Ennui (guest post by Karen Swallow Prior)

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Regular readers of the Pick of the Clicks will know that I am a huge fan of Karen Swallow Prior. I have to restrain myself from including her every single week. I love reading her reflections on literature, ethics, history, and even her love of dogs. I read her first book and it persuaded me to give myself a second chance at the classics. I am thrilled to have her as a guest here today for the Words That Changed My World series. Welcome, Karen!

Yearning is the state of all adolescents–and a good many grown-ups, too. A certain kind of longing is simply part of the fallen human condition. But endless pining for the wrong thing—for anything that cannot fill the hunger only God can fill—only catapults us further down that rabbit hole into which our first parents fell and into which have all been born ever after.

My pining goes back to an early age. Although lucky enough to spend an idyllic childhood in rural Maine, running through woods and fields, swimming in lakes, and counting countless animals as my friends, my wanton eye wandered. I daydreamed of galloping horses bareback across the hilltops, of running away in order to follow adventure wherever it might lead, and of finding love like that told of in fairy tales. Such childish dreams were shed in my teenage years, replaced with longings fueled by romantic movies, trashy novels, and silly talk among girls. I longed for adulthood and independence—as all adolescents do and should. But I also mistook these—adulthood and independence—for excitement, thinking they were, or should be, one and the same—as many adolescents do and many adults do but should not.

It wasn’t until I read Madame Bovary in my World Literature class in college that I learned there is a word for this kind of yearning. The word is ennui, a French word that denotes “a feeling of listlessness and dissatisfaction arising from a lack of occupation or excitement.” The word is similar to boredom but suggests an existential condition more than merely a passing state. The word ennui captures the central problem for the novel’s main character, Emma Bovary, a young woman whose imagination has been fired by romance novels, only to find disappointment in the real life she leads.

At the root of Emma’s ennui is her romantic outlook. Romanticism has a number of meanings, but all are connected to a kind of idealism that generally opposes realism. After all, what makes a candlelit dinner for two “romantic” is that it’s so much dreamier than mac-and-cheese gulped down at the kitchen counter before shuttling all the kids to soccer practice. There’s nothing wrong with a candlelit dinner, but there is something wrong with allowing the yearning for such things to blind us to the beauty and simple joy of the everyday. Such blindness can—and often does—lead to ennui. Experiencing vicariously through Emma’s character the devastating and ultimately fatal effects of her ennui transformed my thinking and changed my life forever.

In my book, Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me, I focus particularly on the way the novel saved my view of marriage and therefore my actual marriage. Here’s an excerpt of that story:

Throughout the novel, Emma is often depicted as standing at a window, forehead pressed against the glass, looking out at the world. This characteristic stance expresses Emma’s attitude toward life, boredom and distance, which reinforce one another inevitably, something she cannot see. Her boredom with life causes her to withdraw, but in withdrawing from life in search of an illusory dream, she is destined for the ennui, or weariness with the world, that propels her onto her self-destructive path. Frequently, her eyes are described as “half-closed,” the posture of willful blindness and denial—and usually, in both literature and life, the precursor to tragedy.

Emma is disenchanted with everything. She hates provincial life. She dreams of the glamorous lives she encounters at a ball she and Charles [her husband] are invited to attend. As the ordinariness of their lives continues, Emma sinks deeper into a monotony-wrought despair. She keeps “waiting in her heart for something to happen,” something of excitement to fulfill her longing, her unbearable heaviness of being. Most torturous is dinnertime with her husband. Emma’s anorexic soul recoils at the common pleasure of fellowship around a meal. The very things that make us human are too mundane for Emma.

The rest of the novel depicts Emma’s continued attempts at escaping ennui—that consuming boredom—of a life that cannot match the world as she fantasizes it to be. Erroneously thinking her boredom comes from outside herself, she takes another lover, establishes a secret life with him in the city, only to become bored with her second lover, then runs herself and Charles into debt in buying needless luxuries that she hopes will make her life extraordinary.

Yet, she still fails to learn to take pleasure in the real world. Emma prefers the idea to the reality.

Such a romantic worldview can infiltrate all of life, not just notions of love.

The words of Madame Bovary—particularly that incriminating word, ennui—showed me that if I spent my life waiting for excitement, pining for a fantasy world—fantasies about the worlds of love, work, family, church or friends (for we all have ideal versions of how these things should look)—I would miss out on the gifts of ordinary life. For the truth is that in its very ordinariness is life most beautiful and rich. The lovely breakfasts I’ve had on hotel terraces in Africa cannot compare to the peace and contentment of drinking my morning coffee on my own front porch. Although I have eaten around a campfire under a tent in the Sahara Desert, I treasure much more laughter and conversations shared with friends and family at the local pizza place.  I slept in a 19th century hotel in Paris one night, but nowhere am I happier than falling asleep and waking up in my own bed with unstarched sheets and a rumpled comforter laden with familiar dog hair.

In Madame Bovary, however, Emma Bovary’s ennui feeds upon itself, growing from dissatisfaction to despair and finally to death. Even apart from such dramatic outcomes, ennui siphons away the great pleasure to be found in the everyday life and the everyday things that are all around us: the gentle rhythms of routine, the undulating music of household chores, the luxurious feel of the dog at my feet, the artistry expressed in the melding of lives, the taste of quiet steady love in an afternoon kiss.

There really is nothing more exciting or satisfying than taking joy in the world as it is—and finding and making good from it.

Karen Swallow Prior, Ph. D., is an award-winning Professor of English at Liberty University. She is the author of Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me (T. S. Poetry Press, 2012) and Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More—Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist (Thomas Nelson, Nov. 2014). Prior is a contributing writer for
Christianity Today, Think Christian, and The Atlantic. Her writing has also appeared at Books and Culture, Comment, Fieldnotes, Relevant, and Salvo. She is a member of INK: A Creative Collective and the Faith Advisory Council of the Humane Society of the United States. She and her husband live in rural Virginia with sundry dogs, horses, and chickens.

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18 thoughts on “Ennui (guest post by Karen Swallow Prior)”

  1. This is such wonderful praise of the world God has placed us in, Karen: “For the truth is that in its very ordinariness is life most beautiful and rich.” It is there we live, and there that Christ lies with us. How could life be better than that?

  2. I’m in the process of reading Booked and have recently read through the chapter on Madame Bovary and then the chapter on the poetry of John Donne. From the local library I checked out a book of John Donne’s poetry and am now smiling over The Flea. Booked is causing me to turn more fully toward living life rather than living in my own thought world in my head. Thank you, Karen, for Booked!

  3. Thanks for this reflection; it’s a wonderful reminder to enjoy where we are and not pine despairingly for a fantasy. It’s less than a year since I read Booked but I already think it’s time for a re-read!

  4. Ironically, I did spend my childhood/youth training horses and galloping bareback around the hills of Southwestern WI (in addition to tending and birthing sheep, reading, drawing, and learning to play the violin, and learning cross-cultural skills through my dad’s ministry to Latinos). Yet I tend to think of it as a relatively ordinary or even boring childhood. Even now as a graduate student at an R1 university, I find myself daydreaming like Walter Mitty about adventures and a less “ordinary” life, Thank you for this warning that clinging to ideals robs the ordinary of joy.

  5. Karen – I remember reading that Madame Bovary chapter. I didn’t understand until I got married how much my years of longing for marriage could sabotage my real-life relationship with my husband if I am not careful. Thanks for this thoughtful post.

    1. mycoololdhouse

      Thanks for that affirmation, Charity. It’s amazing how much work even a little warning can do. Silence on these matters is one of the greatest dangers, I think.

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