Elizabeth Bowen Essay - Critical Essays

Elizabeth Bowen Short Fiction Analysis

Elizabeth Bowen’s stories are set in the first half of the twentieth century in England and Ireland. Often the action takes place against a background of war. Taken together, her stories provide a chronicle of the social, political, and psychic life of England from the beginning of the century through World War II. Her characters are mainly drawn from the middle class, although upper-and lower-class characters appear as well. Although Bowen’s protagonist is usually a woman, men also play important roles. By selecting significant detail and by utilizing mythic parallels, Bowen constructs stories whose settings, actions, and characters are simultaneously realistic and symbolic.

Bowen’s characters exist in a world which has lost contact with meaning; traditional forms and ideas have lost meaning and vitality. Both identity and a sense of belonging are lost; “Who am I?” and “Where am I?” are typical questions asked by Bowen protagonists. Some characters merely go through the motions and rituals of daily life, experiencing pattern without meaning. Others have a vague consciousness that something is wrong; unfulfilled, they suffer from boredom, apathy, and confusion. Sometimes, such characters are driven to seek alternatives in their lives. In “Summer Night,” while the Major, an example of the first type of character, goes about his evening routine, shutting up the house for the night, his wife, Emma, pretending to visit friends, leaves her traditional family for an assignation with Robinson, a man she hardly knows. He represents another type: the man who adapts to meaninglessness by utilizing power amorally to manipulate and control. Emma is disillusioned in her search for vitality and love when she discovers that Robinson wants sex and nothing else. Other characters, such as Justin, are fully conscious of the situation; they know that they “don’t live” and conceive the need for a “new form” but are impotent to break through to achieve one.

“Summer Night”

Although Bowen’s stories focus on those characters who seek meaning or who are in the process of breaking through, they also represent a final type—one whose thinking and feeling are unified and in harmony with existence. An example from “Summer Night” is Justin’s deaf sister, Queenie. While Robinson is left alone in his house, while Emma leans drunk and crying against a telegraph pole, and while Justin goes to mail an angry letter to Robinson, Queenie lies in bed remembering a time when she sat with a young man beside the lake below the ruin of the castle now on Robinson’s land: “while her hand brushed the ferns in the cracks of the stone seat emanations of kindness passed from him to her. The subtle deaf girl had made the transposition of this nothing or everything into an everything.” Queenie imagines: “Tonight it was Robinson who, guided by Queenie down leaf tunnels, took the place on the stone seat by the lake.” It is Queenie’s memory and imagination that creates, at least for herself, a world of love, unrealized, but realizable, by the others. Memory recalls the lost estate of human beings, represented here by the castle, its grounds, and its garden, as well as man’s lost identity. Queenie is a queen. All human beings are rightfully queens and kings in Bowen’s fiction. Queenie’s memory reaches back to the archetypal roots of being, in harmony with life; her imagination projects this condition in the here and now and as a possibility for the future. Queenie’s thinking is the true thinking Justin calls for, thinking that breaks through to a “new form,” which is composed of archetypal truth transformed to suit the conditions of modern life. Throughout Bowen’s fiction this kind of thought takes the form of fantasy, hallucination, and dream. Bowen’s fiction itself, the expression of her imagination, also exemplifies this thinking.

“Her Table Spread”

Toward the end of “Summer Night” it occurs to Justin that possibly Emma should have come to him rather than Robinson. In “Her Table Spread” Bowen brings together two characters much like Emma and Justin. Valeria Cuff, heiress and owner of a castle in Ireland, situated on an estuary where English ships are allowed to anchor, invites Mr. Alban, a cynical and disillusioned young man from London, to a dinner party. These characters represent opposites which concern Bowen throughout her fiction: male and female, darkness and light, thought and feeling, physical and spiritual, rational and irrational. The separation or conflict of these opposites creates a world of war; their unification creates a world of love.

Valeria’s orientation is romantic, “irrational,” and optimistic: “Her mind was made up: she was a princess.” She invites Alban to her castle, “excited” at the thought of marrying him. Alban is realistic, rational, and pessimistic: “He had failed to love. He knew some spring had dried up at the root of the world.” Alban is disconcerted by Valeria’s erratic, impulsive behavior and by her apparent vulgarity. He has heard “she was abnormal—at twenty-five, of statuesque development, still detained in childhood.” Ironically, as Alban realizes “his presence must constitute an occasion,” he is “put out of” Valeria’s mind when a destroyer anchors in the estuary. Valeria believes it is the same destroyer that had anchored there the previous spring at Easter when two officers, Mr. Graves and Mr. Garrett, came ashore and were entertained by friends. Valeria’s expectation that the officers will come to dinner initially separates her from Alban. When the officers fail to arrive, she runs outside to signal them with a lantern. Old Mr. Rossiter, uncle to Mrs. Treye, Valeria’s aunt, leads Alban to the boathouse to prevent Valeria from rowing out to the destroyer. When a bat flies against Alban’s ear, he flees, and, ascending the steps back toward the castle, he hears Valeria sobbing in the dark. When he calls to her, expressing concern and sympathy, she mistakes him for Mr. Garrett. Her fantasy of love is realized as she and Alban stand together, unified in a field of light shining from the castle.

Symbolic details and analogies with pagan and Christian myth universalize the meaning of the story. Alban is associated with the destroyer, with Graves and Garrett, and with their emblems, statues of Mars and Mercury. Like the destroyer, Alban is “fixed in the dark rain, by an indifferent shore.” The officers represent aspects of Alban. The name Graves suggests death; and the statue associated with Graves is Mars, god of war. Garrett is a pun on garret, which derives from a word meaning to defend or protect. Garrett’s statue is Mercury, a god associated by the Romans with peace. Alban’s link with the destroyer, with death and war, threatens the destruction of Valeria’s dreams of love and peace. The Garrett aspect of Alban, however, linked with protection and peace, offers the possibility of the realization of Valeria’s dreams.

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