Boredom is an emotional state with a storied history. While ancient Roman writers like Seneca described idleness as a sort of nausea, the first recorded use of "to bore" didn't appear until 1768, in a letter by the Earl of Carlisle (who mentions his “Newmarket friends, who are to be bored by these Frenchmen”). While hosts of studies from recent years show connections between boredom and an increased risk of depression, addiction, and even heart disease, the relentless 21st-century drive to avoid boredom (which Louis C.K. touches on in his most recent brilliant rant) can be just as debilitating. Some psychologists describe boredom as a state in which the mind seeks engagement but doesn’t find it; others define it as an evolutionary warning sign of negative social situations or imminent psychological breakdown. Ultimately, boredom escapes easy definition, making it a particularly fascinating literary device. As the works on this list show us, far from being, well, boring, literature that engages directly with tedium can touch on something fundamental in the human condition.
1. David Foster Wallace, 'The Pale King'
Wallace’s posthumously published novel chronicles the lives of IRS workers. In spite of his at times haunting depictions of the desperation and humble heroism of his characters, as they struggle to focus on something — or anything — for any length of time, The Pale King offers the most redemptive vision of boredom of any of the books on this list. At one point, the book's narrator states that neither cunning, nor brilliance, nor efficiency ensures success. Rather, boredom, "is the key to modern life. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish." For all the soul-crushing boredom described in the book (a boredom we experience directly as readers, through Wallace’s neurotic, jargon-laden, stream-of-consciousness narration) there’s a perverse salvation in it’s aftermath. In a note left with the manuscript, Wallace wrote that, "Bliss — a second-by-second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious — lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom.” In other words, fulfillment lies not in the escape from boredom, but in the dogged, wholehearted embracing of it.
2. Katherine Mansfield, 'Prelude'
Beryl Fairfield, the main character in Mansfield’s short story about life in the less-than-scintillating suburbs of colonial New Zealand, is underwhelmed by the situation in which she finds herself. Far from the life of exotic romance she’d been led to expect, Beryl finds her settler experience to be one of social isolation. Tedium becomes the defining element of her existence as she struggles to navigate the gendered divisions early-20th-century society. Mansfield, like other writers of her period, such as Virginia Woolf and May Sinclair, shows that enforced boredom is a powerful form of oppression that's on par with physical depravation, and that a social system that denies some individuals the means to escape their tedium ensures subordination. Rather than integrating her into a patriarchal society, Beryl’s cultivation grants her an awareness of just how undervalued and meaningless she is. And as many an overeducated and underemployed young person can tell you, that awareness is very tedious, indeed.
3. James Joyce, 'A Little Cloud'
In this story from The Dubliners, Little Chandler is confronted with the relentless banality of his life in provincial Dublin when an old friend visits from London, the imperial hub of the time. Little Chandler is a bureaucrat who dreams of being a poet, but he's unable to overcome the self-pity and envy occasioned by comparisons to his more successful contemporaries. Though Joyce's story is about a particular kind of boredom — the boredom of being trapped at the periphery and witnessing excitement without being able to participate in it — it also speaks to the tedium of missed opportunities, an issue as relevant in the 21st century as when the story was written in 1914. While the internet opens possibilities to us, it also acts of an archive of all the opportunities we've lost. From outdated job postings to reminders of past relationships, there’s nothing as jarring as confronting what could have been.
4. T.S. Eliot, 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock'
Any list of literary monotony would be incomplete without mention of T.S. Eliot. Eliot’s literary depictions of ennui have become benchmarks of modernity. His deep understanding of boredom may have come from personal experience, as he spent much of his life as an employee of Lloyd’s of London. "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" offers an authoritative portrayal of bourgeois malaise: “For I have known them all already, known them all; / Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons, / I have measured out my life in coffee spoons.” In its refrain of, “That is not what I meant, at all,” the poem evaluates the dull structures built by idle chatter. Eliot’s depiction of monotonous conversation easily applies to our world's oversaturation with communication. While constant contact with friends and loved ones may seem entertaining, the banality of our conversations can be stupefying. After all, human consciousness is more than a passive vessel waiting to be filled with cat videos and Facebook posts.