Elizabeth Bowen is most often at her best as a writer when she is writing from the perspective of the marginalized—in Eva Trout (1968), Bowen writes from the margins of madness. In The House in Paris (1935) and The Death of the Heart, the marginalized experience is depicted through the eyes of a commonly peripheral period of experience, through the perspective of the child and the adolescent. Portia Quayne is the observing consciousness through which the adult world is revealed for the hypocrisy and shallowness that marks the relationship between Thomas and Anna Quayne.
Portia, the half sister of Thomas, is brought to live in the Quayne household after being orphaned. Her presence in the house brings to a head the many tensions that were brewing there before her arrival. Bowen’s use of the child’s consciousness gives perspective to the adult world. This emphasis on the “fallenness” of adult perspective is reinforced in the titles of the three sections of the novel, “The World,” “The Flesh,” and “The Devil.” These three section titles relate to the baptismal rites of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, and, more generally, signify the three obvious sources of spiritual temptation that mark the Quaynes’ dispirited lifestyle and Portia’s own falling into the world of the adult.
The title of the story has a double resonance: It relates to the condition of the Quaynes in their marriage, and, perhaps more important, it serves as a caveat for Portia, whose heart, or center of feeling, is being systematically worn down throughout the novel.
Bowen’s writing often captures the fading era of the stout British character and the passing of the world of manners that attends the era’s demise. The novel’s title thus also relates in a general way to the fatal end of an entire empire’s place in the world. The death of the heart of British character is at stake throughout the novel, as it is seen to reside at last in the type of people that the Quaynes represent. The world of British manners about which Bowen wrote so clearly had suffered a double blow as a result of the two world wars. In The Death of the Heart, all the characters suffer under a cultural malaise that not even the introduction of the young can surmount. Bowen shows the British upper middle class as being too self-involved to give any clear direction to the young, especially young women.
Bowen’s decision to make her central character an orphan serves various dramatic purposes. First, Portia’s status as an orphan works to exonerate her from the situation into which she is forced. She does not do anything to create the tensions between Anna and Thomas, and, as a parentless child, she is placed in the position of observing the adult world, while only being indirectly related to what takes place within it. Second, Portia’s status as an orphan gives her the privilege of serving as a somewhat distanced narrative consciousness. Her interactions with Anna are not fraught with the same tensions that one could expect from a typical parent-child relationship. Portia, being parentless, can double as Anna’s own not yet fully developed self. Portia learns from the Quaynes that emergence into the adult world, at the threshold of which she stands, brings with it a certain “death” or loss of innocence. Portia’s surrogate position with regard to Anna’s own maternal sense, however, teaches Anna that, contrary to the way she is living, the heart does not have to die completely to develop to its greatest extent.
Bowen’s narrative style combines the use of the...
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third-person narrator with interpolations from Portia’s diary, thus giving the reader a firsthand look at what Portia is thinking and how events are registering with her. Significantly, Portia’s diary excerpts are found in the section “The Flesh,” underscoring that even processes of reflection must take place through the senses. In this way, Bowen plays with the notion that the flesh, or the world of bodily sensation and gratification, is also humankind’s foundation for building a more intuitive and spiritual understanding of the world around it.
Bowen manipulates her narrative technique according to the section headings; through indirection, the primary means in the novel by which the characters understand one another; and by showing Portia’s growth over a period of time. Bowen aims for a psychological realism throughout the story by limited use of the techniques of the bildungsroman, or novel of personal development. Portia is a personality in the making. Because the central character is a young woman at a formative stage in her life, the reader can interpret the story as a coming-of-age novel, in which both the adults and the child reach a point of perception about themselves and one another.
Finally, the novel must be understood within the context of the novel of manners. Bowen excels at writing about the manners and mores of the British upper middle class. The Death of the Heart is generally considered one of her finest achievements in the genre. Although it explores the darker side of human relations, it is not without humor and the ability to entertain.