Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The title is taken from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem “Tears, Idle Tears”:

Tears from the depth of some divine despairRise in the heart, and gather to the eyes,In looking on the happy autumn fields,And thinking of the days that are no more.

Many stories have been told about people who yearn for bygone days. What is unusual about Elizabeth Bowen’s story is that her central character yearns not for her own more peaceful past but for that of people she has never known, in a place and time she has never known. This kind of hallucinatory experience appears in other stories in Ivy Gripped the Steps (1946), and Bowen uses it as a unifying factor in her preface to the collection. The hallucinations, she says, “are an unconscious, instinctive, saving resort. . . . [L]ife, mechanised by the controls of wartime, and emotionally torn and impoverished by changes, had to complete itself in some other way.”

Thus Mary completes herself through Sarah. When the reader first sees her and hears her cry out for Henrietta, Mary is lying on a bare mattress in a room covered with gritty white dust, in a house that she has loved and in which she can no longer stay. The destruction and loss incurred by the blitz make Sarah’s long-ago, long-resolved emotional crisis—even with its tragic end—seem a thing of peace and permanence compared with the unending crisis and change of the war. Travis tells her, “You don’t like it here. . . . Your will keeps driving your self, but it can’t be driven the whole way—it makes its own get-out: sleep.” Sleep—perchance to dream. It is Travis and London that seem unreal to her.

The meaning of the story for Mary is a desperate search for stability amid constant, uncontrollable change; the theme involved in the relationship of Henrietta and Sarah is a response to impending change. Eugene’s courtship will force Sarah to grow up; she is not sure that she wants to, and Henrietta is certainly opposed. The passing of childhood, the beginning of life’s inevitable mutations, is unwelcome and frightening. Is it possible that the story’s final question—What made the horse shy?—has an answer involving Henrietta’s white handkerchief?