Critical Context

Although some critics of The Little Girls saw the work as a comedy which failed because it occasionally became serious, while other reviewers believed that in this work Elizabeth Bowen evidenced a loss of the capacity for serious or even tragic dimension which she demonstrated in The Death of the Heart (1938), later opinion has placed this novel with her others as a psychological masterpiece, as well as a book with something to say.

Like her other novels, The Little Girls is concerned with the issue of life as art. In many ways a religious writer, Bowen realized that man is limited by circumstances and by his own nature, yet he is able, within limits, to design his own life as a work of art. In order to do that, he must find his real identity, like the schoolmates in this novel, who must recover that which they buried, yet he cannot then live in the past but must decisively move into the future.

Bowen is also interested in the theme which is central to so much literature, the loss of innocence and the entrance into adulthood, a process which may seem a fortunate fall and yet which necessarily involves the discovery of evil. Finally, in The Little Girls, as in her other novels, Bowen emphasizes the quality without which life cannot truly be lived: the capacity for love. Looking at her friend, Clare understands that her life has been as empty as the box the girls dug up. “Never have I comforted you. Forgive me,” she says, and at that point, Dinah awakes, and the spell of evil is broken. Above all, Bowen emphasizes the redeeming power of love.