Form and Content
The Death of the Heart offers a penetrating view of English upper-class society between the two World Wars. Though she creates an entertaining comedy of manners, Irish-born Elizabeth Bowen issues a moral indictment of the class as a whole for its material values, exclusivity, and callous indifference to others. The Quaynes of 2 Windsor Terrace are affluent and emotionally repressed, contemptuous of anyone whom they deem vulgar. Their ward, the inexperienced Portia, arrives as a rootless transient who knows nothing of polite society. Thomas and Anna Quayne react to her as an “animal,” while she is thrust into a life of bourgeois privilege and snobbery—the right clothes, school, friends, and behavior.
A favored theme of Bowen’s fiction is that of an unwelcome child, forlornly surrounded by luxuries in a great house. The childlike Portia is on the verge of young womanhood, an astute observer who records Thomas’ and Anna’s weaknesses in her diary. It is Anna’s angry, furtive reading of Portia’s diary that betrays Portia. A childless woman and a motherless girl, Anna and Portia need each other. This unfulfilled need and the pervasive mother-daughter theme give The Death of the Heart its feminist focus.
The book’s three divisions are subtitled “The World,” “The Flesh,” and “The Devil,” corresponding to the action that unfolds from winter to spring. Attention to the seasons parallels the characters’ experiences. The story opens on a frozen January day. The ice on the lake in Regent’s Park has cracked, allowing a swan to glide through the water, much as the cold Quayne household has splintered open to let in Portia. The image recurs of Portia as a bird—vulnerable, in transit, or trapped.
“The World” describes Portia’s adjustment to the Quaynes’ formal lifestyle in the midst of costly furnishings, which Anna—once an interior decorator—has arranged and which are lovingly tended as human beings are not. Suspicions and conflicts arise, the chief of which results from Anna’s reading the diary, unknown to Portia. Portia avidly seeks friends. Major Eric Brutt sends her complicated jigsaw puzzles, emblems of her puzzling new life. At Miss Paullie’s school, Portia associates with the sexually precocious Lillian, of whom Anna disapproves. Most important is Eddie, who teases Portia about marrying her and sends provocative letters, which she hides under her pillow.
In “The Flesh,” Portia undergoes further initiation. Crocuses bloom in early March and again the swans appear, “folded . . . in an immortal dream.” Portia discovers her sexuality. Anna and Thomas vacation in Capri, leaving her to the Heccombs in their wind-battered seaside bungalow, whimsically dubbed Waikiki. Emotions here are primitive but raw. Manners are as crude as they were polite at 2 Windsor Terrace. Noise dominates: Doors slam, radios blare, water pipes gurgle, and people shout insulting opinions. Though orphaned like Portia, Daphne and Dickie vociferously control their guardian, Mrs. Heccomb, and their home environment as Portia cannot control hers, but from them she learns to be more frank.
Bowen delineates the seaside interlude with high comedy. At parties and dances, Portia meets young people whom Anna and Thomas would consider vulgar. Portia invites Eddie for a weekend, and, though he claims to lover her, he holds hands with Daphne while they watch a motion picture. With adult assurance, Portia challenges Daphne and succeeds in disconcerting her rival. To Eddie, Portia cries, “You are my whole reason to be alive.” When she tries to kiss him, Eddie spurns her with wounding words. Portia later sees Eddie sobbing alone. Bowen hints at Eddie’s repressed homosexuality, a matter not overtly treated in her day; Eddie’s hidden anguish would account for his deviousness and alleged self-hatred.
In “The Devil,” a more mature Portia returns to 2 Windsor Terrace to welcome Anna and Thomas. With spring, the rain suggests that...
(The entire section is 4,582 words.)