The Meaning Behind “Eleanor Rigby” by The Beatles

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

“Eleanor Rigby” was released by The Beatles in 1966 as part of their Revolver album roll-out. A unique offering for the famed group, the song features only a string arrangement and vocal from Paul McCartney across the verses. The full group joins in on the chorus for a few moments of classic Beatles harmony.

Paul McCartney recounted the song’s origin and meaning in a 2018 interview with GQ, saying “Over the years, I’ve met a couple of others, and maybe their loneliness made me empathize with them. But I thought it was a great character, so I started this song about the lonely old lady who picks up the rice in the church, who never really gets the dreams in her life. Then I added in the priest, the vicar, Father McKenzie. And so, there were just the two characters. It was like writing a short story, and it was basically on these old ladies that I had known as a kid.”

Behind the Lyrics

McCartney, who penned most of this song, got the name from the actress Eleanor Bron, who appeared in the 1965 Beatles film Help!. “Rigby” came to him while in Bristol, England when he spotted a store named Rigby and Evens Ltd. Wine and Spirit Shippers. He liked the way the two names ringed together because it sounded natural and matched the rhythm he wrote.

As the opening chorus makes perfectly clear, the song is a sort of character piece about “all the lonely people.” The song’s intricate string arrangement underscores the narrative Paul McCartney sings about across the track’s three verses. The two characters, Eleanor and Father McKenzie, are both isolated in their own lives before finally “meeting” after Eleanor’s death, with the priest burying her.

Eleanor Rigby Meaning

The first verse follows the titular Eleanor as she tidies up after a wedding send-off and peers through the window at her house.

Eleanor Rigby, picks up the rice
In the church where a wedding has been
Lives in a dream
Waits at the window, wearing the face
That she keeps in a jar by the door
Who is it for

When McCartney first introduces us to Eleanor she is living in a “dream” world of her own, picking up rice from a wedding that was thrown over the happy couple. With the opening lines, he quickly lets the listener know that the closest Eleanor comes to getting married herself is tidying up after everyone has left.

Eleanor Rigby, died in the church
And was buried along with her name
Nobody came
Father McKenzie, wiping the dirt
From his hands as he walks from the grave
No one was saved

Later it’s revealed that Eleanor died, leaving no one to carry on her name. McCartney adds a bit of irony towards the end of the song by having the song’s two characters cross paths a little too late. If the two had met earlier they might have become friends with something in common, but it was too late. Eleanor died leaving Father McKenzie to “meet” her while officiating the funeral. He also implies that McKenzie’s sermon “saved” no one given that nobody attended.

Father McKenzie

The second character featured in the song’s lyrics is Father McKenzie. Without having much of a congregation, McKenzie is forced to write sermons that “no one will hear.” He later talks about darning his socks. Question is, if no one else will see if his socks are darned, why does he care? The second verse’s lines speak to the priest’s isolation and lack of companionship.

Father McKenzie, writing the words
Of a sermon that no one will hear
No one comes near
Look at him working, darning his socks
In the night when there’s nobody there
What does he care

McCartney spoke about this section of the song in a November 2020 piece for Rolling Stone saying, “Father McKenzie is ‘darning his socks in the night.’ You know, he’s a religious man, so I could’ve said, you know, ‘preparing his Bible,’ which would have been more obvious. But ‘darning his socks’ kind of says more about him. So you get into this lovely fantasy.”

More Popular Than Jesus

“Eleanor Rigby” was released just weeks after John Lennon made the widely controversial claim that “Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about that; I’m right and I will be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus now.”

With the addition of a priest and the many mentions that “no one was saved,” the song could be seen as a swipe at Christianity and the concept of being saved by Jesus.

Despite the controversy still brewing around the band thanks to Lennon’s comments, the song largely evaded any criticism, possibly because of the lilting string section making the song’s dark lyrics easier to handle.

Eleanor Rigby’s Gravestone

Fans can actually go to Eleanor Rigby’s gravestone in St. Peter’s Churchyard in Woolton, England—the suburb of Liverpool where McCartney and Lennon first met.

The gravestone bearing the name shows that she died in October of 1939 at 44. Elsewhere in the cemetery is a gravestone with the name McKenzie written on it. Despite the two names appearing in such close proximity, McCartney has denied that the gravestones were the source of the names. Although he has agreed that they may have registered subconsciously.

Photo by John Pratt/Keystone/Getty Images

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