(Short Story Criticism)

"The Demon Lover" Elizabeth Bowen

The following entry presents criticism on Bowen's short story "The Demon Lover," published in 1945 in The Demon Lover, and Other Stories. See also, Elizabeth Bowen Criticism.

"The Demon Lover" is perhaps Bowen's most acclaimed and widely anthologized short story. Set in London during World War II, it revolves around the haunting of a married middle-aged woman by the ghost of a sweetheart from her youth, a man presumed to have been killed in the First World War twenty-five years earlier. To Bowen's credit, she controls the language, atmosphere, and events of the story so successfully as to create a disturbing ambiguity, leaving the reader to wonder whether the haunting is truly an instance of the supernatural or a nightmarish delusion suffered by the protagonist.

Plot and Major Characters

The essential plot elements of Bowen's story derive from medieval legends about a demon lover. Such tales often tell of a young woman who, having pledged eternal love to a soldier departing for war, marries another when her lover does not return. However, he eventually does come back, as a ghost or a corpse, to avenge this infidelity, usually by abducting her. In "The Demon Lover" the protagonist, Mrs. Drover, returns to her London home, which had been vacated during the bombing of the city by Germany. There Mrs. Drover discovers a letter, dated the present day, composed by a lover from the past who was presumed to have been killed in the previous world war. As a young woman, she had sworn to love him forever, but eventually married another man. The letter recalls a meeting that they had arranged long ago for this very evening. Overcome with dread at the thought of confronting her former lover (alive or otherwise), Mrs. Drover leaves the house to hail a taxi. As the cab pulls away with Mrs. Drover, the driver looks her in the eye, throwing Mrs. Drover into hysteria. Bowen does not reveal exactly what Mrs. Drover saw, but many readers are inclined to believe it was the visage of her dead lover.

Major Themes

On one level "The Demon Lover" conveys a simple moralistic message: no bad deed goes unpunished. Unfaithful to her lover, Mrs. Drover suffered the consequences of her action. Perhaps the driver of the taxi was the soldier, incarnated as a demon, or the devil, come to retrieve the damned Mrs. Drover. In earlier times, societies relied on stories of the demon lover variety to encourage women to remain true to men off at war. On another level Mrs. Drover's suffering may have been the result of years of inner struggle with the guilt of her betrayal. Regardless of the other themes on which the story touches, "The Demon Lover" almost certainly portrays the insidious effects of wartime on the human psyche. Bowen herself worked as an air-raid warden while living in London during World War II, and as a whole the fiction of The Demon Lover, and Other Stories deals with the fear, stress, and grief suffered by inhabitants of London at that time. Accordingly, Mrs. Drover's episode may have been the result of the internalization of terror and guilt from the war.

Critical Reception

Commentators assessing the artistic merit of "The Demon Lover" have remarked on Bowen's use of setting and mood to make Mrs. Drover's impending crisis truly believable. As well, they have noted the author demonstrates great skill in building tension steadily until the climax of the final sentences. Critics often disagree, however, about the nature of the story. Many believe it to be about a psychological breakdown, while others contend that it is a ghost story. Not easily resolved, "The Demon Lover" also supports explication as a thriller; according to this interpretation, the soldier survived the war and has come back to terrorize Mrs. Drover. As well, the tale could be considered an allegory in which the soldier symbolizes "endless, inescapable violence," according to Robert L. Calder.

Hugh Bradenham (review date 1945)

(Short Story Criticism)

A review of "The Demon Lover," in Life and Letters, Vol. 47, No. 100, 1945, pp. 216-18.

[In the following review, Bradenham comments on the themes of war and the supernatural in the stories of The Demon Lover.]

Why should such a writer as Miss Bowen welcome to her stories the bomb and the ghost—sometimes both together within the compass of a few pages—visitors from another world or from the upper air whose normal purpose in fiction is to bring about crude changes in a melodramatic plot? For the extremes of experience, the worst fears of all, the terrors that Shakespeare would not allow Hamlet's father to describe and Picasso could only illustrate by abstract and recondite symbols, should surely not appeal to a writer who carries, quite rightly, her delicacy of perception far beyond common sense and needs no more stimulus to acute feeling than a careless gesture at a polite tea party.

Her gesture upset some tea on the lace cloth, and she idly rubbed it up with her handkerchief. The tug her rubbing gave to the cloth shook a petal from a Chinese peony in the centre bowl on to a plate of cucumber sandwiches. This little bit of destruction was watched by the older people with fascination, with a kind of appeasement, as though it were a guarantee against something worse.

Yes, but the turn of the screw is that someone at the tea party,...

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Elizabeth Bowen (essay date 1946)

(Short Story Criticism)

"The Demon Lover," in The Mulberry Tree: Writings of Elizabeth Bowen, edited by Hermione Lee, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1987, pp. 94-9.

[The following excerpt is from Bowen's postscript to the first U.S. edition of The Demon Lover, published in 1946. The author here suggests that the stories of The Demon Lover have much in common, which provides a "cumulative and collective meaning that no one of them, taken singly, has by itself." She also describes how the atmosphere in England during World War II contributed greatly to the creation of the stories.]

The stories in . . . The Demon Lover, were written in wartime London—between the spring of 1941 and the late autumn of 1944. They were written for the magazines or papers in which they originally appeared. During these last years, I did not always write a story when I was asked for one; but I did not write any story that I was not asked for. For, at the same time, I have been writing a novel; and sometimes I did not want to imperil its continuity.

Does this suggest that these stories have been in any way forced or unwilling work? If so, that is not the case. Actually, the stimulus of being asked for a story, and the compulsion created by having promised to write one were both good—I mean, they acted as releases. Each time I sat down to write a story I opened a door; and the pressure against the other side of that door must, I found, have been very great, for things—ideas, images, emotions—came through with force and rapidity, sometimes violence. I do not say that these stories wrote themselves—aesthetically or intellectually speaking, I found the writing of some of them very difficult—but I was never in a moment's doubt as to what I was to write. The stories had their own momentum, which I had to control. The acts in them had an authority which I could not question. Odd enough in their way—and now some seem very odd—they were flying particles of something enormous and inchoate that had been going on. They were sparks from experience—an experience not necessarily my own.

During the war I lived, both as a civilian and as a writer, with every pore open; I lived so many lives, and, still more, lived among the packed repercussions of so many thousands of other lives, all under stress, that I see now it would have been impossible to have been writing only one book. I want my novel, which deals with this same time, to be comprehensive. But a novel must have form; and, for the form's sake, one is always having to make relentless exclusions. Had it not been for my from-time-to-time promises to write stories, much that had been pressing against the door might have remained pressing against the door in vain.

I do not feel I 'invented' anything written [in the stories]. It seems to me that during the war in England the overcharged sub-consciousnesses of everybody overflowed and merged. It is because the general subconsciousness saturates these stories that they have an authority nothing to do with me.

These are all wartime, none of them war, stories. There are no accounts of war action even as I knew it—for instance, air raids. Only one character (in "Mysterious Kôr") is a soldier; and he only appears as a homeless wanderer round a city. These are, more, studies of climate,...

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George Brandon Saul (essay date 1965)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Short Stories of Elizabeth Bowen," in Arizona Quarterly, Vol. 21, No. 1, Spring, 1965, pp. 53-9.

[In the following excerpt, Saul faults Bowen's short stories, including those contained within The Demon Lover, and Other Stories for their "brittle" and "self-consciously sophisticated" characters and thematic weaknesses, although he regards "The Demon Lover" as one of her better works.]

One of the unhappy feelings hard to shake off in reflecting on the short stories of the Irishwoman Elizabeth (Dorothea Cole) Bowen (Mrs. Alan Charles Cameron; b. 1899) is that of their essentially un-Irish quality and character: in fast, occasional prolixity seems...

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Hermione Lee (essay date 1981)

(Short Story Criticism)

"An Awful Illumination: The Demon Lover (1945) and The Heat of the Day (1949)," in Elizabeth Bowen: An Estimation, Vision and Barnes & Noble Books, 1981, pp. 156-88.

[In the excerpt below, Lee examines Bowen's depiction of the English middle-class and war-time London, concluding that "The Demon Lover" is "the most horrific of the war-time stories."]

'I say, this war's an awful illumination; it's destroyed our dark: we have to see where we are.'

Elizabeth Bowen's attitude to the civilization she inhabited was confirmed by the war; and during it . . . she did some of her best work. All the aspects...

(The entire section is 1903 words.)

Allan E. Austin (essay date 1989)

(Short Story Criticism)

"The Shorter Fiction," in Elizabeth Bowen, Twayne Publishers, 1989, pp. 70-86.

[Here, Austin explores Bowen's writing process and the author's use of place and mood in her work, especially "The Demon Lover. "]

Elizabeth Bowen clearly enjoyed working back and forth between novels and shorter works. She has implied that the two forms may reflect alternate selves. Noting the amount of fantasy in her stories, something she eschews in her novels, she says,

If I were a short story writer only, I might well seem to be out of balance. But recall, more than half of my life is under the steadying influence of the novel, with its calmer,...

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J. A. Morris (essay date 1990)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Elizabeth Bowen's Stories of Suspense," in Twentieth-Century Suspense: The Thriller Comes of Age, edited by Clive Bloom, St. Martin's Press, 1990, pp. 114-29.

[In the excerpt below, Morris asserts that the supernatural aspect of "The Demon Lover" helps to convey social and historical meaning. The critic also examines the tension as it builds in the story.]

'The Demon Lover' (1941) belongs to the years of the Second World War and is set in London, as were a number of [Bowen's] most effective and atmospheric stories. It has been frequently anthologised in collections of tales of horror and suspense, where it rubs shoulders with disturbing pieces by writers like...

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Phyllis Lassner (essay date 1991)

(Short Story Criticism)

"Comedies of Sex and Terror," in Elizabeth Bowen: A Study of the Short Fiction, Twayne Publishers, 1991, pp. 54-74.

[In the excerpt below, Lassner examines the letter from the dead soldier in "The Demon Lover" and concludes that "the letter is a ghostly artifact, a sign that as a survivor of two wars she has internalized their terrors and guilt."]

In "The Demon Lover," justifiably one of Bowen's most famous and widely anthologized stories, a soldier avenges the grim fates of war. Written during World War II, the story embeds the psychological horrors produced by a Blitzed city in a plot about "sex-antagonism," but, in a rare move for Bowen, the haunting presence is a...

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Robert L. Calder (essay date 1994)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "'A More Sinister Troth': Elizabeth Bowen's The Demon Lover' as Allegory," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 31, No. 1, Winter, 1994, pp. 91-97.

[In the following essay, Calder explores "The Demon Lover" as allegory.]

Of all of Elizabeth Bowen's short stories, none has been anthologized as often as "The Demon Lover." First published in The Listener in November 1941 and reprinted in The Demon Lover and Other Stories (1945) and Ivy Gripped the Steps and Other Stories (1946), it is usually introduced as a clever tale of occult possession. Early critical commentary is typified by Allen E. Austin's remark that "'The Demon Lover' is...

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Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)

Bowen, Elizabeth. "Stories by Elizabeth Bowen." In The Mulberry Tree: Writings of Elizabeth Bowen, edited by Hermione Lee, pp. 126-30. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1987.

Presents Bowen's views on the art of the short story and discusses the sources of inspiration for her short fiction.

Snow, Lotus. "The Uncertain T: A Study of Elizabeth Bowen's Fiction." The Western Humanities Review (Autumn 1950): 299-310.

Describes each story in The Demon Lover as "a psychological study of an attempt to find the personal life."

Additional coverage of Bowen's...

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