A Day in the Dark Criticism
by Elizabeth Bowen

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Criticism

(Short Stories for Students)

      Laurel Smith, in her article in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, notes that the central concerns in Bowen’s short stories are “the complex truths of human relationships.” In one of her most poignant stories, “A Day in the Dark,” Bowen explores the complex truths in the relationships a fifteen year-old Irish girl has with her uncle and a woman in her town. Barbie’s interactions with these two influential figures in her young life cause her to discover the darker nature of sexuality and so to be initiated into the realities of the adult world.

      Angus Wilson, in his introduction to The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen, concludes that Bowen’s best stories focus on the “never changing conflict of youth’s hopeful imagination and the regretful doubts of the ageing.” In “A Day in the Dark,” Bowen alters this conflict a bit to one between “hopeful imagination” and a cynical vision of the adult world. Barbie’s and Miss Banderry’s conflicting visions center on the issue of sexuality. On the afternoon of her visit Barbie admits that she is in love with her uncle, exclaiming, “with him I felt the tender bond of sex.” Since she had not known him when she was a child, she came upon his “manhood” without warning. She had not felt any danger in their relationship, “growing into love . . . like the grass growing into hay on his uncut lawns.” Not at least until she visits Miss Banderry that day.

      Barbie makes the trip for her uncle, who needs to return a magazine and borrow a farming implement. She insists that he has evaded meetings with Miss Banderry because although “a winning, versatile and when necessary inventive talker, fundamentally [he] hated to tax his brain,” and Miss Banderry liked to discuss reading material that she often sent him. Barbie is hopeful that she can successfully perform the favor for her uncle and so brings roses as a gift.

      She approaches the house with some trepidation, the cause of which is not immediately apparent. Perhaps it is due to her knowledge of Miss Banderry’s hounding of her brother to the point of suicide or perhaps it is due to her understanding that her uncle has a certain relationship with the older woman. Bowen’s subtle and indirect narrative style often forces the reader to follow barely detectable suggestions of plot line and character development. Soon after Barbie arrives, however, she confronts the complex realities of adult relationships, which will fill her with a sense of “dread.”

      Looking back from adulthood, Barbie admits that when she went to Miss Banderry’s, she was “unread, [her] susceptibilities were virgin.” Her innocence is immediately challenged by Nan, Miss Banderry’s dependent niece, who “bets” that the “overblown” roses have not come from Barbie’s uncle. The widowed Nan is a “regretful, doubting” older woman like the ones to whom Wilson refers. “[R]eady to be handsome,” Nan “wore a cheated ravenous look” as she waits for her inheritance, since she has no other opportunities.

      Nan’s response exposes Barbie to the complex games that men and women often play, prompting her to acknowledge that her uncle “had never thought of the roses. He had commissioned me to be gallant for him any way I chose.” He had insisted, “She’ll be mad . . . . Better say it was you.” Her love for him, however, remains unshaken for she “sacrifices a hair ribbon to tie the roses” because “it rejoices [her] to stand between him and trouble.” She again expresses her love when she wonders, “how dared [Nan] speak of my uncle with her bad breath?”

      Miss Banderry will soon challenge that innocent love with her subtle treacheries and manipulations. Bowen refuses to make the relationship between Barbie’s uncle and Miss Banderry clear since she relates it through the eyes of an inexperienced fifteen-year-old, but the older woman...

(The entire section is 1,592 words.)