The Death of the Heart Themes
by Elizabeth Bowen

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The Death of the Heart Themes

(Novels for Students)

The Outsider
Anna and Thomas Quayne live in an insular world, comfortable knowing what will happen from one day to the next. Into their lives comes Portia, the daughter of Thomas’ father and his mistress (later his second wife), Irene. Portia’s very presence is a source of discomfort to the couple, and she enters their house as the consummate outsider. She is an orphaned love child in a childless household where two miscarriages have occurred. Even before she came to London, Portia was an outsider, banned to the continent by her father’s first wife, doomed to wander from cheap hotel to cheap hotel.

In Anna and Thomas’ eyes, Portia is in need of housebreaking, like a young puppy, unschooled in the ways of their society. When Matchett asks Anna where Portia will eat, Anna responds that Portia will eat downstairs with the rest of the family. “Surely. She’s got to learn to,” Anna says, as if Portia must be trained in how to eat in a familial setting after so many years eating in hotel dining rooms.

Throughout the book, Portia is a keen observer, always on the lookout for clues as to what is the right thing to say and do. Often, she is confused about her position in the Quayne household and is overly deferential in her struggle to know what is correct behavior. For example, when Anna and St. Quentin arrive for tea, Portia behaves almost as though she is the maid, offering to take coats and put away hats. She is desperate to find a place for herself in this new world.

Even the language people speak in London is foreign to Portia. She asks herself, “for what reason people said what they did not mean, and did not say what they meant?”

Portia is an orphan from a family that is barely legitimate, wrapped in shame. Her first sixteen years are hardly what most would call normal, moving from hotel room to hotel room, never attending school or making a steady set of friends. She is more like a mother to her own mother, offering tea and comfort after Irene has a crying spell and helping her mother to the hospital when she becomes ill.

Living with Thomas and Anna does not make Portia part of their family even though Thomas is her half-brother. Bowen describes the Quayne’s house in intimidating terms, a large home with gleaming marble and ivory-painted walls, and a fire in the hearth that casts a “hard glow.” Portia is glad when she comes back to the house and no one is home yet. Anna, as the woman of the house, could go up to say good-night to Portia, but this small sign of compassion is left up to Matchett, the crusty old servant who knew Portia’s father before Portia was born.

Offering normal familial attention and love to Portia is simply beyond the capabilities of Anna and Thomas. Thomas is still stinging from the shame he first felt sixteen years ago when his mother kicked his father out of their house, forcing him to marry Irene, then pregnant with Portia. And Anna never feels close to the girl, asking Thomas, “would you really like me to love her?. . . No, you’d only like me to seem to love her.” Instead of taking her with them on their trip to Capri, Anna and Thomas pack her off again, only a few months after she has arrived at their house, to stay with Anna’s former nanny at the beach. And their concern about her relationship with Eddie is slight. They seem only to be concerned about how it affects them, and think nothing of her sneaking off to see him. When Portia is very late the final evening of the novel, their response is negligible. Anna responds more forcefully to a perceived slight by Lilian’s mother, and the couple is truly baffled as to who should go get Portia when she has been discovered at Major Brutt’s hotel.

Portia and the adults around her seem to be from two distinct countries, but this sense can be attributed primarily to their different generations. Portia has seen little of the world while the Quaynes and their friends have lived through World War I, which left...

(The entire section is 1,479 words.)