Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 234

“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.

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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.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 669

Doubt and Ambiguity
The theme of appearance and reality is central to ‘‘The Demon Lover.’’ The dubiousness of the appearance of the letter puzzles Mrs. Drover. How did it get on the table? Who placed it there? Her house is obviously deserted and untouched, which makes the appearance of the letter even more enigmatic. To verify her own conception of reality, Mrs. Drover looks in the mirror, and she sees herself, looking familiar and reassuring.

The contents of the letter may suggest that the soldier-lover intends to fulfill his twenty-five-year-old promise to return and "be with'' Mrs. Drover. Is he indeed the demonic lover who has come back to take her away to her death for not keeping her promise to wait for him? This and the fact that the driver accelerates ‘‘without mercy’’ may suggest his revenge.

Her mind races, however, back in time to her mysterious, nameless soldier-lover with whom she was in love as a young girl. This vision reinforces the sense of him as potentially the "demon lover'' of the title. He is remembered not with warmth but for his sense of his power or control over her. Mrs. Drover's association of the letter with the soldier-lover makes the reality of the letter questionable, although it is a physical object. When she escapes into a taxi, she sees the face of the driver. She then starts to scream and pound the glass between them. What does she actually see? Bowen plays expertly with Mrs. Drover's and our sensibilities.

Sex Roles
Throughout the story, Mrs. Drover is portrayed as submissive, adhering to the traditionally prescribed role of a woman. She reacts passively to her soldier-lover when he hurts her hand, and she molds herself to him when they see each other. She allows William Drover to marry her because she is ‘‘relieved" that he has come to court her. She is also nervous and easily frightened by weather, the striking of the clock, and the atmosphere of the house.

Victim and Victimization
Mrs. Drover is an innocent victim of both World Wars. She loses her soldier-lover during the first and is forced to abandon her house and move to the country during the second. Her food is rationed and her house has been bombed. She is obsessed with the war and the prospect of safely returning to the countryside with her family. She also feels victimized by the memory of her soldier-lover, who exerts his power over her and makes her seem different to her family when he is there. Because of this, she believes that he may have written the letter.

It appears that Mrs. Drover knows herself only through her family's perceptions. She appears to them as a strong, secure woman, but she has buried parts of herself deep in her own memory. She remembers, for example, her feelings toward her soldier-lover and the feelings of isolation that she experienced when she agreed to wait for him. She is suspicious of the fact, however, that the letter is signed with her own initial, "K." Throughout the story, she cannot remember her soldier-lover's features, and it is difficult to tell whether she recalls his appearance when she sees the taxi driver's face at the end of the story.

War and Peace
It is wartime again in England, and the war has made some major changes to Mrs. Drover's life. She thinks back to the soldier she knew during World War I. Coincidentally, the letter mentions ‘‘the fact that nothing has changed.’’ The soldier is above all a figure of war and is associated with death. He haunts Mrs. Drover's imagination. On the other hand, Bowen gives the reader a natural reason for the presence of the letter: the air has shifted as someone moved out of the basement. Is it the war itself, then, that makes Mrs. Drover scream as she is driven through the deserted streets? We do not know for sure, and Bowen deliberately leaves this open to the reader's interpretation.

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