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Chapter 32: the disappearance of ennui

The Rev. Dr. Prince, of Salem, Massachusetts, who had a vein of old-fashioned eccentricity, used to include among his Sunday petitions the request that “all vacant young ministers might be provided with parishes.” The prayer was in many cases heeded, and it is so, as we know, too frequently to this day; but times have changed, and youthful divines of this class are now punished with vacant pews. More solicitude is now found for the vacant young women, who are, the newspapers constantly tell us, ready to do almost anything to relieve ennui.

Suppose, for instance, that, as often happens, some young woman in what is called “society” wishes to go on the stage. She is, perhaps, a person of great and varied cultivation; has studied half a dozen languages and as many sciences; is intensely interested in photography, [213] in botany, in sociology, in art; is an accomplished musician; has been three or four times to Europe; and, to crown all, has a husband and a baby. Yet if she has also, or thinks she has, a gift for acting, she wishes to train herself as an actress; and the newspapers at once proclaim the fact far and wide, and draw the moral that she is seeking to escape ennui. Ennui? but she never had a lazy moment since she was born; there never was a moment when she had not more resources for a day than the hours of the day could fill; the struggle was not to find employment, but to choose among a myriad employments. What she has to contend with is not an empty garden, but one with too rich and varied a growth; and while she is wearing herself out with this struggle, she is supposed to be suffering for want of something to do! For ennui is defined in the dictionaries as being “languor of mind resulting from lack of occupation.”

When we look further at it, one is tempted to doubt whether ennui is not, among us Americans, a tradition rather than a reality. Fortunately for the world, we know that certain sins die out as the world goes on; the fact of sin may remain, but the forms change. Ennui is not the vice of a new country, but [214] the slow malaria of an old one. For the purposes of this disease we are still too young. It is, according to Byron, a peculiarly English affliction, although the name be French:

For ennui is a growth of English root,
Though nameless in our language; we retort
The fact for words, and let the French translate
That awful yawn which sleep cannot abate.

We have still too much of the Puritan in us, as a nation; have too many cares and duties and missions; we still work too hard and marry too young — for ennui, properly so called. We exhibit overwork, not underwork; our appointed disease is not ennui, but nervous prostration. It may be no better; it may even be worse; but it is a different thing.

When we think to escape Puritanism into the realms of fashion it is no better. Our civilization is not yet thoroughly adjusted for idle people; the wheels are not oiled; domestic service alone is a perpetual conflict. It is only in Europe that one has leisure for ennui. The situation which made until recently the staple of English novels was that which Mrs. Walford's story of Mr. Smith represents-that of a comfortably provided family, where half a dozen maidens toil not, neither do they spin, [215] but simply sit all day looking out of the window, watching for some rich stranger to come and marry them. This dreary condition finds as yet no counterpart in America. The great success of Little Women in England was largely due, no doubt, to the novelty of the situation there rendered — the family of maidens, all poor, all busy, all happy, and all content to wait to be wooed and won as it might please Providence. What with higher education and lectures and clubs and charity work, the difficulty is to find an unoccupied young woman in any family. That old life, so blameless and aimless, seems to have passed away. There are still plenty of maiden aunts, but they are not to be drafted into collateral service. Indeed, they turn out not even to outnumber the bachelors, since the statistics show that the 600,000 extra women of Massachusetts, for instance, are not maidens, but widows. Now the vocation of a widow,whatever else it may be, is surely not wont to be a vocation of ennui, but of care.

There are undoubtedly persons who are born tired, and there are women who were bored with their first dolls. These are exceptional, not normal. In this country, it may be laid down as a rule that youth of either [216] sex rarely suffers from ennui. It may still be found to some extent, doubtless, among maiden ladies living in boarding-houses, whose means are limited, yet just sufficient to relieve them from the wholesome necessity of exertion. It is to be found in greater degree among men similarly situated, living economically in small towns, forbidden to engage in business, lest they lose their little all, and dependent for occupation on the morning paper and the observation of other men's games of billiards at the club. Ennui is foreign to the habits of our people, and even to their temperaments; for, whatever it may be with the human race at large, it is certain that the native American of either sex inclines to work, not to idleness. The task of his physician is not to keep him busy, but to make him more idle. When he is too rich for convenience already, he keeps at work not so much to make more money as for sheer love of the game. He stays near the city, and does not, like the Englishman, become a landed proprietor and buy an estate in the country a dozen miles from any other estate.

As with the old, so with the young. The young clubmen of our cities are not simply swells, like their London prototypes; they must be bankers and speculators also. Pelham [217] and Vivian Grey and the Count d'orsay have ceased to be prototypes; Barnes Newcome is the ideal. The American Van Bibber and Mr. Barnes of New York are merely far-off copies of him. To be sure, Thackeray says, “I do not know what there was about this young gentleman which inspired every one of his own sex with a strong desire to kick him,” but it is very certain that he was not kicked for yielding to ennui. As to the other sex, we have the assurance of the highest living authority that in New York, at least, “unless a fashionable woman attends the opera three times a week, dines out seven days in the week, lunches daily at one house or another, and goes nightly to a ball or dance, she feels she is losing her time.” But at least she cannot suffer from “languor of mind resulting from lack of occupation.”


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