The Death of the Heart Essays and Criticism
by Elizabeth Bowen

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Portia's Frame of Mind

(Novels for Students)

Critics have noticed Elizabeth Bowen’s interest in placing her characters in natural and garden-like settings in The Death of the Heart, especially to highlight their innocence and naiveté. Paul A. Parrish, in “The Loss of Eden: Four Novels of Elizabeth Bowen,” argues that Bowen has Eddie and Portia meet at the seaside and later in the woods because “the country has an obvious unreality because it’s not the kind of life they know.” Portia finds it easier to maintain her fantasies about the possibilities of Eddie’s love in a place that is so different from London and her half-brother’s imposing mansion. Parrish adds, in fact, “the scenes which unite the elements of nature, love, and idealism are themselves reminiscent of the Edenic myth and the Garden.” Edwin J. Kenney, Jr., in Elizabeth Bowen, reiterates the connection between nature and Bowen’s concern with loss of innocence as a theme, noting that her concern “often finds its expression in allusions to the story of the early life of man, the story of the fall from the garden of Eden.”

But certainly of equal interest are the indoor settings in which Bowen places her characters. In The Death of the Heart, there are four primary indoor settings in which Bowen places Portia: her half-brother’s house on Windsor Terrace in London; Mrs. Heccomb’s seaside villa, Waikiki; movie theaters; and hotels. Bowen allows Portia’s character to react differently to each of these settings, further illuminating the young girl’s motivations and feelings.

Portia, as the love child of Mr. Quayne and his mistress, Irene (who later became the second Mrs. Quayne), was reared in a series of hotels and other temporary shelters. The only memories of love and familial warmth Portia has are of herself and Irene in these hotels, sharing cups of tea and eating chocolates, pulling an eiderdown comforter over themselves to stay warm, and making up entertaining stories about the other guests while they dine. But the London society she lands in, after the deaths of her parents, disdains hotels and refers to them only in pejorative tones. Anna intimates that Portia will have to be taught how to have dinner in polite company, and when Miss Paullie catches Portia reading Eddie’s letter during class, she not only scolds her for the letter but also for keeping her handbag next to her desk instead of leaving it in the cloakroom. “To carry your bag about with you indoors is a hotel habit, you know,” she chides.

It should come as no surprise that, after Portia is betrayed by Anna reading her diary, wounded by Eddie’s announcement that he no longer loves her, and struck by her realization that most of the adults in her life have been viciously criticizing her, she finds herself at a hotel. Even though she is frightened and upset, looking like “a wild creature just old enough to know that it must dread humans,” according to Major Brutt when he sees her in his hotel’s lobby, she somehow finds her way to a hotel. With her heart broken and her innocence shed, Portia speaks openly, unlike she has ever spoken before in London, about Anna and Eddie and all the others who have disappointed her. She has been completely disabused of her fantasies about love— so much so that she offers to marry Major Brutt, a man who is a good thirty years older, promising that she would make him a good home. A hotel is where Portia comes to rest for a moment, to feel safe, before she is forced to go back out into the world, back to Anna and Thomas’ house.

Movie houses seem to hold a special dread for Portia, almost as if they represent the crassness of the world in conflict with her innocence and inexperience. The first time she goes to a movie theater, she is with Anna and Thomas, and “the screen threw its tricky light on her relaxed profile; she sat almost appalled.” This moment, for Portia, with its uncomfortableness, foreshadows an even more horrid evening when she goes to the movies at Sealeon-...

(The entire section is 4,740 words.)