The Death of the Heart Critical Overview
by Elizabeth Bowen

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Critical Overview

(Novels for Students)

Critics have responded to The Death of the Heart primarily in two ways: by discussing the implications of the author’s childhood experiences vis-àvis the motherless outsider in the novel; and by examining the conflict between innocence and experience threaded throughout the book.

Bowen grew up in a privileged Anglo-Irish family in Ireland, not really English but isolated by her English ties from the country in which she lived. According to Martha Henn in Feminist Writers, “she occupied a class position that put her at odds with most of her fellow Irish.” As Richard Tillinghast notes in “The House, the Hotel, & the Child,” “the Anglo-Irish were always, from the sixteenth century on, to some degree rootless and insecure in the country they governed.” This tension is due to the fact that the Protestant ruling class owned land taken by force from the Irish Catholic population by their ancestors. This sense of uneasiness extends to Bowen’s characters, according to Tillinghast. “The attenuation and malaise one feels among Bowen’s characters springs, historically, from the growing isolation of the Anglo- Irish.” Bowen’s relatives are strangers in a country where the Irish, in the early part of the twentieth century, are increasingly focused on struggles for Irish national independence from Britain.

This link between Bowen’s own sense of cultural rootlessness and her most prominent character, the outsider, is also echoed by Sean O’Faolain in The Vanishing Hero, where he writes, “Elizabeth Bowen is detached by birth from that society she describes. She is an Irishwoman, at least one sea apart from English traditions.” Bowen depicts Portia as a young woman without a country, traveling throughout Europe as a vagabond, expelled from England by no fault of her own. While she does have ties to England, as did Bowen, Portia arrives in London a foreigner with the ability and necessity to watch carefully the behavior of those around her. Tillinghast notes, “This outsider’s point of view—cold-eyed, unillusioned—places Portia beyond the cozy circle of civilized mutual accommodation practiced by Anna and Thomas, and thus makes their visitor a dangerous presence.”

In addition, Bowen’s outsider status extended beyond merely the political; she lost her father to mental illness when she was about six years old and her mother to cancer when she was thirteen. The job of raising her fell to a battery of relatives, and home was a series of villas on the English coast. According to Henn, “Bowen believed that fiction is rooted in the experiences of the author’s life, but at the same time she rejected the overtly autobiographical or confessional impulse.”

However, critics cannot help but notice that a major theme...

(The entire section is 695 words.)