- The Only Unforgivable Sin:On Boredom & Being Bored
Boredom is something of a quicksilver state of mind: immediately recognizable (alas, what professor is not familiar with its glassyeyed attendance in the classroom?) and wonderfully democratic in its purview, but deceptively slippery when it comes to dissection and examination. One hears it defined equally well in terms of excess (too much tedium, too much repetition) and lack (too little interest, too little meaning), presence (of distraction, of dissatisfaction) and absence (of desire, of will). Nearly twenty years ago, Patricia Meyer Spacks’s Boredom: The Literary History of a State of Mind (1995) conveyed readers through boredom’s multiple manifestations in British literature from the eighteenth to the twentieth century. Allison Pease’s investigation in Modernism, Feminism, and the Culture of Boredom is much narrower in scope. It focuses on one prevalent type: the bored woman in early British modernist fiction. As it turns out, she’s everywhere. [End Page 562]
Pease’s restriction of her inquiry to this tiny subset of literature is limiting, but justifiable. For while Spacks showed us a boredom that has no respect for persons, Pease quickly points out that women—and especially women in modernist novels—seem to have a special relationship with boredom. As she explains in her preface, “modernist literature is replete with women reclining on sofas, muttering to themselves on trains, moping about country villages, rolling dental papers in offices, pouring out tea and stifling yawns while engaging in small talk.” Appearing in print at a time when women were agitating for greater social and political recognition, these yawners and small talkers, Pease claims, are crucial figures not only because they reflect women’s general lack of subjectivity, agency, and desire. More important, bored female characters elicit from authors new “form[s] and narrative techniques” that emerged as writers attempted “to articulate, understand, and in some cases remedy women’s boredom.” Thus, Pease’s central claim is that many modernist literary innovations—including those, like “shifting narrative perspectives and incantatory repetition,” that we most readily associate with early twentieth-century British literature—arise as authors grapple with the recalcitrant figure of the bored woman.
Spacks had noted that in the eighteenth century, women attributed boredom to men, while in the nineteenth, men attributed it to women. Pease begins her book with a lengthy overview of boredom in the twentieth century. For Pease, women’s boredom is intimately connected with the tensions surrounding the suffrage movement; thus “representations of boredom as a structure of feeling for British women during this time are an acknowledgement of the profound dissatisfaction of a group of people who found themselves on the wrong side of agency, interest, and meaning.” Both “an emotion” and “an affect,” boredom highlights those issues of subjectivity and desire that British women, disenfranchised in a number of ways, spoke most vociferously about. Not surprisingly, then, Pease reads boredom in modernist literature as potentially subversive, a kind of “political dissent” when taken up in a gesture of active refusal. It becomes a means of engaging by refusing to be engaged. Of course, not all authors who penned bored women during this period appreciated such a gesture, and Pease devotes the second chapter of Modernism, Feminism, and the Culture of Boredom to several male authors whose representations of female boredom share a remarkable likeness. [End Page 563]
Pease’s chapter on D. H. Lawrence, H. G. Wells, E. M. Forster, Arnold Bennett, and the mostly forgotten popular writer Robert Hichens records two similarities about these otherwise very different authors’ depictions of bored women. First, Pease asserts that in the novels of these men, “women’s boredom is often generalized to a nihilistic worldview”; and second, these authors “reverse nihilistic narratives through … women’s sexual connection with men.” With the exception of Bennett, who is something of an outlier in Pease’s argument, these male writers all create female characters whose boredom is resolved with sex. What is more interesting, most of these authors (Lawrence is the stand-alone here) offer this resolution in alignment...