Elizabeth Bowen Short Fiction Analysis
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.
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 this kind of thought takes the form of fantasy, hallucination, and dream. Bowen’s fiction itself, the expression of her imagination, also exemplifies this thinking.
Toward the end of “Summer Night” it occurs to Justin that possibly...
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