An Overview of “The Demon Lover”

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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 safety when she married William Drover, and that very sense of safety is threatened by the environment in which she finds herself when she returns to bomb-damaged London for the day.

The gloomy atmosphere of the story contributes greatly to whichever interpretation we choose to embrace. All of Bowen's critics stress the significance of the wartime setting—the damaged house and deserted street—and the lowering weather, with the sudden rainstorm in the middle of the story and the silence afterwards where nothing (and everything) has changed. In such a setting, the sound of the clock striking becomes heightened and ominous to Mrs. Drover.

Inside the house, Kathleen is once again in her old married setting, feeling isolated, lonely, and apprehensive. Her vulnerability is made clear in the passage in which the narrator notes, "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.’’ Kathleen is completely caught in the existential moment, feeling alone as she has not felt in years; and the letter, whether written by the lover or existing only in her own subconscious, affects her deeply.

The letter is particularly significant in its wording—"The years have gone by at once slowly and fast. In view of the fact that nothing has changed, I shall rely on you to keep your promise.’’ For Kathleen, World War I has begun again; in that sense, nothing has changed between her lover and herself. The writer of the letter also implies that he has been watching Mrs. Drover's movements, as he knows she has left her London home. Mrs. Drover's situation is made clearer at this point: Either her ghostly lover is sadistic and playing games with her or the message in the letter exists only in her own mind.

Kathleen herself doubts the reality of the letter, though she is frightened by the fact that it got into the house, and wonders who put it there. She has the sense of an inexorable fate waiting to confront her. To convey this intensity of feeling, Bowen adjusts the narrative voice, switching abruptly from a third-person omniscient narrator into Kathleen's own voice, first-person narration. For example, Bowen writes that "at the thought of the taxi her heart went up and her normal breathing resumed. I will ring up the taxi now; the taxi cannot come too soon: I shall hear the taxi out there running its engine, till I walk calmly down to it through the hall. I'll ring up—But no: the telephone is cut off.... She tugged at a knot she had tied wrong.’’ This transition into stream-of-consciousness narration makes us aware of Mrs. Drover's attempt at calm and just how fragile her mental state is. She is hanging on grimly to her sanity, trying not to let herself be spooked by what she encounters.

The issue of Mrs. Drover's perceptions arises again when, for the second time in the story, she thinks back to the condition of her mental state twenty-five years earlier, when she was pressured to make her "unnatural promise'' to the soldier. Again, Bowen shifts her narrator into first-person:

She remembered not only all that he said and did but the complete suspension of her existence during that August week. I was not myself—they all told me so at the time. She remembered—but with one white burning blank as where acid has dropped on a photograph: under no conditions could she remember his face.

So, wherever he may be waiting, I shall not know him. You have no time to run from a face you do not expect.

The narrative here is even more choppy than in other, earlier instances of stream-of-consciousness. In addition, the first transition from third- to first-person narrative is signalled by quotation marks; in the next two instances there are no signs for us. This shift in narrative technique is made to illustrate Kathleen's increasing mental fragility and agitation.

The critic Douglas A. Hughes has argued for a close identification between Kathleen's mental state and the damaged house, claiming that Kathleen, completely isolated from familiar landmarks and people, is ready for a mental collapse. According to this reading, she imagines the letter, the idea of it issuing from the repressed part of her psyche. Consumed with guilt at the memory of her betrayal of her soldier-lover, she thinks that the taxi-driver is her old lover and goes completely insane at the story's end, overwhelmed by the effects of war—old and new. To Kathleen, there is no end to the landscape of war, and past and present fuse in her mind. At the story's end, we do not know where she is being taken, but she definitely is in the grip of a force stronger than she, bringing us back again to the story's title and the theme of the demon lover.

What, then, is the demon that haunts her? Is it, as Hughes suggests, the demon of her repressed memories? Or is it, as Calder suggests, the war itself? War brings with it not only death but a sense of powerlessness to those caught up in it, a feeling of the loss of control over their lives. Perhaps, as various critics have hinted, the story does simply address fictively and delicately one woman's reaction to living with war.

Source: Tanya Gardiner-Scott, ‘‘An Overview of 'The Demon Lover',’’ in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 1999.
Gardiner-Scott is an Associate Professor at Mount Ida College.

“A More Sinister Troth”: Elizabeth Bowen’s “The Demon Lover” as Allegory

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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'’’ [Studies in Short Fiction 10,1973]. ‘‘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 fiance'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.

In 1980, in an article entitled "Elizabeth Bowen's 'The Demon Lover': Psychosis or Seduction?,’’ [Studies in Short Fiction 17, 1980] 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 fiance or was gripped by ‘‘psychotic guilt,’’ and nothing in her thought processes indicate incipient mania. To the contrary, the fiance 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 fiance—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.''

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,’’ 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'' and "traces of her long former habit of life'': 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, whose ‘‘movements as Mrs. Drover [are] circumscribed,’’ 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?’’

Finally, to build his case for murder, Fraustino interprets the character of the fiance 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 fiance 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 "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 Gripped the Steps and Other Stories, 1946]. 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....
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 fiance 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 fiance 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’’ (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 [1991], 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 halfway 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,’’ his being ‘‘set upon’’ 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.'' 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’’ [Twentieth Century Drama, eds. Ruby Cohn and Bernard Dukore, 1966]. In Bowen's story, ‘‘the cut on the palm of her hand was, principally, what [Kathleen] was to carry away.’’

Kathleen takes something else away from her encounter with the soldier, though it becomes forgotten in her subsequent inter-war life: "the unnatural promise.’’ 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.''

Just as war subsumes normal human life and interaction, Kathleen experienced a "complete suspension of her existence during that August week'' when, she is told, she was not herself. In the years immediately following her loss, she suffered a "complete dislocation from everything," 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.’’

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'' 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’’ matches the seeming inexorable march to September 1939 when, in the words of his letter, "in view of the fact that nothing has changed’’ 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,’’ 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 fiance, 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,’’ she recognizes what she could not remember in the features of her fiance 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 Kor'' a young woman is preoccupied by a waking dream of escape to the mythical city of Kor, arguing that "if you can blow places out of existence, you can blow places into it.’’ 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.’’

"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 [1964], 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?" "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'' 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.

Source: Robert L. Calder, '‘‘A More Sinister Troth': Elizabeth Bowen's 'The Demon Lover' as Allegory,’’ in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 31, No. 1, Winter, 1994, pp. 91-7.

Elizabeth Bowen’s “The Demon Lover”: Psychosis or Seduction?

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In a major article on Elizabeth Bowen's ‘‘The Demon Lover,’’ Douglass A. Hughes dismisses the popular ghost-story interpretation and advances his own psychological one. The story, he says, is ‘‘a masterful dramatization of acute psychological delusion, of the culmination of paranoia in a time of war.... War, not a vengeful lover, is the demon that overwhelms this rueful woman'' [Studies in Short Fiction, 10 (1973)]. To support his argument, Hughes maintains that "the narrator subtly but clearly indicates why the forty-four year-old woman suddenly loses her tenuous hold on reality ... and succumbs to madness.’’ His argument rests on three major premises: that as a young girl Mrs. Drover suffered a ‘‘severe nervous breakdown’’ from which she never fully recovered; that her visit to her war-ravaged home occasions a ‘‘threshold experience that activates her dormant hysteria’’; and finally, that the contents of the letter, the man's leaving the basement, and the demon lover as taxi driver are all ‘‘examples of hallucination,’’ figments of her weakening mind. Yet, however convincing on the surface, Hughes' \s argument rests not on his close reading of the text but on his interpolation of several key points; and a careful analysis of his argument not only discards his major points but also suggests an interpretation that avoids textual misrepresentation and presents this short, enigmatic story in its original intent: a well-wrought mystery of high suspense.

In examining Hughes's delusion-madness theory, we must first carefully consider the initial premise upon which he builds everything else: that the young Kathleen suffered a ‘‘severe nervous breakdown’’ subsequent to her fiance's assumed death—a trauma, Hughes claims, her married life ‘‘shored up against'' and assuaged. For, he claims, her visit to her war-damaged house ushers her into the buried and forgotten past, disinterring old "feelings of loss and guilt'' that lead to her final hysteria. But Hughes's theory clearly interpolates a text that says nothing to suggest Mrs. Drover's emotional collapse after the loss of her fiance. The narrator merely remarks that she suffered a "dislocation" (albeit ‘‘complete’’) and that her thirteen years of anxiety (the text warrants no stronger word here), which Hughes insinuates to be part of her "breakdown," came to pass as prospective lovers "failed to appear.'' Hughes correctly observes that at the time of the story Mrs. Drover bears a facial tick (the remnant, the narrator tells us, of a former ‘‘quite serious illness’’), but he mistakenly attributes it to the loss of her fiance. The story clearly states that the illness attended ‘‘the birth of the third of her little boys.'' Hence, we must conclude that the married years between the loss of her fiance and the time of the story did not ‘‘shore up against'' her original trauma (a trauma Hughes clearly exaggerates); rather, these years seem to have witnessed the causes of her present emotional difficulties.

Hughes correctly notes that the house is an ‘‘objective correlative of Mrs. Drover's psychological state,’’ but he fails to consider that it may also symbolize her life with William Drover, a man she married out of desperation after other suitors failed to appear. Thus, the house does not signify a fundamentally disturbed mentality, ravaged as it may be, issuing from a buried trauma; it reflects her impoverished married life. And this conclusion seems more fitting: the house in the story is the one she ‘‘settled down in’’ as a married woman, not the one she grew up in during the Great War. The landmarks and objects Mrs. Drover encounters upon entering her home are not, as Hughes declares, significant in triggering her "dormant hysteria'' for her lost fiance; they are significant in presenting the ‘‘piled up’’ years of accumulated emptiness. Thus, images of age and death, of repetition and stagnation, proliferate in the description of the house. The street Mrs. Drover's house faces is an ‘‘unused channel,’’ and her ‘‘long former ... life’’ with her family, a "habit." The ‘‘yellow smoke-stain up the white marble mantelpiece," "the ring left by a vase on the top of the escritoire," "the bruise in the wallpaper where... the china handle had always hit the wall," ‘'the claw-marks'' left on the parquet by the piano—all suggest the repetitious character of Mrs. Drover's "prosaic" life.

Finally, in examining Hughes's delusion-madness thesis we must search the text for evidence that Bowen intended the contents of the letter and the man leaving the basement to be understood as delusions, evidence of Mrs. Drover's relaxed grip on reality—assumptions Hughes himself finds "difficult to accept.’’ Indeed, if presenting delusions is Bowen's aim, she goes about it strangely, for she seems to emphasize her protagonist's lucidity, as when Mrs. Drover first sees the letter addressed to her on the hall table:

... then the caretaker must be back. All the same, who, seeing the house shuttered, would have dropped a letter in at the box? It was not a circular, it was not a bill. And the post office redirected, to the address in the country, everything for her that came through the post. The caretaker (even if he were back) did not know she was due in London today—her call here had been planned to be a surprise—so his negligence in the manner of this letter, leaving it to wait in the dusk and the dust, annoyed her.

Clearly, nothing in Mrs. Drover's thought processes indicates an incipient mania; nor do we sense ‘‘psychotic guilt’’ (as does Hughes) in her attempts to objectify matters by polishing a clear patch in a mirror and looking "at once urgently and stealthily in.’’ In fact, her attempts to ‘‘rally herself’’ by ‘‘shutting her eyes’’ and telling ‘‘herself that she had imagined the letter’’ render Hughes's theory even more unconvincing. Also, and importantly, the narrator characterizes Mrs. Drover as a woman whose "utter dependability was the keystone of her family life.’’

In the preface to Ivy Gripped the Steps Miss Bowen states that the stories in the volume contain "hallucinations''; she adds, however, that the "hallucinations in the stories are not a peril; nor are the stories studies of mental peril.’’ She further states that the stories form an organic whole; they do not appear in the "time-order in which they were first written,’’ but rather in a sequence that enhances their ‘‘cumulative and collective meaning.’’ Therefore, the position "The Demon Lover'' occupies in this volume should in some way reflect the story's meaning. For example, the story's appearance exactly midway in the volume seems to rule out any extravagant interpretation like Hughes's madness theory; and the low-keyed story that follows it, ‘‘Careless Talk,’’ reinforces this reading approach. Also, if the volume contains a clue to the meaning of ‘‘The Demon Lover,’’ it probably lies in the story that immediately precedes: "Songs My Father Sang Me.’’ Set in post-World War I England, the story describes a young soldier's disaffection with peacetime, with civilian life, and with his insensitive, security-conscious wife. The story ends with his desertion from her and his infant daughter. ‘‘The Demon Lover’’ does not exactly duplicate this theme of desertion, but it does suggest a motive for infidelity and perhaps an unconscious reason for Mrs. Drover's wanting to escape: an unfulfilling marriage that was a mistake from the start. Hughes is correct: Mrs. Drover is not consciously or ‘‘in reality ... a faithless woman,’’ but he ignores Mrs. Drover's deep and lingering dissatisfaction with her marriage and the ‘‘quite serious illness’’ after the birth of her third boy that may, like the soldier in ‘‘Songs My Father Sang Me,’’ signify her growing unconscious need to escape. Bowen's selection of the title for her story may in this regard be illuminating: the theme of the English ballad of the same title is desertion—an inconstant woman's marriage in the absence of her lover, and her final desertion from her husband and children upon her lover's return, a lover now ostensibly wealthy but in fact the devil himself.

In view of Bowen's allusion and her concern with the theme of desertion in the story that precedes "The Demon Lover'' is it not possible that Bowen at least suggests Mrs. Drover's unconscious desertion? Clearly, part of the answer lies in the identity of the taxi driver. Does Mrs. Drover hallucinate, as Hughes maintains, thereby mistaking the driver for her former fiance? If so, why amidst her violent screams and beating hands does he accelerate ‘‘without mercy’’? Here Miss Bowen's choice of words is significant, for they echo the description of the fiance at the time he courted Kathleen. Described as "without feeling,’’ the soldier appears incapable of love in a normal sense. "He was never kind to me,’’ Mrs. Drover reminisces. ‘‘I don't remember him kind at all. Mother said he never considered me. He was set on me, that was what it was—not love. Not love, not meaning a person well.’’ During her mysterious romance, Kathleen was never kissed but rather "drawn away from and looked at.’’ And the ‘‘unnatural promise’’ isn't the only reminder she has of him, for she carries a "weal" on the palm which he ‘‘pressed, without very much kindness, and painfully, on to one of the breast buttons of his uniform.’’ Clearly, the soldier is a sadist of the most deranged kind. Not surprisingly then, he chooses to celebrate their anniversary, twenty-five years to the day, in the only way consistent with his destructive sense of love: with Mrs. Drover's homicide. As in the ballad, the fiance has returned (importantly he was only ‘‘presumed dead’’) to claim his lover-victim on their silver anniversary. In Bowen's story, however, he is a psychopath, not the devil. He left the note for her, and it's he Mrs. Drover hears leaving the basement.

This interpretation may not suggest the answer to every question the reader may have. How the taxi driver-lover 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. However, the story does not totally lack clues that rationally explain the events of that day—events that otherwise appear either totally unrelated (thus supporting Hughes's theory of Mrs. Drover's hysteria) or else supernaturally arranged. For instance, the text indicates that the taxi's arrival may have been prearranged, for Mrs. Drover states that she "will ring up the taxi now; the taxi cannot come too soon’’ (my emphasis). Also, her visit to London on the day of her silver anniversary may be related to the ‘‘unnatural promise’’ she made, the exact nature of which the reader is not told. As a young girl Kathleen may not have taken seriously or fully understood her ‘‘sinister troth,’’ but in her unfulfilled, care-worn middle age she may have all too easily, though unconsciously, fulfilled it. We can only speculate on these possibilities, however; the story's brevity and lack of detail give little information on which to reconstruct a completely rational, satisfying interpretation of all events. Moreover, the story's thrilling suspense seems almost to depend on the reader's own sense of dislocation, on the interruption of logical cause and effect—which is why the ghost story interpretation will always remain a popular and viable one.

Elizabeth Bowen's "The Demon Lover,'' then, has greater similarity to the ballad of the same title than critics have so far noted. That a basic story outline is common to both works seems reasonable: an absent lover, an intervening marriage, and a desertion from that marriage upon the lover's return. Moreover, by accepting the story as literally presenting a kidnapping and probable homicide, we need make no unwarranted suppositions about a twenty-five-year-old nervous condition, about Mrs. Drover's ‘‘psychotic guilt,’’ or about the hallucinations concerning the letter and the man's leaving the basement. Nor need we assume without the least bit of evidence a fluctuating narrative point of view—one moment an objective third-person, the next the centered consciousness of an hysteric. When the narrator states that a "draught ... emanated from the basement where a door or window was being opened by someone who chose this moment to leave the house,’’ we have no reason whatsoever to assume hallucination. Finally, while the psychological interpretation has its own special kind of appeal, this view of the story as a murder mystery of high drama will attract those students who believe that the best reading interpolates the least.

Source: Daniel V. Fraustino, ‘‘Elizabeth Bowen's 'The Demon Lover': Psychosis or Seduction?'' in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 17, No. 4, Fall, 1980, pp. 483-87.

Cracks in the Psyche: Elizabeth Bowen’s “The Demon Lover”

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In a recent study of Elizabeth Bowen, Allan E. Austin has written, '"The Demon Lover' is a ghost story that builds up and then culminates like an Alfred Hitchcock movie’’ [Elizabeth Bowen, 1971]. This misreading of Miss Bowen's unforgettable story is, to judge from my experience with student interpretations, fairly common. Far from being a supernatural story, "The Demon Lover'' is a masterful dramatization of acute psychological delusion, of the culmination of paranoia in a time of war. Because the narrative point of view is restricted to that of the patently disturbed protagonist, Mrs. Kathleen Drover, some readers may see, as the character herself certainly does, the ominous return of a ghostly lover. But in contrast to Mrs. Drover's irrational belief that she is watched and in peril, the narrator subtly but clearly indicates why the forty-four year-old woman suddenly loses her tenuous hold on reality at this particular moment and succumbs to madness.

In the English ballad "The Demon Lover,'' an inconstant woman betrays her absent lover and marries another man; but when the ostensibly wealthy lover returns years later, the woman is quick to abandon her husband and children. Too late, she discovers the lover is, in fact, the devil. Miss Bowen's story superficially resembles the ballad, and the author even relies upon the poem to suggest how Mrs. Drover views herself. In reality, however, Mrs. Drover is decidedly not a faithless woman and there is no spectral figure come from the nether world to claim her. Like all the characters in the collection of stories Ivy Gripped the Steps (published first in London as The Demon Lover), Mrs. Drover is simply an indirect casualty of war. In the First World War, at the age of nineteen, she lost her fiance, precipitating her first emotional collapse, which lasted for thirteen years. Twenty-five years later the air war in Britain has the devastating psychological effect of depriving Mrs. Drover of her recent past. War divests her of the memory of those years that separated her from the feelings of loss and guilt she experienced at the news of her fiance's disappearance. War, not a vengeful lover, is the demon that overwhelms this rueful woman.

Miss Bowen has said that the stories in Ivy Gripped the Steps form an organic whole, having grown out of the unnatural pressures experienced by the British during the last war. In the Preface to that book, she wrote, "Personal life here put up its own resistance to the annihilation that was threatening—war ... To survive, not only physically but spiritually, was essential. People whose homes had been blown up went to infinite lengths to assemble bits of themselves ... from the wreckage.’’ Finally she says, "The search for indestructible landmarks in a destructible world led many down strange paths.’’ The beauty of "The Demon Lover'' lies in the skill with which the author, in the shortest possible space, reveals how Mrs. Kathleen Drover loses her way on the path leading from a crumbling present to a permanent but terrifying past.

From the first paragraph of the story the narrator begins to attenuate and ultimately to efface the significance of the landmarks and objects Mrs. Drover associates with her recent past. Returning to the bomb-damaged and shut-up Drover house in London by her familiar street, she is struck by the ‘‘unfamiliar queerness which had silted up.’’ The whole neighborhood, which would have been animated with life in earlier years, stands silent and deserted. When Mrs. Drover pushes into the house "dead air came out to meet her as she went in,'' and she ‘‘was more perplexed than she knew’’ by the scene before her. Looking at the empty drawing room with its cold, dead hearth, she observes the traces of the life she and her family had left there: the smoke stain on the mantelpiece, the ring left by a vase on a table, the bruise left by a door handle on the wall, and the scratches left by a piano on the parquet. ‘‘Though not much dust had seeped in, each object wore a film of another kind; and, the only ventilation being the chimney, the whole drawing-room smelled of the cold hearth.'' The smell of ashes and the film covering the objects suggests the awareness of time, the presence of death. As anyone who has revisited a deserted former residence knows, the experience can be unsettling. For Mrs. Drover, psychologically maimed and predisposed to a sense of loss, the return to the house is a shattering revelation, a threshold experience that activates her dormant hysteria. In fact, Miss Bowen explicitly utilizes the war-damaged house as an objective correlative of Mrs. Drover's psychological state on this August evening. Early in the story we read, ‘‘There were some cracks in the structure [of the house], left by the last bombing, on which she was anxious to keep an eye.’’ Later the narrator says, "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 ... The hollowness of the house this evening cancelled years on years of voices, habits, and steps.’’ Thus, with the cancellation of these years, which had been shored up against the trauma of the past, Mrs. Drover is returned to that dreadful past and the threat she feels it holds for her.

This threat has no objective reality but is clearly a manifestation of Mrs. Drover's mental state. The narrator is careful to provide a brief psychological history of the protagonist to explain why she is so vulnerable to the ambiance and events within the story. After her fiance was reported missing and presumed killed in action, Kathleen Drover suffered a severe nervous breakdown, "a complete dislocation from everything.'' For nearly thirteen years she was removed from the normal connections of life and had no social relations with men. A pledge of binding love—not at all uncommon among young lovers—exchanged with her fiance before he returned to the trenches became, after his death and her subsequent derangement, a "sinister troth'' and he himself became a cold, ominous figure in her diseased imagination. During this long period she felt spied upon and vaguely threatened, but after marrying William Drover her activities "were circumscribed, and she dismissed any idea that they were still watched.’’ This is an obvious example of paranoia. Although she was apparently well enough to live an outwardly normal life, to be a wife and mother, Mrs. Drover never wholly recovered from her personal trauma of the Great War, for her "most normal expression was one of controlled worry.’’ Not long before the events of the story, she has suffered "a quite serious illness'' and is left with a facial tic, evidence of a nervous disorder. Thus the mental health of the Kathleen Drover the reader meets as the story opens is indeed fragile.

If this psychological interpretation of ‘‘The Demon Lover’’ has thus far been convincing, it should not be difficult to accept hallucination as an element in such a story dealing with paranoia. The author herself speaks in the Preface of hallucinations in the stories included in Ivy Gripped the Steps. The extraordinary letter, the man heard leaving the house by way of the basement, and finally the demon lover as taxi driver are all, I believe, examples of hallucination. Although she may find an envelope on the hall table and carry it to her former bedroom before opening it with some anxiety, the message Mrs. Drover reads is imagined, not unusual for someone suffering from psychotic guilt. On this August evening, the same month and time her fiance bade her farewell years before, conscious of ‘‘the pearls her husband had given her on their marriage,’’ she reads a message based on the irrational guilt she feels for betraying her lover. Mrs. Drover even suspects she has imagined the message. ‘‘To rally herself, she said she was in a mood—and, for two or three seconds shutting her eyes, told herself that she had imagined the letter. But she opened them—there it lay on the bed.'' The paper on the bed may well exist but the message is a fabrication of her own mind.

In the climax of the story, Mrs. Drover believes her demon lover has found her and is spiriting her off in a taxi, but again she is pitifully deluded. When she slips into the taxi that "appeared already to be alertly waiting for her,’’ the church clock strikes seven, reminding her of "the hour arranged.'' Even though she has earlier thought, ‘‘So, wherever he may be waiting I shall not know him,’’ when the clock strikes she is immediately convinced her hour has come and she takes the unsuspecting taxi driver for a fiend. At this moment Mrs. Drover passes into madness, seeing herself swept away into deserted, war-ravaged streets.

I believe most readers of "The Demon Lover'' want to view it as a ghost story, for there is an undeniable titillation in such supernatural fiction. Miss Bowen's story may be read as a ghost story if one is willing to accept the perspective of Mrs. Drover, who is obviously mentally disturbed. The author, however, provided ample evidence to suggest that the story is a pathetic psychological drama, as I have attempted to show.

Source: Douglas A. Hughes, ‘‘Cracks in the Psyche: Elizabeth Bowen's 'The Demon Lover',’’ in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 10, No. 4, Fall, 1973, pp. 411-13.

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Critical Overview


The Demon Lover, Elizabeth Bowen