Elizabeth Bowen Essay - Bowen, Elizabeth (Short Story Criticism)

Bowen, Elizabeth (Short Story Criticism)


Elizabeth Bowen 1899–-1973

(Full name Elizabeth Dorothea Cole Bowen) Irish novelist, short story writer, essayist, memoirist, and critic.

The following entry provides criticism on Bowen's work from 1980 through 2000. See also The Demon Lover Criticism, Elizabeth Bowen Literary Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 3, 6, 15, 22, 118.

Noted for her subtle, evocative novels and short stories, Bowen is compared with such novelists of sensibility as Jane Austen, Henry James, and Virginia Woolf. She is perhaps best known for her novel The Death of the Heart (1938), and critics point to that phrase as an apt summation of Bowen's recurrent theme: the inevitable disillusionment inherent in human relationships, particularly as innocent characters make the painful passage to experience. Critics praise Bowen for her descriptive, finely pitched style, and they often compare her with Katherine Mansfield for her extreme sensitivity to perceptions of light, atmosphere, color, and sound. Like Mansfield, Bowen is considered expert at presenting the emotional dynamics of a situation and then swiftly illuminating their significance, particularly within the prescribed bounds of the short story.

Biographical Information

Bowen was born on June 7, 1899, in Dublin, Ireland. She was descended from aristocratic, wealthy Anglo-Irish stock and as a child divided her time between a Dublin townhouse and the family estate, Bowen's Court, in County Cork, Ireland. After her father was hospitalized with mental illness and her mother died from cancer in 1912, she was sent to boarding school in Kent, England, and later to the London Council School of Art, which she left after two terms in 1919. It was during this period, when she was living on her own in London, that Bowen began to write seriously. Her first short story collection, Encounters, was published in 1923. By 1929 she had published two more volumes of short stories and two novels, establishing a rate of production she maintained much of her life. During the 1930s Bowen began to associate with Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury circle in London. Her experiences living and working as an air-raid warden in the besieged city during World War II inspired what many critics consider her finest short story collection, The Demon Lover (1945), which explores war's insidious effects on the human psyche. In 1952 Bowen moved to Bowen's Court, which she had inherited in 1930. She sold the family estate in 1959 and returned to England, where, apart from frequent worldwide travel and reading tours, she remained until her death from lung cancer in 1973.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Critics note that Bowen is most often concerned with the theme of innocence versus experience in her fiction. In stories such as “The Good Girl,” a typical Bowen protagonist—young, female, and inexperienced—has her naiveté shattered by an unscrupulous man in an ill-fated romance. While Bowen's victims of experience are most often young adults, in such stories as “The Tommy Crans” and “Tears, Idle Tears,” she focused on children who are disillusioned by the adult world. In other stories, she explored the effects of war and social upheaval on individuals. In “Summer Night,” for instance, Aunt Fran becomes convinced that the pernicious morals of a war-torn society have encroached upon her own family. A similar unease and loss of identity is suffered by Mrs. Watson in “Attractive Modern Homes,” who becomes alienated and detached after moving to a modern housing development, and by the protagonist of “Foothold,” who conjures up a ghost to assuage her sense of loneliness in her marriage.

Bowen's stories written during World War II are considered her finest. In her collection The Demon Lover, she introduced to her short fiction a hallucinatory tone and supernatural themes in order to convey war's effect on the human mind. In “The Mysterious Kôr,” which is often cited among Bowen's greatest stories, wartime London becomes a mysterious, terrifying place. In “The Demon Lover,” a woman becomes dislocated in time, slipping from World War II back to World War I, where she waits feverishly for the arrival of her long-dead fiancé. In this, as in other pieces in The Demon Lover, Bowen employs a disturbing ambiguity, preventing the reader from knowing whether stories depict supernatural states or illusions created by the characters' neurotic and overburdened psyches.

Critical Reception

While acclaimed in her lifetime for both her short stories and novels, Bowen has since her death slipped somewhat from critical attention. Some critics suggest that her romanticism, wit, and sensitivity to both language and feeling have gone out of style; others assert that her writing is flawed by a too-facile style and narrow range of characters. Nonetheless, Bowen is revered by many for the radiance of style and subtlety of expression evidenced in her short stories. In the minds of many readers and critics, they take their place among the most distinguished works of short fiction of the twentieth century.

Principal Works

Encounters 1923

Ann Lee's, and Other Stories 1928

Joining Charles, and Other Stories 1929

The Cat Jumps, and Other Stories 1934

Look at All Those Roses 1941

The Demon Lover, and Other Stories 1945; also published as Ivy Gripped the Steps, and Other Stories, 1946

Selected Stories 1946

Early Stories 1951

Stories 1959

A Day in the Dark, and Other Stories 1965

Elizabeth Bowen's Irish Stories 1978

The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen 1981

The Hotel (novel) 1927

The Last September (novel) 1929

Friends and Relations (novel) 1931

To the North (novel) 1932

The House in Paris (novel) 1935

The Death of the Heart (novel) 1938

Bowen's Court (memoir) 1942

Seven Winters (memoir) 1942; also published as Seven Winters: Memories of a Dublin Childhood, 1943

The Heat of the Day (novel) 1949

Collected Impressions (essays) 1950

The Shelbourne: A Centre of Dublin Life for More Than a Century (nonfiction); also published as The Shelbourne Hotel, 1951

A World of Love (novel) 1955

After-Thoughts: Pieces about Writing (criticism) 1962

The Little Girls (novel) 1963

Eva Trout; or, Changing Scenes (novel) 1968

Pictures and Conversations (essays and interviews) 1975

The Mulberry Tree: Writings of Elizabeth Bowen (essays, criticism, and interviews) 1986


Daniel V. Fraustino (essay date fall 1980)

SOURCE: Fraustino, Daniel V. “Elizabeth Bowen's ‘The Demon Lover’: Psychosis or Seduction.” Studies in Short Fiction 17, no. 4 (fall 1980): 483-87.

[In the following essay, Fraustino counters Douglas A. Hughes's assessment of “The Demon Lover” as a “psychological delusion,” maintaining that the story is intended to be read as a “mystery of high suspense.”]

In a major article [“Cracks in the Psyche: Elizabeth Bowen's ‘The Demon Lover’,” Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 10, 1973] on Elizabeth Bowen's “The Demon Lover,” Douglass A. Hughes dismisses the popular ghost-story interpretation and advances his own psychological one. The story, he says, is “a masterful dramatization of acute psychological delusion, of the culmination of paranoia in a time of war. … War, not a vengeful lover, is the demon that overwhelms this rueful woman.” To support his argument, Hughes maintains that “the narrator subtly but clearly indicates why the forty-four year-old woman suddenly loses her tenuous hold on reality … and succumbs to madness.” His argument rests on three major premises: that as a young girl Mrs. Drover suffered a “severe nervous breakdown” from which she never fully recovered; that her visit to her war-ravaged home occasions a “threshold experience that activates her dormant hysteria”; and finally, that the contents of the letter, the man's leaving the basement, and the demon lover as taxi driver are all “examples of hallucination,” figments of her weakening mind. Yet, however convincing on the surface, Hughes's argument rests not on his close reading of the text but on his interpolation of several key points; and a careful analysis of his argument not only discards his major points but also suggests an interpretation that avoids textual misrepresentation and presents this short, enigmatic story in its original intent: a well-wrought mystery of high suspense.

In examining Hughes's delusion-madness theory, we must first carefully consider the initial premise upon which he builds everything else: that the young Kathleen suffered a “severe nervous breakdown” subsequent to her fiancé's assumed death—a trauma, Hughes claims, her married life “shored up against” and assuaged. For, he claims, her visit to her war-damaged house ushers her into the buried and forgotten past, disinterring old “feelings of loss and guilt” that lead to her final hysteria. But Hughes's theory clearly interpolates a text that says nothing to suggest Mrs. Drover's emotional collapse after the loss of her fiancé. The narrator merely remarks that she suffered a “dislocation” (albeit “complete”) and that her thirteen years of anxiety (the text warrants no stronger word here), which Hughes insinuates to be part of her “breakdown,” came to pass as prospective lovers “failed to appear.” Hughes correctly observes that at the time of the story Mrs. Drover bears a facial tick (the remnant, the narrator tells us, of a former “quite serious illness”), but he mistakenly attributes it to the loss of her fiancé. The story clearly states that the illness attended “the birth of the third of her little boys.” Hence, we must conclude that the married years between the loss of her fiancé and the time of the story did not “shore up against” her original trauma (a trauma Hughes clearly exaggerates); rather, these years seem to have witnessed the causes of her present emotional difficulties.

Hughes correctly notes that the house is an “objective correlative of Mrs. Drover's psychological state,” but he fails to consider that it may also symbolize her life with William Drover, a man she married out of desperation after other suitors failed to appear. Thus, the house does not signify a fundamentally disturbed mentality, ravaged as it may be, issuing from a buried trauma; it reflects her impoverished married life. And this conclusion seems more fitting: the house in the story is the one she “settled down in” as a married woman, not the one she grew up in during the Great War. The landmarks and objects Mrs. Drover encounters upon entering her home are not, as Hughes declares, significant in triggering her “dormant hysteria” for her lost fiancé; they are significant in presenting the “piled up” years of accumulated emptiness. Thus, images of age and death, of repetition and stagnation, proliferate in the description of the house. The street Mrs. Drover's house faces is an “unused channel,” and her “long former … life” with her family, a “habit.” The “yellow smoke-stain up the white marble mantlepiece,” “the ring left by a vase on the top of the escritoire,” “the bruise in the wallpaper where … the china handle had always hit the wall,” “the claw-marks” left on the parquet by the piano—all suggest the repetitious character of Mrs. Drover's “prosaic” life.

Finally, in examining Hughes's delusion-madness thesis we must search the text for evidence that Bowen intended the contents of the letter and the man leaving the basement to be understood as delusions, evidence of Mrs. Drover's relaxed grip on reality—assumptions...

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Brad Hooper (essay date spring 1984)

SOURCE: Hooper, Brad. “Elizabeth Bowen's ‘The Happy Autumn Fields’: A Dream or Not?” Studies in Short Fiction 21, no. 2 (spring 1984): 151-53.

[In the following essay, Hooper offers an alternate interpretation of the dreamlike action of “The Happy Autumn Fields.”]

Elizabeth Bowen states in the Preface to Ivy Gripped the Steps, and Other Stories that in “The Happy Autumn Fields,” “a woman is projected from flying-bombed London, with its day-and-night eeriness, into the key emotional crisis of a Victorian girlhood,”1 indicating the woman is dreaming or hallucinating, that the Victorian girlhood into which she is thrown is...

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Janet Egleson Dunleavy (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: Dunleavy, Janet Egleson. “Mary Lavin, Elizabeth Bowen, and a New Generation: The Irish Short Story at Midcentury.” In The Irish Short Story: A Critical History, edited by James F. Kilroy, pp. 145-68. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1984.

[In the following excerpt, Dunleavy provides an overview of Bowen's life and short fiction.]

By the end of World War II, the Irish short story had become an established subgenre of twentieth-century literature. Its form and content, pioneered before World War I by George Moore and James Joyce, had been redefined by Frank O'Connor and Sean O'Faolain (“the Romulus and Remus of Irish short fiction,” in the words of Mary Lavin,...

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Judith Bates (essay date spring 1987)

SOURCE: Bates, Judith. “Undertones of Horror in Elizabeth Bowen's Look at All Those Roses and The Cat Jumps.Journal of the Short Story in English 8 (spring 1987): 81-91.

[In the following essay, Bates elucidates the role of horror in Bowen's “Look at All Those Roses” and “The Cat Jumps.”]

It is surely the heritage of horror indissociable from Ireland's past that has left its stamp on Irish writers, many of whom have themselves lived through atrocities and all aware of them through family annals or the history of their country.

As regards the background in which Elizabeth Bowen sets two stories pervaded by undertones of...

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Phyllis Lassner (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Lassner, Phyllis. “‘The Ghostly Origins of Female Character’ and ‘Comedies of Sex and Manners’.” In Elizabeth Bowen: A Study of the Short Fiction, pp. 10-40. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1991.

[In the following essay, Lassner delineates the defining characteristics of Bowen's ghost stories as well as her “comedies of sex and manners.”]

Ghosts have grown up. Far behind lie their clanking and moaning days; they have laid aside their original bag of tricks—bleeding hands, luminous skulls. … Their manifestations are, like their personalities, oblique and subtle, perfectly calculated to get the modern person under the skin. …...

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Martin Bidney (essay date winter 1996)

SOURCE: Bidney, Martin. “Nostalgic Narcissism in Comic and Tragic Perspectives: Elizabeth Bowen's Two Fictional Reworkings of a Tennyson Lyric.” Studies in Short Fiction 33, no. 1 (winter 1996): 59-69.

[In the following essay, Bidney views “Tears, Idle Tears” and “The Happy Autumn Fields” as Bowen's interpretation of an untitled Tennyson poems.]

“Tennis, anyone?” is the opening of Peter De Vries's delightful “Touch and Go (With a Low Bow to Elizabeth Bowen),” and its closing words arc “Tennyson, anyone?” (De Vries 30, 32). Surprisingly, “in conversation Miss Bowen said that she had not realized,” until she read this parody, “how often she...

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Deborah L. Parsons (essay date spring 1997)

SOURCE: Parsons, Deborah L. “Souls Astray: Elizabeth Bowen's Landscape of War.” Women: A Cultural Review 8, no. 1 (spring 1997): 24-32.

[In the following essay, Parsons asserts that Bowen finds the setting of war-torn London “conducive to a new urban spirit, that of the female wanderer or flâneuse.]

Walking in the darkness of the nights of six years (darkness which transformed a capital city into a network of inscrutable canyons) one developed new bare alert senses, with their own savage warnings and notations.

—Bowen 1952:223.

Elizabeth Bowen's war-time London is at once...

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Barbara A. Suess (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Suess, Barbara A. “When the Past Does Not Feed the Future: The ‘Idea of the Past’ in Three Bowen Stories.” Notes on Modern Irish Literature 9 (1997): 16-20.

[In the following essay, Suess explores Bowen's preoccupation with the past in “Her Table Spread,” “The Happy Autumn Fields,” and “Hand in Glove.”]

Elizabeth Bowen's Irish short stories, like her novels, commonly depict characters who perceive themselves as out-of-place. Feeling trapped by youth, in the country, as members of the degenerating Anglo-Irish gentry, Bowen's young women characters frequently express the desire, like Teresa in “A Love Story,” to go “away for ever”...

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Jeanette Shumaker (essay date fall 1999)

SOURCE: Shumaker, Jeanette. “Bruised Boys and ‘Fallen’ Women: The Need for Rescue in Short Stories by Elizabeth Bowen.” The South Carolina Review 32, no. 1 (fall 1999): 88-98.

[In the following essay, Shumaker considers the role of disillusionment and alienation in “The Return,” “Summer Night,” and “Ivy Gripped the Steps.”]

John Halperin writes of the Anglo-Irish novelist Elizabeth Bowen that “Like James, she often took as her subject something only half glimpsed or understood, and thus suggestive” (45). Along similar lines, Richard Tillinghast states that “Not uncommonly in Bowen's work, something that is never mentioned—or that is alluded...

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John Coates (essay date summer 2000)

SOURCE: Coates, John. “The Moral Argument of Elizabeth Bowen's Ghost Stories.” Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature 52, no. 4 (summer 2000): 293.

[In the following essay, Coates maintains that Bowen's ghost stories “offer some of the most concentrated examples of her moral vision.”]

By common consent, Elizabeth Bowen was a distinguished writer of ghost stories. While fully capable of giving her readers all the usual and anticipated satisfactions of such tales, she made, and fulfilled, other, larger claims for the form. As she remarked in 1947 in a preface to Le Fanu's Uncle Silas, “Our ancestors may have had an agreeable-dreadful reflex from the...

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Further Reading


Lassner, Phyllis. Elizabeth Bowen: A Study of the Short Fiction, New York: Twayne Publishers, 1991, 192 p.

Full-length study of Bowen's short fiction.

Additional coverage of Bowen's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: British Writers Supplement, Vol. 2; Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, Vol. 1945–1960; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17–18, 41–44; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 35, 105; Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 2; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 3, 6, 11, 15, 22, 118; Dictionary of...

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