The Death of the Heart

by Elizabeth Bowen

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What does Portia learn and how does she change after spending the summer at Waikiki in The Death of the Heart?

Quick answer:

After spending the summer with the Heccombs, Portia has broadened her familiarity with English society but feels hurt and betrayed. Although Portia enjoyed spending time with people her own age, Eddie’s rejection further damaged her ability to trust others.

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Death of the Heart recounts the painful process of growing up for an adolescent girl who experiences personal tragedy and must cope with living with relatives who are strangers to her. During the first phase of her stay at her half-brother Thomas’s house, she feels lonely and unloved. This sense of isolation expands when Thomas and his wife, Anna, decide to leave her behind when they go on a Mediterranean vacation. In contrast, her loneliness is lessened by her interactions with Thomas’s employee Eddie, on whom she has a crush.

Portia spends the vacation period with the Heccombs because Mrs. Heccomb is Anna’s former governess. Before coming to Thomas’s home, the teenager had always lived on the Continent, so staying in a small English seaside town helps her learn about English life. She appreciates the warmth and vitality of an atmosphere that strongly contrasts with the cool, detached manners of Thomas and Anna.

The naïve girl is forced to face reality, however, in accepting the fact that Eddie—a young adult—is not romantically interested in her. She feels not only hurt but betrayed by his obvious interest in Daphne Heccomb.

Upon returning to London, Portia finds the chilly atmosphere even more challenging. Now that she has experienced how other households function, she realizes that her half-brother’s marriage is deeply troubled. At the same time, she has also learned that love is unreliable and that her emotions will not always be reciprocated.

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