Although boredom has become the focus of research among scientists in recent years, Western novelists and playwrights have expounded on the subject throughout the ages. It is no surprise that boredom, which often destroys the human will and a lust for life, is a recurrent motif of Western literature. In this essay, I will focus on some important literary works in which boredom is a major theme.
In Jane Austen’s novel, Emma, Austen sets the mood of boredom very early in the novel that is to haunt the protagonist Emma: “Many a long October and November evening [that] must be struggled through” for Emma and her father. We find both Emma and her father trapped in their mundane lives, which are marked by predictability, loneliness, and boredom. We also see that Christmas and the arrival of Emma’s sister and her children provide only a temporary reprieve from their tedious life. Austen’s Emma informs the readers of the instability that comes with boredom and how easily it can turn into depression if one suffers from simple boredom and finds no cure for it.
Several critics have argued that it’s boredom that forces Emma’s restless matchmaking. Critics also point out that Emma’s desperate longing to move to a new place is due to her intense suffering from boredom. Several scholars have credited Charles Dickens for being the first novelist to use the word “boredom” extensively in his novel, Bleak House, which was published in 1853.
Dickens’ next book, Hard Times, is an important work because it gives readers an opportunity to understand the dimensions of boredom faced by the working class in the Victorian era. For most of the 19th century, the working classes were deemed not to experience boredom at all because both boredom and ennui were associated with leisure and satiety, which were the privileges of the English upper classes. While Dickens does not use the word “boredom” explicitly in Hard Times, the vivid descriptions of the monotonous life in Coketown evokes the mind-numbing tedium and spiritual poverty of the factory workers.
In his novella, The Diary of a Superfluous Man, the Russian novelist, Ivan Turgenev, gives a poignant portrayal of boredom, melancholia, and depression that is experienced by the characters, especially the superfluous man, Oblomov. The following description of one autumn afternoon when Oblomov’s family is gathered around in the drawing room of their wealthy but decrepit estate wonderfully captures the melancholia, the deathly silence and the existential boredom of their banal existence:
All was quiet; only the sound of the heavy, home-made boots of Oblomov’s father, the muffled ticking of the clock in its case on the wall, and the snapping of the thread by the teeth or the hands of Pelageya Ignatyevna or Natasya Ivanovna broke the dead silence from time to time.
Half an hour sometimes passed like that, unless of course someone yawned and muttered, as he made the sign of the cross over his mouth, ‘Lord have mercy on us!’
His neighbor yawned after him, then the next person as though at a word of command, opened his mouth slowly, and so the infectious play of the air and the lungs spread among them all, moving some of them to tears.
All the characters in The Diary of the Superfluous Man, especially Oblomov, seem to suffer from existential boredom, which encompasses a multitude of conditions such as depression, melancholia, superfluity, boredom, frustration, surfeit, indifference, a sense of entrapment, and more.
French novelist Gustav Flaubert’s Madame Bovary is often regarded as an iconic book on the subject of boredom. The protagonist in Madame Bovary is Emma, who suffers from chronic boredom in the rule-ridden bourgeoisie life of the 19th-century northern French provinces. Her marriage to Charles Bovary quickly becomes all too routine, predictable, dull, and boring. Even giving birth to her daughter, Berthe, and moving to a new town doesn’t alleviate Emma’s acute sense of boredom and depression.
Consequently, Emma tries to escape the claustrophobic domestic life by having illicit affairs with different men, but all these romantic relationships fail to free Emma from the tentacles of boredom and loneliness. In the end, Emma commits suicide by taking poison. What Flaubert seems to be implying is that breaking societal mores doesn’t really work to liberate an individual who is suffering from boredom. In other words, chronic boredom bodes no good.
Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s play Hedda Gabler is also constructed around the theme of boredom. The character of Hedda represents a strong-willed individual who finds herself trapped in a tedious life where free choice is no longer an option. Ibsen powerfully portrays the mortal danger of boredom facing Hedda who affirms her person and spiritual independence and rejects boring compromise by killing herself.
Similarly, one of the recurring themes of the Russian playwright Anton Chekov’s Uncle Vanya is boredom. We find the young wife, Yelena, in Uncle Vanya complaining: “I’m dying of boredom … I don’t know what to do.” What we find in Chekov’s Uncle Vanya and other plays is that boredom is in the air; the characters are perpetually stuck in hopeless, oppressive circumstances, and unhappy marriages. They all struggle to free themselves from such debilitating boredom and meaningless lives, but fail because “real” life does not often give us that choice.
French philosopher and novelist Jean-Paul Sartre’s novel Nausea is about existential boredom. In the novel, the 30-year old protagonist, Antoine Roquentin realizes that he is imprisoned by freedom and that everything is futile because existence is arbitrary.
The extreme sense of existential boredom that Roquentin suffers from makes him indifferent to his city, acquaintances, sex, his food, and just about everything else he comes into contact with. Sartre shows in Nausea that when a person suffers from this kind of existential boredom, he/she becomes empty and does not expect or cannot receive anything of significance from the world around them.
All the characters in the literary works I have discussed either suffer from ‘common’ or ‘ordinary’ boredom or existential boredom. While ‘common’ or ‘ordinary’ boredom refers to a particular mental state that is extremely unpleasant, lacking in any kind of stimulation, existential boredom, on the other hand, is a malaise that affects a person’s very existence; it may even be perceived as a philosophical sickness. We find Emma in Madame Bovary suffering from ‘common’ or ‘ordinary’ boredom.
On the other hand, Sartre’s protagonist in Nausea, Antoine Roquentin, and Ibsen’s Hedda both suffer from existential boredom. The topic of existential boredom certainly is a complex one and many philosophers and literary figures have addressed it. In Boredom: A Lively History, Peter Toohey describes existential boredom as a “powerful and unrelieved sense of emptiness, isolation and disgust in which the individual feels a persistent lack of interest in and difficulty with concentrating on his current circumstances.”
In the literary works I have mentioned, we find that all the protagonists are suffering from boredom. They all seem to realize that boredom is inherent in everyday life and is thus unavoidable. While some of the main characters manage to assimilate to some extent and find their ways to fight it, others regard boredom as something that is simply unbearable to live with, as is the case with Flaubert’s Emma and Ibsen’s Hedda.
Both are unable to accept boredom and the only option available to them is to rid themselves of boredom by taking their own lives. Although suicide often serves as a leitmotif of literary works on boredom, several scholars point out that in real life suicide has no clear relationship with existential boredom because boredom simply doesn’t produce death-producing suffering in the realization of a meaningless of life unless this realization causes intense depression in the individual.
Boredom is quite widespread in contemporary societies, and it is a normal and incredibly common part of the human experience. Individuals who suffer from boredom usually try to cope with a mundane, routine and tedious life, hoping for the best. All they are left with is a personal existential choice and a personal responsibility for that choice.
Both “common” or “ordinary” and existential boredom is too enervating for most people and can easily lead to agitation, anger and depression. It’s no wonder that Søren Kierkegaard labeled boredom as “the root of all evil” and Oscar Wilde described boredom as the only horrible thing in the world, which was worse than death.
The writer is Professor of Communication Studies at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles.