Elizabeth Bowen

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Elizabeth Bowen Short Fiction Analysis

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Elizabeth Bowen’s stories are set in the first half of the twentieth century in England and Ireland. Often the action takes place against a background of war. Taken together, her stories provide a chronicle of the social, political, and psychic life of England from the beginning of the century through World War II. Her characters are mainly drawn from the middle class, although upper-and lower-class characters appear as well. Although Bowen’s protagonist is usually a woman, men also play important roles. By selecting significant detail and by utilizing mythic parallels, Bowen constructs stories whose settings, actions, and characters are simultaneously realistic and symbolic.

Bowen’s characters exist in a world which has lost contact with meaning; traditional forms and ideas have lost meaning and vitality. Both identity and a sense of belonging are lost; “Who am I?” and “Where am I?” are typical questions asked by Bowen protagonists. Some characters merely go through the motions and rituals of daily life, experiencing pattern without meaning. Others have a vague consciousness that something is wrong; unfulfilled, they suffer from boredom, apathy, and confusion. Sometimes, such characters are driven to seek alternatives in their lives. In “Summer Night,” while the Major, an example of the first type of character, goes about his evening routine, shutting up the house for the night, his wife, Emma, pretending to visit friends, leaves her traditional family for an assignation with Robinson, a man she hardly knows. He represents another type: the man who adapts to meaninglessness by utilizing power amorally to manipulate and control. Emma is disillusioned in her search for vitality and love when she discovers that Robinson wants sex and nothing else. Other characters, such as Justin, are fully conscious of the situation; they know that they “don’t live” and conceive the need for a “new form” but are impotent to break through to achieve one.

“Summer Night”

Although Bowen’s stories focus on those characters who seek meaning or who are in the process of breaking through, they also represent a final type—one whose thinking and feeling are unified and in harmony with existence. An example from “Summer Night” is Justin’s deaf sister, Queenie. While Robinson is left alone in his house, while Emma leans drunk and crying against a telegraph pole, and while Justin goes to mail an angry letter to Robinson, Queenie lies in bed remembering a time when she sat with a young man beside the lake below the ruin of the castle now on Robinson’s land: “while her hand brushed the ferns in the cracks of the stone seat emanations of kindness passed from him to her. The subtle deaf girl had made the transposition of this nothing or everything into an everything.” Queenie imagines: “Tonight it was Robinson who, guided by Queenie down leaf tunnels, took the place on the stone seat by the lake.” It is Queenie’s memory and imagination that creates, at least for herself, a world of love, unrealized, but realizable, by the others. Memory recalls the lost estate of human beings, represented here by the castle, its grounds, and its garden, as well as man’s lost identity. Queenie is a queen. All human beings are rightfully queens and kings in Bowen’s fiction. Queenie’s memory reaches back to the archetypal roots of being, in harmony with life; her imagination projects this condition in the here and now and as a possibility for the future. Queenie’s thinking is the true thinking Justin calls for, thinking that breaks through to a “new form,” which is composed of archetypal truth transformed to suit the conditions of modern life. Throughout Bowen’s fiction...

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this kind of thought takes the form of fantasy, hallucination, and dream. Bowen’s fiction itself, the expression ofher imagination, also exemplifies this thinking.

“Her Table Spread”

Toward the end of “Summer Night” it occurs to Justin that possibly Emma should have come to him rather than Robinson. In “Her Table Spread” Bowen brings together two characters much like Emma and Justin. Valeria Cuff, heiress and owner of a castle in Ireland, situated on an estuary where English ships are allowed to anchor, invites Mr. Alban, a cynical and disillusioned young man from London, to a dinner party. These characters represent opposites which concern Bowen throughout her fiction: male and female, darkness and light, thought and feeling, physical and spiritual, rational and irrational. The separation or conflict of these opposites creates a world of war; their unification creates a world of love.

Valeria’s orientation is romantic, “irrational,” and optimistic: “Her mind was made up: she was a princess.” She invites Alban to her castle, “excited” at the thought of marrying him. Alban is realistic, rational, and pessimistic: “He had failed to love. He knew some spring had dried up at the root of the world.” Alban is disconcerted by Valeria’s erratic, impulsive behavior and by her apparent vulgarity. He has heard “she was abnormal—at twenty-five, of statuesque development, still detained in childhood.” Ironically, as Alban realizes “his presence must constitute an occasion,” he is “put out of” Valeria’s mind when a destroyer anchors in the estuary. Valeria believes it is the same destroyer that had anchored there the previous spring at Easter when two officers, Mr. Graves and Mr. Garrett, came ashore and were entertained by friends. Valeria’s expectation that the officers will come to dinner initially separates her from Alban. When the officers fail to arrive, she runs outside to signal them with a lantern. Old Mr. Rossiter, uncle to Mrs. Treye, Valeria’s aunt, leads Alban to the boathouse to prevent Valeria from rowing out to the destroyer. When a bat flies against Alban’s ear, he flees, and, ascending the steps back toward the castle, he hears Valeria sobbing in the dark. When he calls to her, expressing concern and sympathy, she mistakes him for Mr. Garrett. Her fantasy of love is realized as she and Alban stand together, unified in a field of light shining from the castle.

Symbolic details and analogies with pagan and Christian myth universalize the meaning of the story. Alban is associated with the destroyer, with Graves and Garrett, and with their emblems, statues of Mars and Mercury. Like the destroyer, Alban is “fixed in the dark rain, by an indifferent shore.” The officers represent aspects of Alban. The name Graves suggests death; and the statue associated with Graves is Mars, god of war. Garrett is a pun on garret, which derives from a word meaning to defend or protect. Garrett’s statue is Mercury, a god associated by the Romans with peace. Alban’s link with the destroyer, with death and war, threatens the destruction of Valeria’s dreams of love and peace. The Garrett aspect of Alban, however, linked with protection and peace, offers the possibility of the realization of Valeria’s dreams.

Valeria is associated with two symbolic items. Among the gifts she has to offer is a leopard skin, suggesting the animal and the sensual, and a statue of Venus, goddess of love. Valeria thus offers love in both its physical and spiritual aspects. Contained in her fantasies is the expectation that love will put an end to war. She thinks: “Invasions from the water would henceforth be social, perhaps amorous,” and she imagines marrying Garrett and inviting “all the Navy up the estuary” for tea: “The Navy would be unable to tear itself away.” As Valeria attempts to signal the destroyer with the lantern, she thinks that Graves and Garrett will have to fight for her; instead, the battle takes place within Alban.

The pagan symbolism in “Her Table Spread” is overlain and transformed by Christian symbolism. Valeria’s castle and its grounds, like the ruins of the castle in “Summer Night,” represent a lost Eden. Valeria is an heiress and a princess; she is an incarnation of Eve seeking her rightful role and place in a paradise of love and peace. Symbolically, she calls to Adam (Alban) to reclaim his inheritance—to join her in re-creating the garden. The way is expressed in Bowen’s use of the second major Christian myth. Alban must undergo the experience of Christ, the second Adam, to redeem his “fallen” self; he must reject temptation and undergo crucifixion—sacrifice his ego. The trip to the boathouse is Alban’s descent into hell. There he is tempted by Old Mr. Rossiter, the Devil. Rossiter offers Alban whiskey, which he refuses, and tempts him with Valeria: “She’s a girl you could shape. She’s got a nice income.” Alban’s rejection of this temptation, his refusal to listen to the Devil, is signified by his flight from the boathouse when a bat flies against his ear.

As Alban ascends the steps, he recognizes where he is: “Hell.” This recognition is the precondition for discovering where he belongs. At this point he undergoes a symbolic crucifixion. Hearing Valeria “sobbing” in “absolute desperation,” Alban clings “to a creaking tree.” The sympathy Alban feels for Valeria signifies the death of Graves within him and the resurrection of Garrett. Valeria has also experienced crucifixion. Graves and Garrett have not arrived and her lantern has gone out; she, too, is in hell. Humbled and in darkness, the two meet. Alban speaks with tenderness: “Quietly, my dear girl.” Valeria speaks with concern. “Don’t you remember the way?” The year before the destroyer had anchored “at Easter.” Now Valeria is present at and participates in resurrection: “Mr. Garrett has landed.” She laughs “like a princess, and magnificently justified.” Standing with Valeria in the glow of light from the castle, observed by the two female guests, Alban experiences love: “Such a strong tenderness reached him that, standing there in full manhood, he was for a moment not exiled. For the moment, without moving or speaking, he stood, in the dark, in a flame, as though all three said: ‘My darling.’”

“The Demon Lover”

A world of love is achieved, if only momentarily, in “Her Table Spread.” In “The Demon Lover” Bowen creates a story of love denied or repressed, and its power transformed into the demonic. The stories complement each other. The first takes place at a castle in Ireland in the spring and recalls the previous Easter; the second is set in an abandoned London flat in autumn during the bombing of London in World War II and recalls a previous autumn during World War I. The action of “Her Table Spread” concludes with the coming of night. The protagonists of the first story are a young woman in search of love and a young man associated with war; those of the second are a forty-year-old married woman who has denied love and her fiancé of twenty years before, a solider lost in action during World War I. Both female characters are “abnormal”: Valeria of “Her Table Spread” caught up in fantasy, Kathleen of “The Demon Lover” subject to hallucination. Bowen utilizes elements of the Eden myth to universalize the meaning of both stories.

In “The Demon Lover” Mrs. Kathleen Drover returns to her abandoned London flat to pick up some things she had left behind when her family moved to the country to escape the bombing. In the dark flat where everything is covered with a dustlike film, she opens a door, and reflected light reveals an unstamped letter recently placed on a hall table. Since the caretaker is away and the house has been locked, there is no logical explanation for the appearance of the letter. Unnerved, Mrs. Drover takes it upstairs to her bedroom, where she reads it. The letter reminds her that today is the anniversary of the day years before when she made a promise of fidelity to a young soldier on leave from France during World War I—and that they had agreed to meet on this day “at an hour arranged.” Although her “fiancé was reported missing, presumed killed,” he has apparently survived and awaits the meeting. When Kathleen hears the church clock strike six, she becomes terrified, but maintains enough control to gather the items she came for and to formulate a plan to leave the house, hire a taxi, and bring the driver back with her to pick up the bundles. Meanwhile, in the basement “a door or window was being opened by someone who chose this moment to leave the house.”

This statement provides a realistic solution to the problem of the letter’s appearance, but a psychological interpretation offers an alternative conclusion. The London flat symbolizes Kathleen’s life as Mrs. Drover, and the shock of finding the letter reveals to Kathleen the meaninglessness of this life and the falseness of her identity as Mrs. Drover. By marrying Drover, Kathleen has been “unfaithful” not only to the soldier but also to herself. It is this self which emerges as a result of the “crisis”—actually the crisis of World War II—and which has unconsciously motivated Mrs. Drover’s return to the house. The fact that the letter is signed K., Kathleen’s initial, suggests that she wrote the letter, which is a sign of the reemergence of her lost self. The house represents not only Kathleen’s life as Mrs. Drover but also the repressed-Kathleen aspect of her identity. The person in the basement who leaves the house at the same moment Mrs. Drover lets herself out the front door is a projection of this repressed self, the self Mrs. Drover now unknowingly goes to face.

Overlying the psychological meaning of the story are two additional levels of meaning, one allegorical, the other archetypal. The young Kathleen represents England, defended and protected by the soldier, who represents the generation of those who fought for the country during the first war. Kathleen’s loveless and meaningless marriage to Drover represents England’s betrayal of the values the war was fought to defend—a betrayal which has contributed to the creation of World War II. The letter writer asserts: “In view of the fact that nothing has changed, I shall rely upon you to keep your promise.” Because Kathleen and England have betrayed themselves, because love has failed, war continues, and both the individual and the country must suffer destructive consequences.

On the archetypal level, Kathleen and the soldier are incarnations of Eve and Adam, although the soldier is an Adam transformed by war into a devil who coerces Eve to “fall,” forces her to make the “sinister truth.” The soldier’s uniform is the sign of his transformation. His true nature, his Adamic self, is covered and denied by the clothes of war. Kathleen is unable to touch the true self of the soldier, and he is unable to reach out to her. The scene takes place at night in a garden beneath a tree. Intimidated by not being kissed, Kathleen imagines “spectral glitters in the place” of the soldier’s eyes. To “verify his presence,” she puts out a hand, which he takes and presses “painfully, onto one of the breast buttons of his uniform.” In this way he forces her to make a vow of fidelity—a pact with the Devil. He says, “I shall be with you sooner or later. You won’t forget that. You need do nothing but wait.” Kathleen suffers the fate of Eve, feels that unnatural promise drive down between her and the rest of all humankind. When the soldier, her “fiancé,” is reported “missing, presumed killed,” she experiences “a complete dislocation from everything.”

Compelled now to confront her fate, she gets into a taxi, which seems to be awaiting her. When the driver turns in the direction of her house without being told where to drive, Kathleen leans “forward to scratch at the glass panel that divided the driver’s head from her own driver and passenger, not six inches between them, remained for an eternity eye to eye.” Reunited with her demon lover, Kathleen screams “freely” as the taxi accelerates “without mercy” into the “hinterland of deserted streets.” The failure of love condemns Kathleen—and by implication humankind—to insanity and damnation in the modern wasteland.

In spite of the pessimistic conclusion of “The Demon Lover,” Bowen’s short fiction is ultimately affirmative. In a 1970 McCall’s essay she lamented that many people, especially the young, are “adrift, psychologically homeless, lost in a void.” She expresses her desire to “do something that would arrest the drift, fill up the vacuum, convey the sense that there is, after all, SOMETHING. (For I know that there is.)” Bowen’s fiction conveys the existence of this something, which some would call God, others simply the source of being. Whatever it is called, it exists within each individual and in the natural world. Its primary nature is love, expressed in acts of kindness, sympathy, understanding, and tolerance. It is the potential for unity among people and harmony with the world. This potential is mirrored in the unity and harmony of Bowen’s stories. The lyric descriptive passages, the coherence of matter and form, the intense visual images, and the emotional force of her stories demonstrate Bowen’s mastery of the short-story form. Her stories deserve to be recognized as among the best written in the twentieth century.

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Elizabeth Bowen Long Fiction Analysis