"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.
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.
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.