SPACES OF BOREDOM:
RESTLESSNESS AND IDLENESS IN CHARLES DICKENS’S BLEAK HOUSE (1852-53)
From literary themes to spatial concepts
Tue 26 Nov. 11:00
The English term ‘boredom’ carries in its etymological origins a spatial reference. According to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology (1999) and the Oxford English Dictionary (2010), ‘boredom’ emerged in the nineteenth century from the combination of the verb ‘bore’ and the suffix ‘-dom’, both from Middle English. The first component means ‘to make a hole by drilling a solid’ and the second one forms nouns associated with specific domains. As such, ‘boredom’ denotes a void space where a piece of the whole has been removed due to an involuntary action. This zone lacks any quality because there is no indication of its original characteristics. The space of boredom is accessible but undefined.
‘Boredom’ was recorded for the first time in Charles Dickens’s serial novel Bleak House (March 1852 – September 1853). The noun appears six times in the text; the first and the last with capital ‘B’, in allegorical form. In the plot, the condition is posed as a negative affection of two female characters of the upper class, Lady Dedlock and cousin Volumnia. They embody, represent and perform opposite aspects of boredom and, therefore, of spatial occupation. The former is one of the main protagonists whose past drives the story. She is in a constant state of restlessness, in physical and dimensional movement – from the urban to the suburban, from the material to the moral, from the fashionable to the timeless, from the elitist to the popular, and from the everyday to the existential. The latter is a secondary figure whose qualities are part of the overall social and cultural background.
She is in idleness – emotionally and intellectually static, repetitive in her behaviour and predictable in her reactions. In both cases, their qualities are extended to the way they inhabit architecture. Whereas Lady Dedlock longs to establish meaningful relations with the environment, cousin Volumnia is concerned with maintaining the surroundings in a lasting status quo. They turn into centres from which boredom centrifugally disperses. As an entropic substance, it permeates the private as well as the public, altering perception and problematizing the urban experience.
This paper examines Bleak House in order to contextualise the emergence of boredom as a circumstance dependent on the qualities of the built environment. To this aim, restlessness and idleness are instrumentalised as levels of complexity capable of exposing this condition as a symptom of the modern concern with architecture as a spatial and relational circumstance. Dickens’s narrative is conceived as a transcription of a multi-layered phenomenon with a historically specific spatiality. In his account, the qualities of boredom are not posed as exclusive of the ‘boring’ object or the ‘bored’ subject but as a critical and pervasive event that signals to something beyond itself – a state of ambiguity and ambivalence.
Christian Parreno (1977) is a PhD Research Fellow at the Institute of Form, Theory and History, in The Oslo School of Architecture and Design, investigating the relation between boredom, space and architecture. He spent a year carrying out this research at The Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London. Since 2009, he is the Space Editor of Glass Magazine. During 2006-10 and 2001-05, he practiced as an architect and researcher in London and Ecuador. He holds a MA in Histories and Theories from the Architectural Association and a five-year Architectural degree from San Francisco de Quito University, Cum Laude.
Charles Dickens (2002), Bleak House, New York: The Modern Library [London, 1852-53]