Elizabeth Bowen World Literature Analysis
In Bowen’s novels and short stories, certain subjects and themes are represented, though with a variety of viewpoints and plots. Bowen was interested in the ways in which persons and events from the past can affect, control, and even destroy the living. Her Anglo-Irish heritage gave her a special understanding of this subject. She was particularly sensitive to displacement, a feeling of alienation, a helplessness in the face of what has occurred before. Bowen’s “romances” contained the usual elements of love, conflict, and mystery, but the dramas that unfold in her works contain both tragedy and comedy.
Adolescence is a frequent subject in Bowen’s fiction; many of her characters are young persons struggling to become adults and often struggling with adults, who represent the past. The older generation has usually come to terms with the past and attempts to impose its own worldliness on those who are yet in a state of hope and faith, in the kind of innocence that Bowen describes in The Death of the Heart. At one point, she says that the innocent are “incurable strangers to the world, they never cease to exact a heroic happiness.” That could also be said of Jane in A World of Love and of the young characters in Bowen’s other novels.
Bowen’s use of houses and landscape is a predominant feature of her narratives. The ramshackle house in A World of Love is exactly the right setting for the unfolding of this romance, which is almost a ghost story, in which the past imposes itself on all the main characters. In The Death of the Heart, two sharply contrasting houses form the essential background for Portia’s struggle. The elegantly furnished, immaculate house in London is a place where feelings are unexpressed and where frank, open communication is unknown. In sharp contrast is Waikiki, the seaside house to which Portia has been sent while Thomas and Anna take an April holiday in Capri. Life at Waikiki is noisy, spontaneous, and as common as the life in the London house is formal and aristocratic. In both houses, Portia is an outsider; her separateness is emphasized by the alien atmosphere of each house.
In Bowen’s books, the characters talk to one another rather than act; there is very little real action in her fiction. Rather, through conversations that are often ambiguous and restrained, hiding as much as they reveal, the story unfolds with a delicate subtlety that challenges the reader to discover what the story really means. Irony is another characteristic of Bowen’s style. The wit and humor in her novels depend on the discrepancies between what the characters think and say and what other characters reveal about them. There is irony, too, in what they expect and what they receive. For example, the cruel irony of Eddie’s betrayal of Portia is typical of the way that Bowen resolves her characters’ fates. She does not, however, always use irony to highlight disappointment. In A World of Love, Jane gives up her ghostly lover just before falling in love with a real young man when she least expects that to happen.
Bowen’s style is highly descriptive; her scenes are visible, and the atmosphere in which they take place is palpable. Objects are important images of the emotions being felt but not expressed. At Montefort, the setting of A World of Love, rooms are described meticulously and vividly, not in long passages but in carefully selected and telling details.
Another aspect of Bowen’s style is her occasionally convoluted sentence structure. Her tendency to twist syntax was a delight to some of her readers and an affectation and annoyance to others. For example, in A World of Love, the author, in describing Maud, the younger sister, says, “Nothing, or almost nothing, made Maud not young, not a child throughout.” That is the kind of sentence that may leave the reader confused as to what the author means. On the other hand, Bowen’s work has a poetic quality that many critics and other readers have noticed. Her language is allusive, precise, suggestive, and highly dependent on the implied, the unspoken but intensely felt truth.
The psychological insight that is perhaps Bowen’s most notable characteristic is suggested by a remark made by St. Quentin, a Bowen character and a novelist, quite obviously speaking for Bowen, the novelist: “I swear that each of us keeps, battened down inside himself, a sort of lunatic giant—impossible socially, but full-scale—and that it’s the knockings and batterings we sometimes hear in each other that keeps our intercourse from utter banality.”
The Death of the Heart
First published: 1938
Type of work: Novel
An orphaned sixteen-year-old girl goes to London and, through cruel betrayal, loses her innocence.
Portia Quayne is the sixteen-year-old heroine of The Death of the Heart, which begins soon after she arrives in London. Her father and mother having died within a few years of each other, Portia must now live with her father’s son, Thomas Quayne, and his wife Anna. Thomas is a middle-aged, successful, reserved businessman who is unable to form close personal relationships with anyone, although he does love his wife in his own aloof and undemonstrative way. Anna is a stylish, elegant woman whose principal interest is making herself and her house beautiful. She entertains frequently, but she, too, has no close relationships, though she appears to have a certain cool, impersonal attachment to her husband. Both are embarrassed and uncomfortable at the appearance of Portia, the child of the elder Quayne’s disgrace and second marriage.
Into this house comes Portia, who does everything that she can to please the Quaynes, being obedient, well-mannered, and quiet. She observes them minutely and records in a diary her thoughts about them, as well as the uninteresting events of her life, which consist primarily of attending an expensive, exclusive establishment where French lessons, lectures, and excursions are offered to a small group of girls. Portia does not know that Anna has...
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