According to Frank O’Connor, “[a]lways in the short story there is this sense of outlawed figures wandering about the fringes of society. . .'. To what extent does O’Connor’s argument apply to Elizabeth Bowen’s 'The Demon Lover'?
The sense of some outlawed presence lurking on the edge of society, and indeed on the edge of the narrative, is quite significant in this story. From the first Bowen skilfully creates a foreboding, sinister atmosphere around Mrs Drover as she returns to her old home following the devastation of wartime bombs. Her deserted surroundings make her feel uneasy, which is reinforced by the letter which she unaccountably finds lying on a table and which hints at the return of her former soldier-lover – the demon lover of the title. It seems that that her former lover might now be returning from the dead to claim her. When it is stated near the beginning of the story that
a cat wove itself in and out of railings, but no human eye watched Mrs Drover’s return
we may begin to wonder whether this is meant to imply that it is the ghost that watches Mrs Drover. The story, however, remains finely poised between the natural and the supernatural, offering no explanations one way or the other.
In any case, the central point is that Mrs Drover remembers her former lover as being a harsh and uncaring type:
He was never kind to me, not really. I don’t remember him kind at all. Mother said he never considered me. He was set on me – that was what it was, not love. Not meaning a person well.
This man, then, whether alive or dead, appears inclined to do Mrs Drover harm. He was a sinister, long-repressed memory for Mrs Drover, and now he becomes an unseen malignant presence. She is unable even to recall what he looked like, although at the end she appears to recognise him in the person of the mysterious taxi driver.
The story, in fact, seems filled with strangeness and strange presences: memories of the past, of the dead, and the destruction of war (both the first world war and the second) in the sunny but eerily empty streets. In the end, Mrs Drover herself comes almost to appear as some sort of ghost, a fading presence in society, re-visiting an abandoned house and becoming immersed in old memories before finally vanishing ‘into the hinterland of deserted streets’.