Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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...

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Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*London. Capital and largest city of Great Britain. As one of the novel’s characters walks through Covent Garden during the evening, the narrator describes a feeling of desolation, which is representative of a city “full of such deserts, of such moments, at which the mirage of one’s own keyed-up existence suddenly fails.” In this instance, the keyed-up character is Eddie, a dashing young man who has attracted sixteen-year-old Portia, the novel’s protagonist. She wants to believe that he represents an antidote to the cold, staid life she encounters in her brother Tom’s home near Regent’s Park.

Portia has come to stay in London after her father’s death. She is a love child, born of her father’s liaison with a woman outside his marriage. His legitimate son Tom has honored his father’s desire to have Portia come to live with him for a year in London. Neither Tom nor his wife Anna, who dislikes Portia and invades her privacy by reading her diary, really wants to make a place for her in their lives.

*Regent’s Park

*Regent’s Park. Large public park in London. The whole Regent’s Park area is described in terms that enclose Portia in a dehumanizing vacuum. The novel opens with a description of the Regency buildings at dusk: “colourless silhouettes, insipidly ornate, brittle and cold.” These very words might be used to describe Tom and Anna, who never take a warm or colorful interest in Portia’s feelings or experiences.


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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The Death of the Heart earned commercial and critical success when it first appeared. Earlier admirers focused on Bowen’s sparkling social satire, and the theme of childhood innocence confronting adult experience. Feminist readings find Bowen alert to questions of gender and to the mother-daughter bond that scholars such as Ellen Moers and coauthors Susan Gubar and Sandra M. Gilbert have examined among traditional women novelists.

Female wards and orphans were commonplace in nineteenth century fiction. The dependent state of Fanny Price in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park (1814), the heroine’s orphanhood in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) and that of Dorethea Brooke in George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871-1872) compelled—or liberated—the single woman to forge her way unencumbered, whether as a poor relation or as an heiress. A living mother might be an awkward role model, like Mrs. Bennet in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813). The harsh stepmother, typified by Mrs. Reed in Jane Eyre, could drive the orphan to find salvation outside the home.

Approaching the tradition afresh, Bowen gives her protagonist an array of mother surrogates. The sisterly biological mother dies without poignance, unlike Mrs. Ramsay in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927). Bowen steers clear of the obvious pitfall of the stereotypical vicious stepmother, a folk motif form Cinderella and Snow White. Interestingly, she reverses gender expectations by endowing her male characters with the tenderest emotions—vulnerability, tears, an excess of passionate loving. Romance does not prove a viable route for the heroine, however, since there is no suitable man, the most heroic being the sad, solitary Major Brutt. The story touches on the heroine’s flight from her guardians to marriage, another feature of the Bildungsroman, but rejects the solution.

Bowen proposes that a young woman may have a greater chance to develop in a family whose members are imperfect but well meaning than as an alienated wanderer with a single parent who is loving but socially unconnected. Not irrelevant is the novel’s fairy-tale element that the orphan is a beneficiary of her brother’s fortune. Home is salvation. The adolescent’s need of a loving home, where she can express herself and where family members respect one another, ranks high with Bowen.

Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

The Inter-War Years
The period between World War I and World War II (1918–l939) was an era in which many people became...

(The entire section is 630 words.)

Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

The story in The Death of the Heart is told from numerous viewpoints. The primary narrator is generally...

(The entire section is 902 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

1930s: Women in England, like Daphne and her friends, are enjoying the first decade of equal voting rights with men, granted to them...

(The entire section is 415 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

In The Death of the Heart, Anna has a job doing interior design before she is married to Thomas. Research the status of British women...

(The entire section is 277 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

In 1985, Granada Television (United Kingdom) produced a television movie version of The Death of the Heart, starring JoJo Cole as...

(The entire section is 34 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

Coming Home (1995), by Rosamunde Pilcher, tells the story of fourteen-year-old Judith Dunbar, who stays in England at Saint Ursula’s...

(The entire section is 307 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)

Dunleavy, Janet E., “Elizabeth Bowen,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 15: British Novelists,...

(The entire section is 330 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Austin, Allan E. Elizabeth Bowen. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1989. Good introduction discusses Bowen’s style, syntax, use of narrator, and evocative settings. Analyzes careful blending of the two themes—loss of innocence and the revival of a stagnant relationship—praising narrative voice for awareness, perception, humor, compassion. Annotated bibliography.

Blodgett, Harriet. Patterns of Reality: Elizabeth Bowen’s Novels. The Hague: Mouton, 1975. Explores religious imagery, stressing the heroine’s status as a Christlike victim. Contains a bibliography of works by and about Bowen.

Bloom, Harold, ed....

(The entire section is 379 words.)