, and Elliot Rodger all explicitly cited their rejection by, and hatred of, women as their casus belli; the Virginia Tech shooter Seung-hui Cho had been reported for stalking female students; the Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza wrote an essay about “why females are inherently selfish.” The Columbine shooter Eric Harris had been turned down by a girl he’d asked to prom three days before the massacre; high schoolers Luke Woodham, Michael Carneal, Kip Kinkel, Andrew Wurst, Mitchell Johnson, and Jaylen Fryberg also retaliated against rejections. Six-year-old Dedrick Owens shot a girl his own age after she rejected him for a kiss.

How does something as immaterial as rejection enlarge and solidify in the mind, until murder seems like a fair response? Perhaps because, while rejection itself can be light, the intensity of the feelings it evokes is not, fueled by the reject’s limitless counterfactual imaginings. Since its outcomes are total, the intentions behind them feel equally total, so “I don’t like you in that way” is heard as “I despise you.” When a rejection gets construed as an attack, the temptation is to fight back, accuse them of assuming the worst about you, repay the insult, or demean the rejector to invalidate their rejection. You assume they have dismissed you out of active hatred, even though rejections can happen out of fleeting mood, circumstance, indecision, busyness, romantic orientation, or forgetfulness. Even when they do dislike you, it’s not always personal; as in cases of bigotry, it can stem from the rejector’s shortcomings rather than your own. (Sometimes, though, the problem really is you.)

The blankness of the rejection plot may be the crux. It feels absurd to be so undone by nothing; only by reconceiving your rejection as a top-tier catastrophe, a special torment with life-or-death stakes, does the suffering feel proportionate. So neglect becomes crucifixion, wound-licking is justice, disrespect is death, and rejection by one is rejection by all. By causing real suffering and death, the killer wants to assert the reality and intensity of the pain it emerged from. And since rejection lacks its own narrative, it co-opts others—not just their plot, but their style. To quote another famously heartsick homicidaire, you can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style—and you can count on a mass killer for an overwrought one. The killers’ fantasies of revenge dwarf even their actual deeds. In his manifesto, Elliot Rodger envisions “a fair and pure world” in which women are rounded up in concentration camps and “deliberately starved to death.” In his videos he declares that he will turn everyone into “mountains of skulls and rivers of blood,” just as Seung-hui Cho announces that he will cause “millions of deaths and millions of gallons of blood on the streets.”

It used to be that the bogeyman of popular imagination was the serial killer, whose archetype was often surprisingly charming or sociable: Ted Bundy, Paul Knowles (the “Casanova Killer”), John Wayne Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer; or their fictional progeny, the compassionate Dexter Morgan, erudite Hannibal Lecter, smoldering Paul Spector. With something like a diabolical humanism, this archetype kills for pleasure, relishing each one. These have been supplanted by the newer archetype of the mass shooter, or parallel killer—an antisocial reject who wants to get it all out at once, acting out of imagined justice rather than pleasure. In their parallel worlds, all is permitted and possible, and the reject is god. Seung-hui Cho: “I die, like Jesus Christ, to inspire generations of the Weak and Defenseless people.” (Cho also told his roommate that he had a girlfriend from outer space named Jelly.) Elliot Rodger: “I’ll be a god, exacting my retribution on all those who deserve it.” Describing himself as “one who always loved fantasy and magic, and who always wished that such things were real,” Rodger was a fan of The Secret, a superstitious self-help book about getting things you want, like Pygmalion, simply by wanting them hard enough.

In 2015, a bow-tie designer named Tyrell Shaw went on a daylong spree in Manhattan, striking Asian women in the face with a blunt object in four separate incidents, before hanging himself. “I’ve been rejected by Women my entire life,” his blog begins. “I never agreed with violence, but I knew the only way I could overcome that sense of rejection-would start by assaulting the women that carelessly rejected me.” (But he had propositioned them just as carelessly: elsewhere he claimed to have complimented a hundred Asian women in one day, listing the exact time of each compliment.) “I realized that I would have to use violence in order get the response that I desire,” he later continued. “By starting an independent civil war where I will hit over a million Asian Women in the face with a stick will change history.”

The delusion of consequence, and of one’s vengeance serving a higher purpose, speaks to the malleability of the rejection plot: it feels very bad, so it can’t mean nothing, and since you want it to mean something, and it could mean anything, it’s got to mean everything. Because the rejection plot has no closure of its own, the thoughts and desires can only be discharged by forcing something to happen. And so a new script emerges for others to act out, achieving deadly closure. Shooters explicitly copying Elliot Rodger include Christopher Harper-Mercer, Dimitrios Pagourtzis, Alek Minassian, and Keshav Bhide, who, a month after Rodger’s massacre, declared on YouTube: “I am the next Elliot Rodger and guess what I’ll do the right thing this time.”


There is one other surefire way to end a story that doesn’t progress, and that is to stop reading it (or writing it). Those who feel patronized by hope, have had enough of languishing, and don’t err into vengeance, may contemplate opting out of love altogether. But when being loved is ubiquitously understood as the sine qua non of fulfillment, no one gives it up willingly. The problem is, we like love, we love to yearn, we cherish the hope and payoff of grand ambitions realized, we want to want to want. A hero is not supposed to quit.

The parallel killer is a descendant of Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man: an outcast narcissistically reveling in self-laceration and offense, rejected by society. We may pity him, but we can only root for him insofar as we relate to his feelings.

Do other scripts exist? Is there a plot in which the reject is somehow heroic, by dint of his rejection? We see some novels where the protagonists forebear their loneliness with admirable lightness, like Mildred Lathbury in Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women, who suffers the condescension of her married peers with self-deprecating charm—though this is undercut by the fact that in later novels, she winds up married.

Another novel begins with the same premises but arrives at different conclusions—its protagonist is a lonely, isolated wretch awash in self-pity, living a plotless life in which nothing ever happens:

Others have someone who is devoted to them. I’ve never had someone who even considered devoting themselves to me. That is for others: me, they just treat decently.

I recognize in myself the capacity to arouse respect but not affection. Unfortunately I’ve done nothing that in itself justifies that initial respect and so no one has ever managed to fully respect me either.

In him we recognize the reject’s self-loathing and resentment:

Other people of lesser intelligence are in fact much stronger than me. They are better than I am at carving out their lives amongst other people, more skilled at administering their intelligence. I have all the necessary qualities to influence others but not the art with which to do so, nor even the will to want to do so.

His preference for fiction over reality:

I feel closer ties and more intimate bonds with certain characters in books, with certain images I’ve seen in engravings, than with many supposedly real people, with that metaphysical absurdity known as “flesh and blood.”

Frustration with his stagnant, meaningless life:

I’ve done nothing nor will I ever do anything useful to justify my existence. The part of my life not wasted in thinking up confused interpretations of nothing at all, has been spent making prose poems out of the incommunicable feelings I use to make the unknown universe my own. Both objectively and subjectively speaking, I’m sick of myself. I’m sick of everything, and of everything about everything.

Hope? What have I got to hope for? The only promise the day holds for me is that it will just be another day with a fixed course to run and a conclusion.

Lamenting about his Godless existence:

No Christ died for me. No Buddha showed me the right path. In the depths of my dreams no Apollo or Athena appeared to me to enlighten my soul.

Framing his desire as a matter of mortal consequence:

It’s enough for me to want something for that thing to die. My destiny, however, is not powerful enough to prove deadly to just anything. It has the unfortunate disadvantage of being deadly to only those things I want.

He even calls his writings “confessions,” as if being rejected is a state of sin or crime. This is Bernardo Soares, one of Fernando Pessoa’s heteronyms, in his posthumous and unedited novel The Book of Disquiet. Presented as diary entries, the faceless office drone Soares is capable of deep perception, gentleness, and self-knowledge, but is no less a reject, with all its hallmarks. He lives an airless life with a deep relationship to fantasy (“In my case the two realities I attend to have equal weight”), and he’s prone to cosmically grandiose proclamations about himself, though with a self-effacing twist: “I am the nothing around which all this spins, I exist so that it can spin, I am the center that exists only because every circle has one … I am the center of everything surrounded by the great nothing.”

Unlike Miss Havisham, Mr. Collins, #OP, or Roderigo—unlike Sodini, Cho, or Rodger—Soares not only radically accepts his condition but aestheticizes it. For him the blankness of rejection is a canvas: “Because I am nothing, I can imagine myself to be anything. If I were somebody, I wouldn’t be able to.” While a bookkeeper could imagine himself as anyone, he argues, the King of England can’t, because “his reality limits what he can feel.” Instead of trying to bring his parallel life in line with his real one, he rejects both: “I reject life because it is a prison sentence, I reject dreams as being a vulgar form of escape.” His conviction is that the world’s beauty and perfection are located in its very unattainability. His parallel world stays parallel, because if he were not rejected, if he got what he wanted, perfection wouldn’t exist at all, and life would mean less: “We worship perfection because we can’t have it; if we had it, we would reject it.”

What one might call heroic is Soares’s success in finding a different perspective on the dogma of love. And not with the kind of delusional spite that degrades love, but actually appreciates it:

It is not love itself but the outskirts of love that matter … The sublimation of love illuminates the phenomena of love much more clearly than the actual experience of it. There are some very wise virgins in the world. Action has its compensations but it confuses the matter. To possess is to be possessed and therefore to lose oneself.

This idea that love can only be truly appreciated from the outside may feel like sour grapes, like the purest cope, but where does that feeling come from? Of course everyone wants love; still, consider how often lovers say their beloved completes them, and they can’t live without them, and so on. If the price of love is losing yourself in another, then accepting unrequital is a special kind of self-knowledge, one that does not pretend that acceptance comes with any greater reward. Even if everyone would prefer the fulfillments of love, that doesn’t negate the virtue of its absence. Whether you wanted this virtue or not.


Tony Tulathimutte is the author of Private Citizens. Rejection is forthcoming in September 2024. He is the founder of CRIT, a writing class in Brooklyn. His story “Ahegao” appeared in the Winter 2023 issue of The Paris Review.