Study Guide

A Queer Heart

by Elizabeth Bowen

A Queer Heart Summary

Summary (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Hilda Cadman is cautiously and clumsily disembarking, backward, from the bus that has brought her home from town. A heavy-set, jolly, friendly woman, she enjoys her frequent trips to the nearby town, where she knows and is known by everyone. As the bus continues to travel up the hill, she realizes that the only happy part of her day has ended. Her solid, somber, stucco house, named “Granville,” has been her home for many years, nevertheless she is reluctant to go inside.

Since the death twelve years ago of Mr. Cadman, Hilda and her daughter Lucille, unmarried and no longer young, have lived together with occasional visits from Hilda’s sister Rosa, also a widow. Since Mr. Cadman’s death, Rosa’s visits have become longer and longer, and Hilda has gradually realized that her sister and her daughter are in league against her, always carping and criticizing her, darkening the gloomy house with their cheerless meekness. Now Rosa has collapsed and is dying in the upstairs spare room. Lucille chides her mother for her frivolousness, doing her best to make Hilda feel inconsiderate and thoughtless for being away so long and for buying herself a small, pretty scarf.

While Hilda drinks tea alone in the kitchen, reflecting on her happy past life with her husband, who had acted as a defense against her older sister, Lucille comes downstairs to tell Hilda that Rosa wants to see her. Brought back to the present after having recalled the good times that she and her husband had enjoyed as members of the jolly set, Hilda is again forced to act with reluctance.

Rosa accuses her sister of having a shallow heart and says smugly that she could have had a vain, wicked heart. Then Rosa recalls the Christmas, when she and her sister were little girls, that Hilda got the fairy doll on the top of the Christmas tree because she sang for it. Rosa claims that God then taught her to pity Hilda for having a vain heart.

Hilda feels sorry for Rosa’s implacable resentment of her and says silently, “You poor queer heart, eating yourself out, thanking God for pain.” Aloud, Hilda says that she and Rosa are alike in setting their heart on things, and wishes that Rosa had had that fairy doll that Hilda does not even remember.