An Overview of "The Demon Lover"
The title of Bowen's best-known story, ‘‘The Demon Lover,’’ refers to a Gothic ballad whose plot ‘‘focuses on a young woman's promise to love her young man for ever and await his return from battle,’’ according to Charles E. May. After her beloved fails to return from battle (the legend goes) she marries someone else—only to have the soldier-lover show up, often at the wedding in the guise of a skeletonized corpse, to claim her and carry her away to be united with him in death. "The Demon Lover’’ is a variation on this theme, being at once a ghost story and a story about a woman's precarious mental state in wartime.
A historical perspective related to warfare in the twentieth century is essential to understanding the story. We learn from hints in the story, such as "some cracks in the structure [of the house], left by the last bombing,’’ that "The Demon Lover'' takes place during the London Blitz, during World War II, while Kathleen Drover's memory of the soldier-lover extends back almost thirty years to 1916, the middle year of World War I. Understanding this is crucial, because for Kathleen the past and the present fuse into one horrid, timeless moment at the end of the story.
Through the narrator's words, Bowen links Kathleen's fateful promise of fidelity with the supernatural elements of the old ballad, noting that "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.’’ (Further, she twice refers to the pain of her soldier-lover's uniform button in the palm of her hand, fixing that detail in our minds as a symbol of that youthful relationship and the soldier's hard pressuring of her.) Indeed not; for years after the disappearance of her betrothed, Kathleen was not courted by any man, and she felt herself "watched" by unseen eyes. By contrast, after she married William Drover, ‘‘[h]er movements as Mrs. Drover were circumscribed, and she dismissed any idea that they were still watched.’’ Still, even though she has settled down for what she expects to be an ordinary domestic life, she still feels uneasy as the result of that earlier promise.
By marrying someone else, Mrs. Drover has been unfaithful to her soldier-lover, even though he is ‘‘missing, presumed killed.’’ Thus, in her own mind, she is susceptible to unresolved guilt when she remembers him. Her remembrance of him intensifies upon her finding and reading the mysterious letter in the damaged house. The letter's message unleashes her repressed memory of her lover's promise to be with her forever—and she is further haunted by the fact that she cannot even remember his face. As the reader recalls the faceless person seen leaving the house before Mrs. Drover arrived, the thought arises that perhaps this could be the ghostly lover preparing for his dramatic confrontation with Kathleen, having left her the letter. Further, the face of the taxi-driver, which makes her scream, may be the face she cannot remember, as James L. Green and George O'Brien have argued. Certainly the fact that the cabbie drives Kathleen away, ‘‘accelerating without mercy,’’ ties him linguistically to the soldier-lover (a man ‘‘without very much kindness'') as well as to the demon-lover who carries his faithless beloved away.
A related way of looking at the story, as argued by Green and O'Brien, is that both Kathleen Drover and England have been faithless to the values fought for during World War I, and therefore the menace of war goes on, with all its attendant threat of unexpected danger by forces beyond one's control, symbolized by the figure of the soldier, nameless and faceless. That she imagines him as a ghostly figure with ‘‘spectral glitters in the place of his eyes’’ keeping her from a place of safety adds to this level of meaning. She craved...
(The entire section is 8,062 words.)