Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 662

Because of her keen awareness of detail, atmosphere, mood, and particularly her focus on the perspectives of female characters, Bowen was frequently compared by critics to such authors as Jane Austen, Henry James, Virginia Woolf, and Katherine Mansfield. Since World War II, however, critical focus on Bowen's writings has steadily declined.

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The hardships Mrs. Drover endures upon returning to her deserted house has led to much critical debate. Issues concerning Mrs. Drover's fragile mental state and repressed memories, the association of demon lover with war itself, and the fact that Bowen's work shares its title with a Gothic ballad have been sources of continual critical discussion.

According to the postscript of the 1946 American edition of The Demon Lover and Other Stories, Elizabeth Bowen wrote the title story of her collection between 1941 and 1944. In 1945 Henry Reed, a reviewer for The New Statesman and Nation, praised Bowen for the way she conveyed the atmosphere of war to the reader and for her ‘‘ability to concentrate the emotions of a scene, or a sequence of thoughts ... into an unforgettable sentence or phrase with a beauty of expression....’’ This praise was echoed by American reviewers when the collection was published in the United States the following year. Without exception American critics lauded Bowen's work.

One of the first American reviews of Bowen's collection appeared in the March 1, 1946, edition of Kirkus Reviews. The critic lauded Bowen's ‘‘very special talent: a subtlety, occasionally carried to an excess where substance is dissipated; an immaculacy which, within its self-imposed limits, reaches artistic perfection.’’ Moreover, S. H. Hay, in the April 13, 1946, edition of the Saturday Review of Literature, commented on the way Bowen created ‘‘an atmosphere of terror and savagery which by its very underplaying is the more pervasive and compelling.’’ John Farrelly, in the April 7, 1946, edition of the New York Times Book Review, echoed Reed's commendations, claiming that Bowen's stories conveyed the sentiments of people in wartime England: "What all these people share is a lack of something they want and aren't likely to get.... But every one of them discovers something of his own identity and fights against the threat of annihilation to preserve that personal existence.... The familiar patterns of experience have been broken, at least temporarily. Life has been revaluated, perhaps more intelligently.’’

James Stern, in the April 29, 1946, edition of the New Republic, discussed how Bowen insightfully conveyed to her readers ‘‘the dreams, fantasies and hallucinations produced in people by loss of sleep, loss of property, broken marriages, broken lives, endless days and nights of destruction’’ experienced by the English people during their time of crisis. Stern also conveyed their desire to preserve the past under the burden of the unbearable present, symbolized by "the Passage of Time and the Architecture of the House,’’ which he identified as key themes in all of Bowen's works.

Lotus Snow, in her essay published in 1950 in the Western Humanities Review found Bowen's theme of ‘‘the uncertain 'I'" in both her short stories and novels. In a postscript to the 1946 American edition, Bowen herself referred to the ghost in ‘‘The Demon Lover’’ as "questionable," one who ‘‘[fills] the vacuum for the uncertain 'I'." Snow also argued that in her short stories Bowen "writes of the world of feeling: her people find a sense of personal identity through the subjective experiences of love, hate, illusion.’’ Moreover, Snow claimed that in her novels Bowen stresses the emotional and social background of people whose lives were disrupted during the war.

In recent years,"The Demon Lover'' has been widely anthologized in short fiction collections and is considered Bowen's most famous short work. Surprisingly, it has not appeared in any ghost story collections. Since 1946 critical articles have focused mainly on the psychological aspects of "The Demon Lover.'' While the historical background of the two World Wars is always a factor in any discussion of the story, recent critics are also interested in Mrs. Drover's psychological response to the traumatic stress caused by those wars.

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