Style and Technique

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Last Updated on April 19, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 462

“The Demon Lover,” a third-person narrative, achieves its effects by means of the technique of juxtaposition. What appears at first to be a tale of the supernatural becomes in fact an account of a nervous breakdown. The imaginative paralleling of the ghost tale and the case history is achieved primarily through concentration on the details of setting. The boarded-up house, the reluctant lock, the dead air of the hallway, the mysterious letter for whose presence no rational explanation can be made, the mysterious lover from the past, the chiming bells emphasizing the passage of clock time as opposed to emotional time, the betrothed who seems to have no will of her own, and the persistent rain all combine to create a compelling and provocative ambience. Even the claw marks made on the floor by the absent piano assume an eerie significance.

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The story also makes use of flashbacks to emphasize the notion that the past, though forgotten, exists in the mind to be recalled by the symbols and images of the present. The girl Kathleen promises in 1916 to marry a soldier who dies in the war. She suffers a psychic “dislocation,” the seriousness of which she does not fully comprehend. No suitable young men present themselves for marriage for at least a decade, a comment on the decimation of a generation by the machine of war. Kathleen marries at the age of thirty-two and has two children. She is, furthermore, in her early forties, confronting another change in her life. She is like the cracked teacup mentioned in the story, from which time has evaporated, leaving a residue of memory. There are in Kathleen’s psyche, symbolized by the house, “cracks in the structure,” and there is nothing that she can do about them.

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The letter signed K., her own initial, may be a hallucination, a means of restoring the past to the present. Dependable, prosaic Kathleen Drover, her family’s mainstay against time and change, succumbs to the pressures of World War II. The fear of death from the sky, the feeling of desuetude and decay brought to the city by the blitz, and the burdens of responsibility to herself as she was and as she is all combine to catalyze a nervous collapse that manifests itself as the return of a former lover from the dead.

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The most compelling sequence in the story, Proustian in the immediacy with which it is rendered, is that in which Kathleen recovers the past as her younger self says good-bye to her doomed young lover in her family’s garden. Past emotion overwhelms present inhibitions to fuse into a single overwhelming sensation: Kathleen reexperiences her promise and looks to her palm, feeling again the welt left by the button of her lover’s uniform.

Literary Style

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Point of View

The story is told in third-person omniscient narration, which gives the reader a godlike perspective, unrestricted by time or place, allowing the reader to look into the minds of the characters. The story focuses primarily on Mrs. Drover’s perceptions. At times the narration switches to the first-person point of view, or the point of view of a certain character, and then reverts to third-person, to heighten the intensity of Mrs. Drover’s feelings. This breaks the flow of the narrative and enables the reader to directly perceive her thoughts.

Setting

Setting is a particularly important aspect in “The Demon Lover.” The story takes place in a house with “some cracks in the structure, left by the last bombing” that is situated on a deserted street and gives an eerie atmosphere to the story. This is intensified by descriptions of the humid day, Mrs. Drover’s tension before the rain starts up again, and the mysterious draft from the basement. The striking of the clock intrudes into the story, highlighting the passage of time and the encounter that Mrs. Drover is apprehensively expecting.

The time and place of the story is also significant. It takes place during the Second World War, specifically during the German Blitz in London. Mrs. Drover also thinks back to the First World War and confounds the two.

Symbolism

The structurally unsound house serves as a symbol of Mrs. Drover’s mental state. The constant bombardment has eroded the house’s stability, just as the constant pressure of the war has worn on Mrs. Drover’s psyche. She cannot escape the effects of war when she enters the house, and the letter, signed with her own initial, “K,” becomes a symbol of her repressed consciousness of that war and triggers memories of her World War I soldier-lover. The soldier-lover, in turn, becomes a symbol for all war, an everyman with an unknown face, whose promise to be with her takes on a frightening significance in wartime London. She has to release some of her repressed memories, perhaps symbolized by the air which escapes from the basement of the house and her screams when she sees the face of the driver—a face she sees as the face of her demon lover. The reader can interpret this as a sign of her mental breakdown, her subjective interpretation of events, or as a symbol for the face of war.

Gothicism

As suggested by the title, the story plays with the theme of the demon lover, the figure in gothic literature who comes back to take away his unfaithful lover who has broken her promise to wait for him. In the ballad, she goes with him happily, only to find that he is taking her to her death. Here the soldier makes the promise to be with Kathleen, but she cannot remember what he looks like. Mrs. Drover is haunted by her memories, and Bowen implies that the face of the taxi driver is the face of the demon lover sweeping her away to places unknown.

Themes and Meanings

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“The Demon Lover” can be read as a modern retelling of the folk legend and the ballads concerning the return of a lover from the dead to reclaim his earthly bride. As such, the story fulfills the finest demands of the tradition, for K. returns from the dead to exact from Kathleen the promise she made to him twenty-five years earlier. The taxi ride into an Unreal City at the story’s end suggests that the lover has found his bride and is holding her to her bargain, to be his in death as in life. However, this is perhaps not the most rewarding meaning of Elizabeth Bowen’s story.

In a postscript to The Demon Lover (1945), a collection that contains “The Demon Lover” along with other stories that examine the effects of war on those who stay at home, Elizabeth Bowen addresses the central theme of the volume: “life, mechanized by the control of war-time . . . emotionally torn and impoverished by change.” In “The Demon Lover” the intensity of an emotion lived in one period of war is revived twenty-five years later by the pressures of another war. The essential meaning of the story can then be interpreted as a nervous collapse brought on by war. Insofar as most novels and stories dealing with war concentrate on the conflict itself, Bowen’s view of the effects on civilians of war’s devastation is remarkable.

Historical Context

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World War II and the Blitzkrieg

The short story collection The Demon Lover and Other Stories (1945), published in America as Ivy Gripped the Steps and Other Stories (1946), was written between 1941 and 1944, when Bowen worked in London at the Ministry of Information during the day and as an air-raid warden at night. She lived in London during the most intense period of the German air assault during World War II. Bombs with warheads of almost one ton began falling on London on September 8, 1944, and later that year the V-2 (revenge weapon 2) bombs began to fall. More than one thousand of these landed in Britain, killing over 2,700 people and injuring 6,500.

The setting of “The Demon Lover” is the empty streets of London, whose inhabitants have fled the destruction of their homes.

Against the next batch of clouds, already piling up ink-dark, broken chimneys and parapets stood out. 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 door . . . had warped . . . [and] dead air came out to meet her as she went in.

The scene is ominous as she creeps up the darkened stairs and opens the bedroom door. Unlike others, however, her house has only a few cracks in it, and she can still open a window despite nighttime blackout conditions.

The reader is spared the noise of the V-2s, as she does not stay there at night, but the silence of the deserted streets is “so intense—one of those creeks of London silence exaggerated this summer by the damage of war.” The general historical context of the war—of both wars—is crucial to an understanding of the story.

World War I

The figure of the soldier-lover from World War I is crucial to Mrs. Drover’s state of mind. He appears vividly in her memory twenty-five years later, although she still cannot remember his face. He had been on leave from France when he promised that he would be with her “sooner or later,” no matter what happened to him. She thinks that he is going far away, but the battlefields in France were relatively close to England. She remembers how his sharp uniform breast buttons cut her hand and the way she looked at him as if he were already a ghost.

Douglas A. Hughes argues in “Cracks in the Psyche: Elizabeth Bowen’s ‘The Demon Lover’,” in the Fall 1993 issue of Studies in Short Fiction, that Mrs. Drover has a breakdown after her love is reported missing in action. “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 imagination.” Hughes argues that she never overcomes her trauma from this loss, though she is able to marry and live cautiously. The house and letter trigger the eruption of Mrs. Drover’s repressed past and her memories of World War I into the present. As the letter-writer states, “nothing has changed.” War seems to grow in scale, and Mrs. Drover cannot cope mentally. By compounding the psychological stress of two global conflicts within the span of a single generation, Bowen has placed an exceedingly heavy burden on the shoulders of her protagonist.

Media Adaptations

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“The Demon Lover” was adapted for radio broadcast on August 27, 1946, and was read by Evelyn Russell.

“The Demon Lover” was also produced on January 10, 1974, from the original adaptation, for Radio 4, Bristol, England.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources

Farrelly, John, “The Art of Elizabeth Bowen,” in New York Times Book Review, April 7, 1946, pp. 1, 37.

Green, James L. and George O’Brien, “Elizabeth Bowen,” in Critical Survey of Short Fiction, edited by Frank N. Magill, pp. 261–8. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Salem Press, 1993.

May, Charles E., “ ‘The Demon Lover,’ by Elizabeth Bowen, 1945,” Reference Guide to Short Fiction, edited by Noelle Watson, pp. 688–9. Detroit: St. James Press, 1994.

Stern, James, “War and Peace,” in New Republic, April 29, 1946, pp. 628–630.

Further Reading

Austin, Allan E., Elizabeth Bowen, Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1989, p. 100.
A study of Bowen’s life and works, with a chapter on the short stories, giving her literary and historical context.

Book Review Digest, 1946, pp. 83–84.
Entry consists of excerpts from contemporary book reviews of Bowen’s collection of short stories in which “The Demon Lover” first appeared.

Partridge, A. C., “Language and Identity in the Shorter Fiction of Elizabeth Bowen,” in Irish Writers and Society at Large, Irish Literary Studies 22, edited by Masaru Sekine, Colin Smythe & Barnes and Noble, 1985, pp. 169–80.
This article compares Bowen’s short fiction to that of Henry James. It only refers to the collection of The Demon Lover and Other Stories and does not analyze the title story.

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