Why do you enjoy Anne Tyler novels? asked my friend. Nothing ever happens in them.
Said friend enjoys works of crime and fantasy, but the social realist within me adores books where nothing happens, where the plot is so reminiscent of everyday life that it feels close to non-existent; and where the characters are developed to the point where you almost feel you are sharing a house with them.
The undiluted theme in these modern works of literature but also in similar classic works, is that of bright, thinking women married to dull, often kind-hearted, but nonetheless unexciting, uninspiring men, a domestic situation enshrined in law and often characterised by ennui.
Ennui is a state of utter weariness and discontent, a situation borne in many marriages and through motherhood, to which women have traditionally aspired and expected to find fulfilment. Some do indeed manage it. Many do not, but it is only through literature that this taboo subject can readily be tackled. After all, it is fiction.
Even in Wuthering Heights which is based on violent and unmatched passion, misogyny even, much of Catherine’s adult life is spent in a dulled state of marriage to Edgar Linton. The message is that excitement never lasts, it is unreliable. Women who fall for the marriage and children model are somehow doomed to dedicate themselves to the dull stuff.
There is a deep sorrow for the men in these books, for they merely make the mistake of being ordinary and of loving, often in a caring way (admittedly, not so the pompously cold Casaubon in Middlemarch who wishes his wife, Dorothea, as his workhorse) but which is somehow never enough.
How frustrating for them to be so secondary.
Now, marriage in the nineteenth century was, of course, very different from contemporary marriage. Or was it? How much about the state of matrimony has changed when considered at a very personal level? Interestingly, the ennui theme runs through contemporary literature, too, indicating that it is still a crucial element of many women’s lives, and most importantly for the aspiring novelist, highly readable!
In the contemporary world, Anne Tyler’s ‘nothing happens’ novels, all based in Baltimore, are oozing with modern ennui. Ladder of Years, where Cordelia (Delia) goes out with her family to the beach one day, goes for a walk and just keeps on walking, is a wonderful example. The main character does what many women would, in their wildest dreams, like to do. Just once.
She starts a new anonymous life, in a mood of what is perhaps anger, but probably mainly sadness, for ennui demands that you are wearied but not too dulled to try to escape it. At home, she is the invisible wife and mother, the one who structures the family, who organises people, who resolves problems, but whose own needs are ignored, subsumed, secondary. It resonates with so many.
Delia is almost a non-person, which makes her anonymous new existence all the easier. Interestingly enough, her new life is not exciting either, but it is solitary, somehow satisfying, as she develops her own identity away from the strictures of family life. And when her family track her down to draw her back into the fold of dealing with their issues, her ‘adventure’ is over, so she simply slips back from whence she came, almost effortlessly, so colourless is her life. A disappointing, but somehow expected ending for Delia could do no other. Her time was over.
The problem of this deep existential dissatisfaction, however, is not salvaged through others, only through oneself, as Emma Bovary finds to her cost. She tries to alleviate the dullness of her marriage to a provincial French doctor through trying to create a ‘house beautiful’ existence and through amorous affairs with various exciting and unsuitable men, but none of them improve her ‘lot’ through their, perhaps understandable, self-seeking, empowered by her generosity both of body and financially.
She has a child, in the expectation that somehow the great passion she is seeking will arrive or be inspired by motherhood. It, of course, doesn’t. She is mainly dragged down by more responsibility. She resembles the 21st-century consumer in wracking up debts, buying fine clothes and presents for temporary thrall, all merely bringing increasing emptiness and dissatisfaction in their wake, with the additional grinding problem of debt.
Sure, Emma is stuck in rural France, married to an unambitious man. She craves excitement that is never going to happen in those circumstances. That said, many people’s lives today, rural or urban, contain the same intense emptiness, alleviated by low common-denominator entertainment and obedience to social norms and mores.
Feminism may have happened, but women, it seems, have not moved on.
Madame Bovary is a stunning novel, probably my favourite, yet one I find terribly hard to read because of its overwhelmingly realistic examination of ennui. A life of so much stuff but actually, of nothing. Flaubert allegedly, when asked upon whom Madame Bovary was based, said “C’est Moi”. In Flaubert’s case, the parallel was thought by critics to be his relationship with the bourgeoisie; hence, class-based. He claimed that Emma was entirely his creation, but presumably one based upon observations, that Emma was “suffering and weeping at this very moment in twenty villages in France”.
Women everywhere were stifled and bored like Emma Bovary, their lives empty vats of nothingness. Please be warned, Madame Bovary is not a romantic novel. There is no happy ending. To read a fabulous review, check here. Then read this one.
Defining ennui is difficult. An online dictionary mentions disinterest and boredom. Yes, but ennui goes far deeper than this, for it is an intensely deep and personal dissatisfaction with one’s daily life which manifests itself, not in ranting and raving, but a deep hopelessness, almost a depression. It is not the engorgement that some dictionaries mention, where we have too much and become bored by it, where satiety is being full to the point of surfeit unless that surfeit somehow dulls. It is something missing, the ‘hole in the soul’, most strongly displayed in Madame Bovary where it pours forth from every page. It is this which is such overwhelming reading.
Interestingly, Flaubert called his book (which was banned) a book about ‘nothing’……..ennui is a form of nothingness, more a wearied coldness than a passion:
“for her, life was as cold as an attic with a window looking to the north, and ennui, like a spider, was silently spinning its shadowy web in every cranny of her heart.” It is all-enveloping.
Ennui in literature – for women – seems to develop with marriage. Is this because people have such high hopes and expectations of what marriage brings? More Flaubert…
“Before she married, she thought she was in love; but the happiness that should have resulted from that love somehow had not come. It seemed to her that she must have made a mistake, have misunderstood in some way or another. And Emma tried hard to discover what, precisely, it was in life that was denoted by the words ‘joy, passion, intoxication’, which had always looked so fine to her in books.”
Like most people, Emma struggled to find it. Perhaps her expectations of others – or social institutions – were simply too high or, again like most, she was simply looking outside herself, rather than within; basically, in the wrong place?