What is the major theme of Elizabeth Bowen's "Her Table Spread"? 

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appletrees eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I am a great fan of the short stories of Elizabeth Bowen; her writing is so dense with meaning and symbolism. This masterful story seems to have a major theme of sexual tension. The title "Her Table Spread" suggests that the hospitality of Miss Cuffe is related to her desire for male attention. The arrival of the destroyer fills the female guests at the dinner party with excitement and curiosity, but Alban feels alienated from them. Rossiter tries to get Alban interested in the subject of women and marriage, clearly referring to the benefits and pleasures of sexual union, and suggests Alban should consider marrying Valeria. Alban is mistaken for a Mr. Garrett by Valeria, who believes a naval officer who had landed once before is arriving in the dark. There is a suggestion she may have been intimate with Garrett, when she asks if he does not "remember the way." 

The descriptions of the women are very sensual and hint at sexual tension, for example: "The ladies all turned to Alban: the beads on their bosoms sparkled," and "Valeria's bust was almost on the table." Even non-human objects are described in sensuous terms, underscoring this sexual theme: "Behind, through the windows, lamps spread great skirts of light, and Mars and Mercury, unable to contain themselves, stooped from their pedestals." At one point Alban stands in the dark with the three women and feels a fleeting connection to them, moved by their expectant search for the men on the destroyer: "For the moment, without moving or speaking, he stood, in the dark, in a flame, as though all three said: 'My darling...'

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