Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“Tears, Idle Tears” is about innocence versus experience; it is a coming-of-age story about a young boy’s feelings being ignored by one member of the adult world and being restored by a stranger. Frederick is made to feel so bad about disgracing his mother when he cries that he withdraws within himself and becomes apathetic, but he overcomes the disgrace of crying when a young woman on a park bench is friendly to him. The years of being badgered have started to affect Frederick. He never knows why he cries, it just happens. He is a sad little boy.

Mrs. Dickinson must have everything in her life appear to be proper. She dresses and behaves in an elegant manner; she also dresses Frederick elegantly and expects him to behave accordingly. The expectations she places on Frederick are too cumbersome for him to carry. He has become the man in her life; therefore, she expects him to act like a man. She cannot understand where the tears come from when he cries, nor does she want to understand. Frederick behaves like a child because he is seven years old. Mrs. Dickinson shut down her emotions five years ago and now performs rather than lives life. She is incapable of feeling; she acts rather than reacts.

Tears are viewed as a bad thing. When Mrs. Dickinson’s husband lay dying, the chaplain and the doctor gave thanks that Mrs. Dickinson was so brave. In the five years since her husband’s death, Mrs. Dickinson has alienated women but attracted men. Elizabeth Bowen is showing a social difference between men and women by their reactions to the crying.

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

Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean,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.

Frederick’s idle tears are not understood by most of the adult world.