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"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.
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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, which is in Ireland, has come from London and has had his flat destroyed; now one can see how the bomb enters Miss Bowen's sphere of perception; it is to be contemplated from Ireland, giving a new edge at this distance to the writer's sensibility which can now accept, without alteration or panic, the almost unimaginable changes and chances of recent years. It is a great triumph of the sensibility; Miss Bowen, in these short stories, has brought the war into literature as scarcely any other writer has done so far. And the ghosts, the supernatural? Not perhaps so well, but then it is far more difficult to judge. If one had seen a ghost one might be convinced that its more remote impact on life, at a distance from the actual apparition or when the appearance was so faint that the blood was not violently congealed, would be just as Miss Bowen describes. But one never has seen a ghost; the effort to imagine the real thing turns the story into something of a tour de force, with the reader straining to be convinced and therefore perceiving, or imagining, some strain in the effort Miss Bowen makes to convince him; he is conscious then that the unimaginable, ghosts for Henry James, cannibalism for Conrad, is rather a dangerous temptation, something in the way of a try-your-strength, for writers whose normal occupation is the fine analysis of feeling. For obvious reasons, it is not at all the same with the bomb; here the apparition is real, and real people, brilliantly and exactly, are revealed with all the subtle derangement that the war has inflicted on them.
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"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, war-climate, and of the strange growths it raised. I see war (or should I say feel war?) more as a territory than as a page of history: of its impersonal active historic side I have, I find, not written. Arguably, writers are always slightly abnormal people: certainly, in so-called 'normal' times my sense of the abnormal has been very acute. In war, this feeling of slight differentiation was suspended: I felt one with, and just like, everyone else. Sometimes I hardly knew where I stopped and everyone else began. The violent destruction of solid things, the explosion of the illusion that prestige, power and permanence attach to bulk and weight, left all of us, equally, heady and disembodied. Walls went down; and we felt, if not knew, each other. We all lived in a state of lucid abnormality.
Till the proofs of The Demon Lover came, I had not reread these stories since they were, singly, written. Reading the stories straight through as a collection, I am most struck by what they have in common. This integrates them and gives them a cumulative and collective meaning that no one of them, taken singly, has by itself. The Demon Lover is an organic whole: not merely a collection but somehow—for better or worse—a book. Also, the order in which the stories stand—an order come at, I may say, casually—seems itself to have a meaning, or to add a meaning, I did not foresee. We begin with a hostess who has not learned how with grace to open her own front door; we end with a pair of lovers with no place in which to sleep in each other's arms. In the first story, a well-to-do house in a polite square gives the impression of having been organically dislocated by shock; in the last, a pure abstract empty timeless city rises out of a little girl's troubled mind. Through the stories—in the order in which they are here placed—I find a rising tide of hallucination. . . .
The search for indestructible landmarks in a destructible world led many down strange paths. The attachment to these when they had been found produced small worlds-within-worlds of hallucination—in most cases, saving hallucination. Writers followed the paths they saw or felt people treading, and depicted those little dear saving illusory worlds. I have done both in the The Demon Lover stories.
You may say that these resistance-fantasies are in themselves frightening. I can only say that one counteracts fear by fear, stress by stress. In "The Happy Autumn Fields," a woman is projected from flying-bombed London, with its day-and-night eeriness, into the key emotional crisis of a Victorian girlhood. In "Ivy Gripped the Steps," a man in his early forties peers through the rusted fortifications and down the dusty empty perspectives of a seaside town at the Edwardian episode that long ago crippled his faculty for love. In "The Inherited Clock," a girl is led to find the key to her own neurosis inside a timepiece. The past, in all these cases, discharges its load of feeling into the anaesthetized and bewildered present. It is the 'I' that is sought—and retrieved, at the cost of no little pain. And, the ghosts—definite in "Green Holly," questionable (for are they subjective purely?) in "Pink May," "The Cheery Soul" and "The Demon Lover": what part do they play? They are the certainties. The bodiless foolish wanton, the puritan 'other' presence, the tipsy cook with her religion of English fare, the ruthless young soldier lover unheard of since 1916: hostile or not, they rally, they fill the vacuum for the uncertain 'I.' . . .
I cannot answer for much that is in these stories, except to say that I know they are all true—true to the general life that was in me at the time. Taken singly, they are disjected snapshots—snapshots taken from close up, too close up, in the middle of the mêlée of a battle. You cannot render, you can only embrace—if it means embracing to suffocation point—something vast that is happening right on top of you. Painters have painted, and photographers who were artists have photographed, the tottering lacelike architecture of ruins, dark mass-movements of people, and the untimely brilliance of flaming skies. I cannot paint or photograph like this—I have isolated; I have made for the particular, spot-lighting faces or cutting out gestures that are not even the faces or gestures of great sufferers. This is how I am, how I feel, whether in war or peace time; and only as I am and feel can I write. As I said at the start, though I criticize these stories now, afterwards, intellectually, I cannot criticize their content. They are the particular. But through the particular, in wartime, I felt the high-voltage current of the general pass.
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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 almost the only thing possibly suggestive of Irish roots, and that implies merely negative identification. Even Miss Bowen's theorizing (see the preface to her Early Stories)—"a story, if it is to be a story, must have a psychological turning-point"—is in a sense un-Irish: the racial inclination is basically toward telling a story and letting psychology worry about itself. Not that "psychological turning-points" can't be frequently recognized or deduced; only that the storyteller doesn't proceed as if he were framing things to oblige a theory. So to me Seá n O'Faoláin's assertion in The Vanishing Hero—"There is an atmosphere of ancient fable behind all of Miss Bowen's fiction"—is, at least so far as the short stories are concerned, merely flattery. There is behind Miss Bowen's later short stories (which represent only a fraction of her output) Katherine Mansfield; and perhaps behind her earlier, at least by her own intimation in the preface just mentioned, Richard Middleton and E. M. Forster. Certainly there is not the remotest hint of the traditions of the filid—or even the "shanachies"; there is no suggestion of the Celtically ambient.
On the subject of "influences," Miss Bowen has delivered herself with fine sarcasm in the preface cited, saying that after completing her first volume she read Katherine Mansfield's "Bliss," whereupon "admiration and envy were shot through by a profound dismay: I thought: 'If I ever am published, everybody will say I imitated her.' I was right: this happened." I can only admit that, coming for the first time upon Miss Bowen's stories (in The Demon Lover), and lacking at the time knowledge of her reviewers, I began my personal notes with "K. Mansfield behind them?"—and quickly concluded that Katherine Mansfield was.
But why the lack of racial tincture?—One can only guess. Of course, like many another Irish writer, Miss Bowen is not of purely Irish ancestry, the first Bowen to settle in Ireland having been a Welsh colonel under Cromwell who was rewarded for his service with Irish property. This helps to explain the "land-owning Protestant outlook and Unionist politics" of the Bowen family, remarked in Seven Winters (1943). But one suspects that the Dublin-born girl's assimilation to English tradition was sealed by her having been educated and reared in England after the age of seven, and having remained resident there for the most part thenceforth.
Whatever her instinctive affiliations, Miss Bowen has confessed (v. that preface again) that she turned to short stories (the first to get finished being "Breakfast") only after disappointment as poet and painter: one thinks of George Moore's early aspirations. Magazine editors proved uninterested, but Encounters (1923) got good reviews, though it did not prove commercially very successful. However, Rose Macaulay gave Miss Bowen encouragement, and 1926 brought Ann Lee's & Other Stories, written after the author's marriage and while she was living near Northampton (her married life was spent mostly in Oxford and London). These volumes were later combined for one-volume reissue as Early Stories (1951). Meanwhile they had been followed by Joining Charles and Other Stories (one of the finest volumes: 1929), The Cat Jumps and Other Stories (1934), Look at All Those Roses (1941), and The Demon Lover and Other Stories (1945; in America, Ivy Gripped the Steps, 1946).
In reissuing her early stories in 1951, Miss Bowen went to a surprising degree of sympathetic prefatory analysis of contents for one who—with more pertinence than perhaps really intended—at the same time ventured, "for the student writer they may have the value of cautionary tales." Does one normally issue prentice work as a lesson to students? . . .
The preface to Ivy Gripped the Steps, the American edition of The Demon Lover, tells us that its stories were written for specific magazines or papers on request, "in wartime London—between the spring of 1941 and the late autumn of 1944," but were not "forced." However stimulated, the tales include four of Miss Bowen's best, as well as matter suggestive of the semi-psychopathic, the futile, or the merely trivial, with proposed intimation not always leading beyond vagueness.
As best, one reader should have to name "The Demon Lover," baptized from an old ballad, a masterpiece of horror; "Pink May," the deft picture of a woman blaming a jealous, pitying ghost for her personal tragedy; "Mysterious Kôr," a piece which really has no action, but suggests admirably a state, or condition, and which presents a memorable picture of blacked-out London in full moonlight; and "Ivy Gripped the Steps"—another study in futility, but one in which the intimations seem more lucid than usual.
Even so, this volume written against a background of wartime England would not lose if its brittle characters were eliminated, together with its elements of the self-consciously sophisticated (cp. the girl's happiness over having "forgotten" the bungalow of her childhood in "Songs My Father Sang Me") and the merely extraneous. Nor is it fortunate in the apparent shadow of Katherine Mansfield, earlier intimated and suggested by the indirect approach, the concern with attenuated perception and pastel implication, the tendency to read consequence into the essentially trivial. Unquestionably, too, the book is emphatically suggestive of the self-consciously professional—and perhaps that is largely the trouble.
Indeed, perhaps that is the real trouble with the vast majority of Miss Bowen's stories—that and the fact that the unloved is almost never the completely understood and that somehow the author too often seems to use her themes merely as finger-exercises, her material without respecting it.
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"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 of her disenchantment with England and Europe in the Thirties coalesced. The war intensified her sense that the century she had grown up with was inimical to faith, hope, and love. In this she was not alone: other intellectuals felt that the war had been earned. Waugh repeatedly describes a diseased society approaching an inevitable crisis; in Unconditional Surrender (1961) the section called The Death Wish' makes the point that the war was not only earned but desired:
It seems to me there was a will to war, a death wish, everywhere. Even good men thought their private honour would be satisfied by war. They could assert their manhood by killing and being killed.
Graham Greene, writing of the Blitz in an essay of October 1940 called 'At Home' invoked an echo of Pound's rage at the First World War:
Violence comes to us more easily because it was so long expected—not only by the political sense but by the moral sense. The world we live in could not have ended any other way . . . One feels at home in London . . . or in any of the bombed cities . . . because life there is what it ought to be. If a cracked cup is put in boiling water it breaks, and an old dog-toothed civilization is breaking now.
The idea of a civilization which has earned, and deserves, its own destruction, is central to The Heat of the Day, which registers 'an impoverishment of the world' both in its evocation of war-time London and in its pursuit of 'the meaning of treason'. From her early work onwards, Elizabeth Bowen has presented English middle-class life as having something very wrong with it. Over and over again—in the over-protective families, the Studdarts, the Michaelises, the Quaynes, in the futile social groups like those in 'The Cat Jumps' or 'The Disinherited', in the cruelty done to innocents like Portia or Major Brutt or Emmeline, in all the sinister, misused, locales—'Bowen terrain' has been a 'mined area' of dispossession and compromise. Now, in war-time London, even the rooms and furniture, 'imperturbable things' on which Portia could fix as guarantee of safety ('they remind us how exceedingly seldom the unseemly or unforeseeable rears its head', [The Death of the Heart]) are at risk. The sense of disinheritance, previously felt as a spiritual quality, is now made brutally palpable. These are the fruits of 'the dire period of Personal Life' which was found, in Bowen's Court, to supersede, disastrously, the 'healthy abstract' idea—stylish, stable, impersonal—on which the 18th century bourgeoisie had flourished:
And to what did our fine feelings, our regard for the arts, our intimacies, our inspiring conversations, our wish to be clear of the bonds of sex and class and nationality, our wish to try to be fair to everyone bring us? To 1939.
Bowen's Court, written between 1939 and 1941, defines the historical nature of the loss. The war-time short stories in The Demon Lover, some of which were published in The Listener and Horizon in the early forties, and which were finished by 1945 after the first five chapters of The Heat of the Day had been written, describe with 'hallucinatory' clearness life lived under conditions of violent abnormality. The elegiac, or sinister treatment of diminished places, a dominant quality in all the short stories, now finds its predestined materials: there is a bizarre propriety (a word used in The Heat of the Day to describe what's lacking in war-time) in the way Elizabeth Bowen's habits of mind encounter their perfect donnée in the conditions of war-time London. These stories linger with especially poignant intensity on abandoned and ruined places, and on the threat these present to the spirit.
In the Preface written for the American edition of The Demon Lover, she calls the writing of these stories 'resistance' writing, and likens it to the way people in war-time clung to small objects and mementoes, whereby they might identify themselves. What has always ominously characterized her treatment of place is the loss of self. When places cease to function properly, their inhabitants lose selfhood, and are doubly 'disinherited'. In war-time this fear emerged from the consciousness of fiction and into the everyday lives of people whose houses were being destroyed:
People whose homes had been blown up went to infinite lengths to assemble bits of themselves—broken orna-ments, odd shoes, torn scraps of the curtains that had hung in a room—from the wreckage. In the same way, they assembled and checked themselves from stories and poems, from their memories, from one another's talk . . . Every writer during this time . . . was aware of the passionate attachment of men and women to every object or image or place or love or fragment of memory with which his or her destiny seemed to be identified, and by which the destiny seemed to be assured.
The war stories emphasise the dislocation between places and memories, or between places and a secret, unobtainable inner world. The narrator of 'Songs My Father Sang Me' remembers a lost England her father showed her as a child. The girl and her soldier in 'Mysterious Kôr', walk through a desolate, antique civilization with no inhabitants but themselves. The woman whose house has been bombed in 'The Happy Autumn Fields' and who lies surrounded by wreckage—plaster, dust, calico tacked over the windows, sounds of hammering and someone thumping a piano—struggles back into the lost idyllic world of Victorian Ireland she's glimpsed from some old letters. Mary's relationship to the long-dead Sarah and Henrietta, whose lives she inhabits as she lies in the débris of her real present, is compounded of an elegiac sense of their emotional richness, and her own neurotic feeling of insubstantiality:
'How are we to live without natures? We only know inconvenience now, not sorrow. Everything pulverizes so easily because it is rot-dry; one can only wonder that it makes so much noise. The source, the sap must have dried up, or the pulse must have stopped, before you and I were conceived. So much flowed through people; so little flows through us. All we can do is imitate love or sorrow'.
The style embodies the poignant antithesis between the rich melancholy Victorian world and the thin inadequateness of the present. In the visionary sequences, the Victorian family is presented with decorous formality:
Papa, astounded, let go of Arthur's hand, whereupon Arthur fell flat on the stubble.
'Dear me', said the affronted Constance to Robert.
There was no end to the afternoon, whose light went on ripening now they had scythed the corn. Light filled the silence which, now Papa and the others were out of hearing, was complete.
The language for war-time London, in violent contrast, is disjointed and ugly:
From somewhere else in the hollowness came a cascade of hammering. Close up, a voice: 'Oh, awake, Mary?' It came from the other side of the open door, which jutted out between herself and the speaker—he on the threshold, she lying on the uncovered mattress of a bed. The speaker added: 'I had been going away' ('The Happy Autumn Fields', The Demon Lover).
The brittleness of the modern world at war, 'the anaesthetised and bewildered present', so vulnerable to the 'discharge' of feelings from the past, is presented in this story with an immense poignancy and acute sense of loss. Elsewhere the 'dessication' of personal life at that time is more sinisterly rendered.
In the most horrific of the war-time stories, 'The Demon Lover', a middle-aged woman who returns to her shut-up London house, to be trapped into a spectral appointment with her dead fiancé, finds that the sinister threat from the past overpowers her null, dislocated present:
The desuetude of her former bedroom, her married London home's whole air of being a cracked cup from which memory, with its reassuring power, had either evaporated or leaked away, made a crisis—and at just this crisis the letter-writer had, knowledgeably, struck. The hollowness of the house this evening cancelled years on years of voices, habits and steps.
The story makes remarkable use of charged, ominous details. As Mrs Drover arrives at her shut-up house, the language of the first paragraph at once warns the reader of the story's intentions:
In her once familiar street, as in any unused channel, an unfamiliar queerness had silted up; a cat wove itself in and out of railings, but no human eye watched Mrs Drover's return.
The uneasy echo of 'familiar', the dry clue in 'no human eye' suggests a scenario at once too deserted and not deserted enough. Inside the house is a letter without a stamp: but no-one can have been in. All her post is being re-directed to the country. As Mrs Drover prepares to read it, sitting in fear at the top of the silent house, Elizabeth Bowen allows in the weather as a 'terror-ingredient' :
The room looked over the garden and other gardens: the sun had gone in; as the clouds sharpened and lowered, the trees and rank lawns seemed already to smoke with the dark.
The histrionic touches ('rank', 'smoke') underline Mrs Drover's horror at being summoned to an assignation with a lover who died in the Great War. The silent, closed-up house and street, the sudden rainburst, are played on insistently as Mrs Drover remembers with horror her lost lover's tyranny over her, and prepares for flight. She is consoled by the thought of a taxi:
This evening, only one taxi—but this, although it presented its blank rump, appeared already to be alertly waiting for her.
The combination of 'blank' and 'alertly' is peculiarly alarming: and it is the taxi driver who turns out to be her demon lover:
Mrs Drover's mouth hung open for some seconds before she could issue her first scream. After that she continued to scream freely and to beat with her gloved hands on the glass all round as the taxi, accelerating without mercy, made off with her into the hinterland of deserted streets ('The Demon Lover', The Demon Lover).
Every detail of this matters: the pointless formality of screaming freely, the lack of sound produced by the beating of gloved hands, the purposefulness of 'made off with', and the concluding phrase, which returns us to what the story has already established in some detail: the sinister quietness of war-time London streets, in which Mrs Drover will never be found again. Elizabeth Bowen's comment on the supernatural component of this and other stories in the volume is exact:
The past, in all these cases, discharges its load of feeling into the anaesthetised and bewildered present. It is the 'I' that is sought—and retrieved at the cost of no little pain. And the ghosts . . . they are the certainties . . . hostile or not, they rally, they fill the vacuum for the uncertain T.
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"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, stricter, more orthodox demands: into the novel goes such taste as I have for rational behaviour and social portraiture. The short story, as I see it to be, allows for what is crazy about humanity: obstinacies, inordinate heroisms, "immortal longings."
In the Preface to Stories by Elizabeth Bowen the author offers several insights into her approach to the short story. Stories, of course, displaying a concentration of effect impossible in a novel and revolving around a single crisis, aim at a "central, single effect." Place and mood are crucial in her stories, and she admits that "On the whole, places more often than faces have sparked off stories." The creative imagination does not conform to a formula, though Bowen's comments suggest a representative process. An observed or imagined scene provokes a sense of a dramatic situation that calls forth a particular character, "the one" on whom the crisis will "act most strongly." She sees the writer as fundamentally an explorer: "It could seem to me that stories, with their dramatis personae, pre-exist, only wait to be come upon! I know I do not invent them; I discover them. Though that does not mean that they are easily told. On me devolves the onus of narration." This in turn confirms the creative fact "that every short story is an experiment."
A strong sense of place and mood characterizes these stories. The manner of telling is impressionistic because the style aims to suggest indirectly the psychological and emotional states of the principal characters. Very often a story will move back and forth in time between a determinant past and a resultant present. Dialogue usually generates most of its significance between the lines. Stories often end with what the author calls "a query," which leaves the reader conjecturing about what has actually taken place or is likely to ensue. . . .
For Elizabeth Bowen, houses are powerful presences. Important in most of her novels, they are, if anything, even more enmeshed in character psyches in the stories. Some of the houses are "haunted" by presences that prey upon susceptible imaginations and so feed fears. This openness to haunting is one way the author exposes the resourcelessness of seemingly sophisticated moderns. For all their apparent awareness, these exemplars of the unexamined life inhabit surfaces that can be cracked and exposed. . . .
Elizabeth Bowen's best-known story, "The Demon Lover," is certainly her most controversial. This ghost story, superbly evoking place and mood, charts the protagonist's developing hysteria, and relentlessly sustains tension until the shattering denouement.
Like many Londoners, Mrs. Kathleen Drover and her family have been forced to leave the city because of the bombing, which has weakened the structure of their home. On the day of the story Mrs. Drover is in London to do a number of errands. The last of these, late in the day, is collecting some wanted articles from the closed-up house. The imagery indicates the link between the house and her subconscious. If it is haunted it is because she is. The letter on the hall table reflects the long suppressed irrational terror that her long-dead fiancé will keep his parting threat to return and claim her.
Does the letter literally exist? The story teasingly leaves open the possibility: the fiancé "was reported missing, and presumed killed" and, as the famous story of Robert Graves attests, soldiers did return from "the dead." If the letter is authentic then Mrs. Drover is part of an amazing story of a lover's patience and is truly in the hands of a clever madman. So far as a reading of the tale is concerned it hardly matters: to Mrs. Drover it is real and her fear-driven energy gains a willing suspension of disbelief. However, the subtle undertext provides a psychological explanation.
Mrs. Drover, already dislocated by the bombing and the forced move, weary at the end of the day, depressed by the ambience of her street and the interior of her house, is vulnerable to attack. A naturally fearful person, she normally keeps her fears willfully under control with the aid of a safe family context. Now she undergoes a Lawrencean experience in which the suppressed is loosed to rise up and strike. "Ink dark" clouds pile up as Mrs. Drover approaches her house, and the rain comes "crashing down" shortly after she enters. Her "once familiar street" proves "unfamiliar" and isolated since "no human eye watched." Only after difficulty with the lock does the "warped" door open, and "dead air" greets her as she enters. Inside she is "perplexed" by the darkened interior. The house, with "cracks in the structure," is not a safe place.
With Mrs. Drover in an unsettled state in a disturbing environment, it is appropriate to recall Bowen's indication that she seeks to put into situations the very characters who will be most sensitive to them. Mrs. Drover's "most normal expression was one of controlled worry, but of assent." This assent indicates her preference for a peaceful environment. Furthermore, "Since the birth of the third of her little boys, attended by a quite serious illness, she had had an intermittent muscular flicker to the left of her mouth," suggesting further the pressure of her "controlled worry." The exposition reinforces this developing profile. Twenty-five years previous, in August of 1916, when she and her fiancé are parting (for what proves to be the last time), she thinks of "the moment when she could go running back . . . into the safe arms of her mother and sister, and cry: 'What shall I do, what shall I do? He has gone'." (In the present, Mrs. Drover, who likes to be cared for, is wearing a jumper knitted for her by her sister.) Her family do not care for the man and later do not regret his loss. Her mother does not believe he loves her daughter though he "was set on" her. What the mother cannot appreciate is her own daughter's motivation, which also devalues love. Mrs. Drover recalls that "He was never kind" to her and recognizes, even at the time of their farewell, that his statement "I shall be with you . . . sooner or later" is "unnatural" and threatening.
His cruelty actually underlined his commitment to her and represented the security and safety that, more than love, she craved. She may also have sensed the limitations of her appeal to other men, for in the years that follow none come forward and she remains within the security of her family. At thirty-two, however, to the relief of both herself and her family, she had wed William Drover and settled into a quiet marriage. Nothing about Drover is related, but he provided all that was required for "Her movements as Mrs. Drover were circumscribed."
The story is notably ambiguous about the letter writer, reflecting, apparently, Mrs. Drover's thought, since he is spoken of as "dead or living." Dead in actuality, he lives deep within her. She stops rummaging in her trunk after realizing she is "kneeling with her back exposed to the empty room." With the trunk now open she reaches a crisis: "her married London home's whole air of being a cracked cup from which memory, with its reassuring power, had either evaporated or leaked away. . . . The hollowness of the house this evening cancelled years and years of voices, habits and steps." With her protective insulation torn, Mrs. Drover is open to primal fears. With the disturbances of the time, unsettling enough, being reinforced by the oppressive day, the unnatural silence, the unreality of the house, and the naturally nervous Mrs. Drover's shield of memory weakened, breakdown must follow. The very qualities that made the fiancé attractive, his possessive hardness, now make him a horror.
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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 Poe and James, Saki and Ambrose Bierce, Susan Sontag and Vladimir Nabokov. And yet it has also attracted scholarly and erudite discussion concerning precisely how in this story Bowen achieves her formidable effect. For example, in a penetrating analysis Valerie Shaw writes:
As in 'The Cat Jumps', it is a case of common sense showing its insufficiencies when faced with the merciless absolutism of passion, and appropriately it is from 'the ordinary flow of life' into which Mrs Drover [the protagonist] hopes to escape, that the real terror strikes; the taxi which represents safety turns out to be a kind of chariot of vengeance speeding off with her into 'the hinterland of deserted streets' [Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature, 1978].
Valerie Shaw adds that 'the strength of "The Demon Lover" arises in large part from the way it fuses supernatural elements with the theme of war' [Catherine Belsey, Critical Practice, 1980]. . . .
[It] is to be expected that Bowen would reveal a hidden 'reality', however horrifying, behind everyday events—even when the everyday event is just returning to an empty house in London during the Blitz. The taxi (or whatever it really is) that takes Mrs Drover away at the end of the story is conducting her remorselessly to hell, as the title implies, and confirms an ironic yet appropriate extension of the occult ideas suggested in Coleridge's dream poem 'Kubla Khan' concerning a 'woman wailing for her demon-lover' . For Mrs Drover comes to represent those who stayed at home and betrayed the generation of young men doomed in the previous war, the Great War. And the betrayal (as shown by writers of that war, Graves, Aldington, Sas-soon and Owen) was sexual as well as social. Mrs Drover's horror of her lost fiancé lies very much in her suppressed rejection of him as man and lover at the very moment of his departure for the war:
She caught her breath for the moment when she could go running back there into the safe arms of her mother and sister. . . . 'I shall be with you,' he said, 'sooner or later. You won't forget that. You need do nothing but wait.' . . . [She] already felt that unnatural promise drive down between her and the rest of all human kind. No other way of having given herself could have made her feel so apart, lost and foresworn. She could not have plighted a more sinister troth ('The Demon Lover').
Thus the tale of horror and suspense, for which qualities 'The Demon Lover' is famed, contains within it a dimension of social and historical meaning which its supernatural element only helps to bring home with more shocking effect. Yet it is, perhaps, for its nerve-searing tension that the story best deserves its fame.
Mrs Drover, a characteristically 'prosaic' Bowen female figure in her early sexual doubts and her marriage of convenience rather than passion, returns without prior notice to her shut-up 'dead' house to collect some things to take back to her family who had left war time London for the country. 'No human eye watched Mrs Drover's return'. Her vulnerability, emphasised by the emptiness and inhospitability of the deserted 'cracked' house, is brought sharply into focus by the inexplicable appearance of an unstamped letter addressed to her and with that day's date lying on the hall table. Inevitably the letter is from her 'lover', her fiancé, presumed dead twenty-five years before. Now, at this point in the story, the reader does not know the circumstances of her engagement. All that is known is that Mrs Drover has received, in a locked-up house where she stands completely alone, a letter, signed enigmatically with a Kafkaesque 'K', which finishes: 'You may expect me, therefore, at the hour arranged'. It is hardly surprising that 'her lips, beneath the remains of lipstick, [were] beginning to go white'. What follows, in an atmosphere of controlled but steadily accelerating terror, is Mrs Drover's attempt to escape from the house before 'the hour arranged'. But whereas, in so many tales of suspense and horror, the threat depends on being locked in with the figure of menace, here the protagonist takes the threat with her into the presumed safety of the outside 'ordinary' world of streets and taxis. And her complete inability to defend herself from the threat at 'the hour arranged' is taken into a new dimension of terror when she realises that she cannot even remember her fiancé's face: 'You have no time to run from a face you do not expect'. As she leaves, so does 'someone who chose this moment to leave', and the sense of seconds ticking remorselessly towards an inescapable end contains undertones that take the reader back to Faustus waiting to be collected by Mephistopheles. In fact, in her doomed escape-route along the street, the homely world of houses is already alien to her, while their 'damaged stare' anticipates the horrific moment as the clock strikes seven when, trapped in the accelerating taxi, she remains 'for an eternity eye to eye' with the driver, her demon lover, as she tries to 'issue her first scream' ('The Demon Lover'). By this time, at the end of the story, the reader would, perhaps, rather not dwell on what kind of 'possession' is going to occur.
'The Demon Lover' is a remarkable tour de force but it contains elements found elsewhere in Bowen's stories. The 'hidden agenda' that governs Mrs Drover's day is sensed rather than stated and it is only in the final moment that she and we understand the full implications of what has occurred.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1312
"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 man. The result shows how rage transcends time and space. This man cannot simply murder his lover and be done with it; he instead carries her off in a way that suggests her terror will last forever. Strictly speaking, there is no comedy in this tale, but its extreme terror invites laughter that both expresses shock and is its antidote.
The subject of "The Demon Lover" is a woman returning to her house during the Blitz to retrieve some possessions. The empty house is now haunted, however, by the presence of a mysterious letter from her fiancé, who perished in World War I. Alarmed, she runs out of the house and takes a waiting taxi, only to discover that the driver is the ghost of her fiancé. The story ends with Mrs. Drover screaming endlessly as the taxi "made off with her into the hinterland of deserted streets."
The story is quite short, only six pages, and part of its terror derives from the compression of its events and effects. The narrative line follows Mrs. Drover's attempts to explain the letter, whose mysterious appearance is like an emotional bridge between the two world wars. Spanning the period of the stories discussed in this group, the letter thus also works as a puzzle containing the secret explanation of the rage each of the men in these stories expresses toward women. For this reason, it is useful to quote the letter in full:
Dear Kathleen: You will not have forgotten that today is our anniversary, and the day we said. The years have gone by at once slowly and fast. In view of the fact that nothing has changed, I shall rely upon you to keep your promise. I was sorry to see you leave London, but was satisfied that you would be back in time. You may expect me, therefore, at the hour arranged. Until then . . . K.
The letter binds Kathleen Drover to a promise she has no way of fulfilling. "Presumed killed" in action for 25 years, her fiancé nevertheless expects her to drop whatever she has made of her life to fulfill his need to see her. The letter assumes betrayal because it allows for no other reality than his. Despite its polite language, his right of retribution is contained in his expectation that she be there regardless of her needs. And indeed, his appearance in a form symbolizing the infinite depths of his rage creates the story's terror. Kathleen Drover's everlasting terror is more clearly predetermined than the fates of Mrs. Bentley and Mabelle, for it is clear that she would always be compelled to build her life around her promise to him to "need [to] do nothing but wait." Ultimately, Mrs. Drover is driven by a male fantasy of her total devotion and by the rage that presumes she is doomed to fail. What is therefore so terrible is the sense of a setup—that she is damned to a lonely hell if she waits for her fiancé and doomed to be with him if she does not.
In her efforts to recapitulate the events leading up to the letter, Kathleen Drover reveals that the intervening years have indeed belonged to her fiancé. Her recollection of the moment he departed for the war front shows no chance for her to agree with or dissent from his expectation that she will wait. Her one attempt to clarify his demand is only a series of tentative phrases: "But that was—suppose you—I mean, suppose." Because Kathleen has no ability to assert herself, "that unnatural promise" makes its primacy felt and defines her character. Thus she experiences "complete dislocation" from sexual love, and after she does finally marry, her life is marked not by the joys of family life but by illness and an expression of "controlled worry," a tic that also signifies "assent." Given this profile, it is clear that Kathleen's fiancé had nothing to worry about, no need to doubt her bondage to him. What, then, is his terrible retribution about?
Kathleen's capture by her fiancé at the story's end merely activates what is implicit in his character from the beginning. Kathleen recalls that at their last meeting she "had not ever completely seen his face," that she "imagined spectral glitters in the place of his eyes." Already a ghost, the soldier is also cruel, even at this intimate moment: He presses her hand to his chest but does so "painfully," so that "[t]hat cut of the button on the palm of her hand was, principally what she was to carry away." If her character shows the indelible mark of his domination, he remains unknowable except through his demands on her; he is a mysterious, omniscient instrument of fate who even when he comes back to haunt her cannot be described, despite there being "not six inches between them" and doomed to spend "an eternity eye to eye."
The horror to which Mrs. Drover and readers respond is the recognition of an unknowable and therefore unmanageable oppressor. But he is neither godlike nor even heroic. Although assigned to protect his nation from invading evil, this soldier is himself an evil power. Suffering the ravages of one world war, he reappears in the next as an angel of death avenging his own suffering. The spectral soldier is thus not a self-made evil but the product of historical forces. His unverifiable death becomes a metaphor for the world wars that are certain only in their havoc but whose losses can never be fully tabulated and whose causes can never be entirely explained or understood. Because World War I was left unresolved, its casualties untold and its beginnings confused, it becomes a terrifying ghost in this World War II story. Neither Mrs. Drover's reconstruction of the past nor her ghostly fiancé's interpretation of it is a viable epistemological tool. If World War I was the war to end all wars, Bowen recreates it as extracting a terrible promise, a promise the war's incomprehensibility makes it impossible for its survivors to fulfill.
This ghost is not terrorizing the woman because she fails to fill the emptiness in his life. Terrorized himself by historical forces he cannot redirect, much less understand, he imposes a promise on his fiancée that will provide the one stabilizing element in his life and death. But this victim of history is also one who helped create and perpetuate it. As a man, he is empowered by historical precedent to govern; if his efforts end in war, failure turns to rage. Thus the soldier carries off his woman to share the terrors of history. Just as the past invades the present, his consciousness overtakes hers. This process is so complete that, as the "K" of his signature shows, Kathleen is haunted by becoming his reflection. Like his hidden face at their earlier parting, the letter represents him only as she responds to it. Like her memories, the letter is a ghostly artifact, a sign that as a survivor of two wars she has internalized their terrors and guilt. Accordingly, she is terrorized at the end by being the passive victim of a ghastly history.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3135
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 a ghost story that builds up and then culminates like an Alfred Hitchcock movie."
This interpretation was first challenged by Douglas A. Hughes in his 1973 note "Cracks in the Psyche: Elizabeth Bowen's The Demon Lover.'" "Far from being a supernatural story," he argued, "'The Demon Lover' is a masterful dramatization of acute psychological delusion, of the culmination of paranoia in a time of war." The ghostly threat, rather than having any external reality, is a product of the disturbed mental state of the protagonist, Mrs. Kathleen Drover. Her guilt over her fiancé's disappearance and presumed death in the First World War, buried by years of conventional marriage, has been reawakened by another war, and she hallucinates his vengeful return. The inconstant woman in the English ballad "The Demon Lover" discovers that the lover is in fact the devil; in Bowen's story, "war, not the vengeful lover, is the demon that overwhelms this rueful woman" because it strips her of her recent memories and plunges her back to her betraying past (Hughes).
In 1980, in an article entitled "Elizabeth Bowen's The Demon Lover' : Psychosis or Seduction?," Daniel V. Fraustino disputed Hughes's interpretation, arguing that it interpolates several key points in the text. There is no evidence, says Fraustino, that Mrs. Drover suffered an emotional collapse after the loss of her fiancé or was gripped by "psychotic guilt," and nothing in her thought processes indicate incipient mania. To the contrary, the fiancé was clearly a psychopath who survived the war and has now returned to kill Mrs. Drover on the twenty-fifth anniversary of their parting. Impelled by an unconscious desire to escape from an impoverished and unfulfilling marriage, she becomes the victim in a "murder mystery of high drama."
Fraustino's analysis rightly identifies some serious flaws in Hughes's reading—there is indeed little evidence that Mrs. Drover suffered an emotional collapse after the loss of her fiancé—but in making his own case he is guilty, if not of interpolation, certainly of exaggeration. To counter Hughes's argument that Mrs. Drover's disarrayed house, which Bowen describes in characteristic detail, reflects her internal collapse, Fraustino claims that she has had an unsatisfactory marriage, marked by years of "accumulated emptiness." Her London house is an objective correlative, not of Mrs. Drover's psychological state, but of her "impoverished married life" (Fraustino).
There is nothing in "The Demon Lover," however, to indicate that Mrs. Drover is dissatisfied with her marriage. After some years without being courted, she married William Drover at the age of 32, settled down in a "quiet, arboreal part of Kensington" (Ivy), and began to raise three children. When the bombs drove the family out of London, they settled in the country, and on the day of the story, wearing the pearls her husband had given her on their wedding, she has returned to the city to retrieve some things from their house. Empty of any human presence, it now seems to her full of "dead air" (Ivy) and "traces of her long former habit of life" (Ivy): a smoke stain up the fireplace, a watermark left by a vase on an escritoire, and scratch marks left on the floor by a piano. These may be images of emptiness, repetition, and stagnation, but they underline the absence of the family and its normal human interaction, not dissatisfaction with the marriage. She is a "prosaic" woman (Ivy), whose "movements as Mrs. Drover [are] circumscribed" (Ivy), and her marriage is simply conventional.
Fraustino's view of Mrs. Drover as a discontented wife in an unfulfilling marriage runs into difficulty when he attempts to make her behavior relevant to the murder mystery plot. Like Hughes, he regards the title of "The Demon Lover" as an allusion to the English ballad about an absent lover, an intervening marriage, and a desertion from that marriage upon the lover's return. Bowen's story, however, has no indication whatsoever that Mrs. Drover intends or attempts, even fleetingly, to abandon her marriage. As a result, Fraustino can voice only the vaguest, most guarded of suppositions: "is it not possible that Bowen at least suggests Mrs. Drover's desertion?" (Fraustino).
Finally, to build his case for murder, Fraustino interprets the character of the fiancé in a way surely not justified by the text. He rightly emphasizes that the young soldier was never tender and loving, that he was "without feeling," and that he extracted an "unnatural promise" from Kathleen. When, however, he notes that she left the encounter with a weal on her palm, which he had "pressed, without very much kindness and painfully, on to one of the breast buttons of his uniform," Fraustino concludes that "the soldier is a sadist of the most deranged kind . . . a psychopath." Cold, unfeeling, and disconcerting the fiancé certainly is, but can his behavior really be called sadistic, deranged, or psychopathic? If not, how credible is it that he would return to kill his lover of 25 years earlier?
As Fraustino admits, his reading of "The Demon Lover" as a realistic murder story invites several practically unanswerable questions: "how the taxi-driver knew that Mrs. Drover would be visiting her London house on that particular day, or how he managed to engineer events so cleverly that she would inevitably seek a taxi precisely on the hour of seven, can only be guessed." After suggesting that Mrs. Drover may have gone to London in an unconscious response to the twenty-fifth anniversary and arranged in advance for a taxi, he confesses that the story does not provide enough information "to reconstruct a completely rational, satisfying interpretation of events."
If, then, there is no completely "rational" interpretation—and both the Hughes and Fraustino readings are attempts at rational explanations—could the story be operating on another level? Given her other writing, Bowen is unlikely merely to have written a ghost story or a tale of murder, though she does elsewhere explore psychological breakdown. In connection with this last point, however, it is important to see "The Demon Lover" in the context of the period in which it was written and of the collection in which it was published. In writing of the wartime milieu in the preface to the American edition, Bowen states that the stories "may be found interesting as documents, even if they are negligible as art. This discontinuous writing, nominally 'inventive,' is the only diary I have kept" (Ivy). It is as a wartime "document," then, a "diary" entry of a woman's response to yet another war, that "The Demon Lover" perhaps can be most clearly understood.
Elizabeth Bowen was not only keenly sensitive to political and social developments around her—witness her article on Ireland's neutrality in The Spectator in 1941—but immersed in the British literary scene. As such, she is likely to have read Vera Brittain's book about another writer, Winnifred Holtby, Testament of Friendship, first published in January 1940. There she would have seen the following passage:
There are to-day in England—and in France and Germany and Austria and Italy, one imagines—women peacefully married to men whom they respect, for whom they feel deep affection and whose children they have borne, who will yet turn heartsick and lose colour at the sight of a khaki-clad figure, a lean ghost from a lost age, a word, a memory. These are they whose youth was violently severed by war and death; a word on the telephone, a scribbled line on paper, and their future ceased. They have built up their lives again, but their safety is not absolute, their fortress not impregnable.
Brittain is here quoting Holtby's review of Pamela Hinkson's novel The Deeply Rooted, published in Good Housekeeping in 1935, and the phenomenon it describes was common enough that Frances Partridge, on reading the passage, noted in his diary:
Vera Brittain writes of the number of women now happily married and with children who still hark back to a khaki ghost which stands for the most acute and upsetting feelings they have ever had in their lives. Which is true, I think, and the worst of it is that the ghost is almost entirely a creature of their imagination.
There is no proof that Bowen read either Holtby's review or Brittain's reiteration of it, but its similarity to the plot of "The Demon Lover" is so striking that it could well have provided the idea for her story. Mrs. Drover has built up her life after losing a fiancé through war, has peacefully married and raised children, and certainly has her safety shattered and her "fortress" proven not to be "impregnable" by the appearance of some "lean ghost from a lost age."
If Bowen were writing only about the women haunted by the memories of lovers lost in the First World War, however, she is hardly likely to portray Mrs. Drover's fiancé in such harsh, negative terms. After all, few women would mourn the loss of a painful presence or have their present settled lives dislocated by its return. The formula demands a loving fiancé described in such detail as to evoke a sense of poignancy when he is lost. In Bowen's story, there is nothing sensitive or kind about the soldier, and, more remarkably, he is in no way individualized. We are given the barest of details, not about his features, but about his uniform, and his face remains hidden by the darkness. This lack of identity is emphasized again later when Bowen writes: "She remembered—but with one white burning blank as where acid has dropped on a photograph: Under no conditions could she remember his face" (Ivy, original italics). Though this is obviously a very significant element in the story, both Hughes and Fraustino give it little attention. Hughes briefly suggests that the facelessness is the result of Mrs. Drover's faulty memory 25 years after the event, and Fraustino makes no mention of it.
Such an unusual treatment of the soldier suggests that he is meant to represent something quite different from the conventional lost lover, something perhaps arising from the conditions and times in which "The Demon Lover" was written. In 1935, sparked by Holtby's review, Bowen might well have described the unsettling recollection of lost love. Several years into the Second World War, when Britons were facing the real possibility of annihilation of their culture and civilization, she is more likely to have invested the soldier with a more ominous significance. In the midst of one war, a relic from an earlier one that was to have been the war to end all wars, would be a ghastly symbol of endless, inescapable violence.
In his forward to Writers on World War II, Mordecai Richler calls the Second World War "no more than a second act," and it has become commonplace to refer to the inter-war period as "the Long Armistice." The realization that the years from 1919 to 1939 were merely a temporary respite from armed conflict, however, came early to many thinking Britons. The Yorkshire novelist Phyllis Bentley, for example, wrote of "the armistice period [1919-1939] in British fiction" in the New York Times in August of 1941. Bowen, born in 1899 and having worked in a hospital for shell-shocked soldiers in 1916, could hardly have escaped feeling that the violence of one war had been let loose again in another.
Looked at as allegory, much in "The Demon Lover" becomes explicable. The present action takes place in August 1941, and the earlier parting took place in August 1916, almost exactly half way through a war that began in August—just as August 1939 had seen Europe rushing into another conflagration. The faceless, featureless soldier becomes a representative figure, a threatening everyman in military uniform. The absence of kindness, his not "meaning a person well" (Ivy), his being "set upon" (Ivy) Kathleen rather than in love with her, suggest that she is gripped by a force that is seductive but not benign. That she is in the presence of something demonic is conveyed by the "spectral glitters" she imagines "in the place of his eyes" (Ivy). The experience of war could hardly be more vividly embodied than in the image of the young woman's hand being so forcefully pressed onto the buttons of a military uniform that they leave a weal on her palm. Tennessee Williams employs a similar metaphor in The Glass Menagerie when he describes the American middle class "having their fingers pressed forcibly down on the fiery Braille alphabet of a dissolving economy." In Bowen's story, "the cut on the palm of her hand was, principally, what [Kathleen] was to carry away" (Ivy).
Kathleen takes something else away from her encounter with the soldier, though it becomes forgotten in her subsequent inter-war life: "the unnatural promise" (Ivy) Inexplicable in conventional terms, Bowen's language here becomes more understandable if it suggests complicity with war. In perhaps the last major war that the public approached with zealous idealism, in which women saw men off to battle amid banners and brass bands, and in which they gave white feathers to young men not in uniform, it would seem that they "could not have plighted a more sinister troth" (Ivy).
Just as war subsumes normal human life and interaction, Kathleen experienced a "complete suspension of her existence during that August week" (Ivy) when, she is told, she was not herself. In the years immediately following her loss, she suffered a "complete dislocation from everything" (Ivy), just as the western world went through a decade of dislocation—whether it was the Roaring Twenties in America or the era of Evelyn Waugh's Bright Young Things in Britain—in reaction to the disillusionment and horror of the First World War. And just as the 1930s brought the world back to a sober confrontation with serious issues of economics and politics, Kathleen's thirties made her again "natural enough" (as opposed to the "unnatural promise") to return to a conventional pattern of living. She married the prosaically named William Drover, and settled complacently down, convinced that they were not "still watched" (Ivy).
For many people in Britain, the 1930s was a period of similar complacency, grounded on the assumption that war had been "presumed killed" by the Treaty of Versailles and the creation of the League of Nations, and that appeasement would prevent its return. As we now know, however, the seeds of the second armed conflict had been sown and not eradicated in the first. Kathleen had thought that her khaki-clad demon was "going away such a long way," but his reply, "not so far as you think" (Ivy) suggests that war was never remote, no matter how normal and settled her life and that of her fellow citizens. The inevitability in his "I shall be with you, sooner or later. . . . You need do nothing but wait" (Ivy) matches the seeming inexorable march to September 1939 when, in the words of his letter, "in view of the fact that nothing has changed" (Ivy) the European powers had to return to their "sinister troth" with war.
But Kathleen is not haunted by her demon lover in September 1939. Total war did not really touch those in Britain until the following summer, and then she and her family were isolated from its full horror by living in the country. It is when she returns to London's deserted streets, cracked chimneys, and her shut-up, bomb-damaged house that she receives the letter. "The hollowness of the house this evening canceled years on years of voices, habits and steps" (Ivy), putting her back into the more dominant awareness of war, and so her demon soldier appears—on one level perhaps an hallucination but on another a symbol of war that will not go away.
In her 1916 parting from her fiancé, Kathleen had suffered a "complete suspension of her existence" when she was "not herself ; and the final lines of the story return to this idea, but much more dramatically and terrifyingly. Several moments after the taxi moves off, she remembers that she has not "said where," in other words that she has given no instruction and that she no longer controls the direction of her life. Bowen treats the taxi, normally an island of security in London's streets, as a brutal machine in a brutally mechanized age; the jolt of the driver's braking throws Kathleen forward so violently that her head is nearly forced into the glass. This places her six inches from the driver's face, and as they stare "for an eternity eye to eye" (Ivy), she recognizes what she could not remember in the features of her fiancé 25 years earlier: the face of war itself.
Like most allegorical readings, this interpretation of "The Demon Lover" will invite questions, and some of the suggested parallels may not persuade everyone. It should be remembered, though, that other tales in Ivy Gripped the Steps and Other Stories are fantastic and hallucinatory but above all about people's experience of war. In "Mysterious Kôr" a young woman is preoccupied by a waking dream of escape to the mythical city of Kôr, arguing that "if you can blow places out of existence, you can blow places into it" (Ivy). In "The Happy Autumn Fields," another young woman seems to lead a dual existence: one in London during the Blitz and one in the country at the turn of the century. Neither story is totally explicable in rational terms, but both dramatize what Bowen called "resistance to the annihilation that was threatening [them]—war" (Ivy).
"The Demon Lover" is another reaction to that threatened annihilation but also a reminder of its origins. Always conscious of the formative influence of the past, Bowen wrote a book about her family home, Bowen's Court, in 1942, and in an afterword stated: "War is not an accident: it is an outcome. One cannot look back too far to ask, of what?" (Bowen's Court). "The Demon Lover" links the Second World War to the First and concludes horrifically that our "sinister troth" with war is inescapable. The final image of Kathleen trapped in a taxi "accelerating without mercy" into the "hinterland of deserted streets" (Ivy) perfectly captures the feelings of millions of people who in 1941 seemed to be propelled at an increasingly frenzied pace into a European wasteland of rubble and death. Like Kathleen, they could only scream.
Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 144
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 life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, 1945-1960; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-18, 41-44 (rev. ed.); Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 35; Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 2; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 3, 6, 11, 15, 22; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 15, 162; Discovering Authors: Novelists Module; Major 20th-century Writers; and Short Story Criticism, Vol. 3.
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