“A Day in the Dark” was first published in the journal Botteghe Oscure in 1955 and later in a collection of Elizabeth Bowen’s short stories in 1965. Bowen gave the title of the collection the same name as the story, which she placed at the very end as an important closing statement to the work. “A Day in the Dark,” considered a “timeless gem” by many readers including F. L. H. Jr. in his review of the collection, focuses on one afternoon in the life of a fifteen-year-old girl in a small town on the west coast of Ireland. What she learns that day forever changes her perspective on the relationships between men and women.
Barbie sets out to ask Miss Banderry, a descendent of one of the town’s wealthiest families, a favor for her uncle, for whom she feels an innocent but powerful love. During her conversation with Miss Banderry, however, Barbie learns of the darker side of human passions, which fills her with a sense of dread. By the end of the story, she recognizes that she cannot retreat into the safety of her childhood beliefs after being indoctrinated into the complexities of the adult world.
“A Day in the Dark” is set in Moher, a town on the west coast of Ireland. The story is narrated by Barbie, who looks back on herself as a fifteen year-old-girl and begins this story with a description of a row of houses under the bridge and the center of her town—its intermingling of houses with a “faded air of importance” and a main street that “prospers.” She then turns to a history of Miss Banderry, one of the last of a once prominent family. Miss Banderry, who now owns some property and a profitable farm nearby, had insisted on getting half of the profits of the family mills, which eventually drove her “hopeless” brother to suicide. The narrator’s uncle has had “dealings” with Miss Banderry and the two have fallen “into talk,” especially about magazine and journal articles that she gave him to read.
One afternoon, the narrator pays Miss Banderry a visit to return a magazine and to ask if her uncle can borrow a farming tool from her. She has thought to bring some roses for her, which she pretends are from her uncle. At the door, she meets Mrs. Banderry’s widowed niece, Nan, who informs Barbie that her aunt is resting and instructs her to wait. As Barbie passes the time, she notes the interior of the house, “peopled” with portraits of generations of Banderrys. She also examines her “thin” reflection in a mirror, with “no sign yet of a figure.”
When Mrs. Banderry finally arrives, she appears disappointed that Barbie’s uncle has not come himself. She begins bantering with Barbie, insisting to the girl, “I hear wonders of you,” which Barbie recognizes is a lie. Mrs. Banderry pretends that she believes that Barbie’s uncle has sent the flowers and thanks for the magazine he had borrowed. When she notices the marks on the magazine, she tries to embarrass Barbie by suggesting that her uncle reads during meals, obviously ignoring his niece. Yet, she immediately counters the stinging comment with “Oh, I’m sure you’re a great companion for him.”
Barbie imagines that Mrs. Banderry can read her thoughts and emotions, fearing that the woman will discover her love for her uncle. Her thoughts about him have been innocent: “There was not a danger till she spoke.”
When Mrs. Banderry tries to conclude the visit, Barbie admits that her uncle wants to again borrow a farming tool. This point upsets the woman who calls him a “brute” and insists, “Time after time, it’s the same story.” When she declares that she does not like to lend out machinery, Barbie responds haughtily that she will relay the message to her uncle. At this, Mrs. Banderry reconsiders and says that she will think about it and teases that she might agree and she might not. She then returns her attention to Barbie. After a close examination of the girl, she concludes that her uncle should not “hide behind” her skirts, suggesting that he should have come himself. Barbie insists that her uncle is too busy to come that day.
Barbie’s memory of the conversation stops after Mrs. Banderry compares Barbie’s uncle to her dead brother. The narrator shifts to the present when she is older and more informed; she refuses to fill in any details about the woman that she later gained, insisting that she describe only what she experienced that day from her fifteen-year-old and innocent perspective. She understands that the woman felt an ambivalent “amorous hostility” toward her uncle but questions its cause. Barbie insists that she and her uncle felt no guilt about their relationship that summer, that they “did each other no harm.” They “played house together on the margin of a passion which was impossible.”
Barbie returns to her memories of that afternoon, relating that she left Mrs. Banderry’s home with a little “ceremony,” accepting a “thimble glass” of raspberry cordial. As she leaves, Nan asks her “conspiratorially” if she is going to meet her uncle. Barbie admits that she does not know he is in town and that she has planned to take the bus home. After practically shoving her out of the door, Nan watches Barbie as she walks away from the house.
As Barbie walks into town, she sees her uncle’s car parked near the hotel. She searches for the bus that will grant her “independence” but discovers it has already departed. Her visit with Mrs. Banderry seems to have changed her attitude toward her uncle, of whom she thinks, she “did not want to be bothered.” She feels people watching her from the shops as she walks toward the hotel. As she watches her uncle standing on the porch, she determines that “he was not a lord, only a landowner.” He appears to have not been waiting for her. When the two meet at his car he asks how her meeting has gone, whether “the old terror” has eaten her. He is relieved that Miss Banderry has not sent him another magazine. The story ends as he touches Barbie’s elbow, reminding her to get in the car.