Central to women’s issues in The Death of the Heart is the changing relationship between Anna and Portia in their tortured mother-daughter roles. Anna’s thwarted motherhood could find a new flowering with Portia, who has an immense capacity for love. Anna might be the sheltering mother Portia so desperately needs, and Portia’s affection would reward her. Instead, Anna views Portia as “trouble since before she was born.” She fears her as a spy and interloper; she resents her as a jealous mother might resent a sexually threatening daughter. Anna’s lack of charity contrasts with Portia’s memories of her biological mother, Irene, when the two shared a sisterly existence as poor but cozy roommates in Switzerland.
Other surrogate mothers are Matchett, whose basement quarters Portia prefers to the Quaynes’ drawing rooms, and foolish, kindly Mrs. Heccomb, who knew Anna as a girl. She shows Portia a pastel drawing that she made of Anna cuddling a kitten. The drawing moves Portia to identify with the younger Anna as well as the kitten, eliciting her anxiety over her precarious bond with her sister-in-law. As Anna sees herself in Portia’s diary, Portia sees herself in Anna’s portrait. For each, there is a potential of self-discovery through the other, but only if both caringly bend.
In the novel’s triptych structure, Bowen shows the modern world’s debased reformulation of traditional religious values. Drawn from the Bible (I John 2:15-17; Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13), “the World,” “the Flesh,” and “the Devil” signified humanity’s foes for the medieval Church. These foes reappear in Geoffrey Chaucer’s work, the English morality plays, and The Book of Common Prayer. Portia battles them in various guises. In a...
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