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Modernism, Feminism, and the Culture of Boredom


Allison Pease


Cambridge: University Press, 2012

Hardback. xiii+159 p. ISBN 978-1107027572. £55.00


Reviewed by Alice Braun

Université Paris-Ouest-Nanterre-la Défense



As she admits it herself in her introduction to Modernism, Feminism, and the Culture of Boredom, Allison Pease’s main argument may be deemed slightly counterintuitive. She aims to show that the representation of bored female characters in modernist novels, both male- and female-authored, is symptomatic of the changing status of women in the early 20th century and their struggle to achieve some form of individuality. Placing boredom within the context of post-Enlightenment emphasis on agency and self-realisation, Allison Pease shows that, as a concept and a representation, boredom actually proves a particularly thought-provoking topic as it stands at the crossroads between cultural history and literature. The author starts by explaining that, even though boredom has of course been represented in literature before, modernist writers make it an actual element of the plot, “a core constituent of their narratives”, as she claims in her introduction [viii]. Yet boredom is without a doubt a gendered affect: its experience and significance vary between men and women, on the one hand, and between male and female authors on the other. For Pease, there is a clear distinction between “male ennui”, generally represented and regarded as “ennobling”, and a “pathological” female boredom which is the result of not engaging in any serious activity. The possibility for women to come out of the private sphere to which they had been relegated and enter the public sphere was the object of intense debate between feminists, more particularly suffragists, and the conservative forces of the time. Pease shows that women were in a period of transition, which resulted in a paradoxical situation: for the first time they were considering the possibility of exerting their own will and acting in their own interests, yet they were not given the actual means to fulfil their desires. Boredom therefore served as a metaphor for the conflict between glimpses of freedom and the reality of their on-going dependence on patriarchy. To make this point, Pease relies on the works of Arnold Bennett, May Sinclair, Dorothy Richardson and Virginia Woolf.

In the first chapter of her book, Allison Pease takes us through the political, medical and philosophical debates of her time, in which boredom featured as a major concern. Allison Pease reminds us that one of the recurring tropes of early 20th-century literature was that of the educated wife or mother, stifled by her domestic duties yet enlightened enough to be aware of the limitations of her role, confined to her sofa in an utter state of boredom. The medical discourse of the time at the same time pathologised boredom as a symptom of mental disorder and yet enforced it as a cure, under the name of “bed rest”, for neurasthenia, a common diagnosis for women who were believed to be suffering emotional strain linked with excessive activity. Both Virginia Woolf and Charlotte Perkins Gilman have documented the intense boredom that they experienced during their periods of bed rest. At the other end of the ideological spectrum, feminists denounced the figure of the woman on the sofa as emblematic of the subjection of women to patriarchy, and for the eugenicists among them, of the gradual decay of the species. They believed inactivity was to blame for neurasthenia, not activity itself – activity being an essential part of women’s access to some form of individuality. Yet as the author shows, feminist individualism-centred discourse is at odds with psychoanalysis, which had a major influence on the modernist movement, and which brought to the fore the very dividedness of the subject. For Pease then, boredom is the consequence of two contradictory impulses: the desire for self-realisation on the one hand and the repression of this impulse as a result of the internalisation of patriarchal rules compelling women to remain passive, on the other. Pease also offers a philosophical perspective on the question of boredom, quoting Heidegger, who linked it with nihilism, and, in its extreme form, a total emptiness of being, a concept and a representation which were to be found in many modernist novels.

In her second chapter, Allison Pease makes a distinction between male-authored and female-authored representations of female boredom, claiming that male authors such as D.H. Lawrence, E.M. Forster or H.G. Wells, with the notable exception of Arnold Bennett, were just as preoccupied with the figure of the bored woman as their female counterparts but prescribed a different solution for their condition. This claim is most obviously borne out in Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, in which Constance is cured of her nihilistic boredom by becoming aware of her sexuality, which had been stunted by her feminist ideals. Pease also refers to several examples of novels of the time in which the plot is driven by the heroine’s desire for self-fulfilment and finds its resolution in her eventual subjection to marriage and motherhood: “These male-authored bildungsroman novels of women’s boredom thus take women’s quest for self-realization seriously, but […] depict feminist notions of individualism and independence as an impediment to women’s fulfilment” [44].

Chapters 2, 3 and 4 develop as a contrast to Pease’s overview of male representations of female boredom and take a closer look at works such as Mary Olivier and Three Sisters by May Sinclair, Pilgrimage by Dorothy Richardson and The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf. In Sinclair’s books, boredom is a form of rebellion against patriarchy and signifies the monotony of the lives of women who are completely deprived of any agency, their lives spent waiting for something to happen, their only way out of which being the possibility of sublimation “as a consciously willed process” [58]. Sinclair, a celibate herself, described female protagonists who were able to extract moments of epiphany from the very depths of boredom, making it the possibility of their spiritual redemption by reaching out and over the confines of their domestic lives to the possibility of pure ecstasy.

There is a similar diagnosis in Richardson’s novel, Pilgrimage, often described at the time of its publication as an extremely boring book. Pease contends that the very boredom the novel inspires in the reader was supposed to be a reflection of the boredom at the heart of Miriam, the main protagonist’s experience, and a faithful rendering of the meaninglessness of her life. Even the choice of a professional career proves to be a dead end, as it also creates a form of boredom which is, in this case, a form of rebellion against the Marxist alienation of work. Miriam resists the plot of marriage, work, and the conventional structures of society by refusing to engage with any of them, which leads to her profound breakdown and eventual recovery through her realisation that true independence is the only form of individuality.

Virginia Woolf, Pease shows, takes her representation of boredom beyond the political and feminist critique, and turns to its metaphysical, Heideggerian sense which is that of a complete emptying out of meaning, and a dissolution of the boundaries of the self. Pease uses the example of Rachel Vinrace, a character in The Voyage Out, whose boredom is the result not only of her condition as a woman, but of the very impossibility to feel desire at all. Her failed love affair is only an illusory quest for meaning outside of herself as she tries to escape her own emptiness by giving it the framework of the heterosexual love plot. At the end of the novel, as Rachel reaches what Woolf terms a “moment of being”, she realises that true independence of the self is not individualism but rather impersonality. In this way, according to Pease, Virginia Woolf takes the modernist reflection on boredom a step further, and denounces the feminist quest for one’s individuality as a false promise.

Allison Pease’s book is a valuable contribution to the study of the modernist movement. Her joint literary and cultural studies approach allows her to couple history and the study of some of the major texts of modernism. However her precise, albeit very convincing argument is not sustained by a wide scope of references (one may have expected a least a passing reference to Jean Rhys’s novels), which does not make for a very lengthy book, and does occasion some repetitions. However, overall it provides a fresh and thought-provoking perspective on a number of authors who had been overlooked, such as May Sinclair and Dorothy Richardson, while lending new ideas to the ever-growing field of Woolf studies.


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