The Heat of the Day

by Elizabeth Bowen

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Although The Heat of the Day depends more on plot than Elizabeth Bowen’s other novels, it is nevertheless thematic and, like her other novels, has at its center themes of dislocation and loss. In this novel, places serve as symbols of psychological and emotional loss. The two family homes, Holme Dene of the Kelways and Mount Morris of Cousins Francis and Nettie, are polar opposites. Stella’s visit to Holme Dene is the beginning of her growth from ignorance to knowledge about Robert. The sign Caution: Concealed Drive greets anyone entering the place; the “drive” turns inward upon those unfortunates who live there. Holme Dene is a place where middle-class values of honesty and forthrightness are touted, while lies, deceit, and spying around corners are pervasive. It is, as Stella observes, a “man-eating” house, full of pretense and sterility—truly middle-class, but as Stella wonders, middle of what?

Mount Morris, on the other hand, is an illusion of pastoral innocence. To Roderick, it represents a future of possibilities that other characters in the novel lack and becomes the center of his imaginary life. Roderick understands the obligations of possession and heritage in a way that the inhabitants of Holme Dene do not. Holme Dene is perpetually for sale; Mount Morris cannot be sold. Yet it is the place where Cousin Nettie saw too much and was driven mad by it. As an Anglo-Irish aristocrat herself, Bowen is well aware of the colonial mentality, one shared by Cousin Francis. Stella is renewed by her visit to Mount Morris because it restores her vision of her heritage but, like Nettie, she realizes she could never live there. War-torn London is the ultimate symbol of emotional and psychological dislocation and loss. Because of the blackouts and bombings, all is reversed; day becomes night and night, day. People forget their past lives; Stella learns to ask no questions so that she will not have to answer any. Class differences are destroyed so much that Stella and Louie can becomes friends for a moment. The critical distinctions of past and present, truth and treason, exhilaration and despair have been shattered.

Bowen’s finest achievement in the novel is her ability to create this psychological climate of war through language. The obscure and convoluted style of the novel, permeated by half-completed phrases, disrupted word order, and vague abstractions, reflects the state of mind of the characters. Stella’s job at the War Office is to decode language. Louie is so unable to understand or express her experiences that she relies on Connie or the newspapers to do it for her. When there is no newspaper to describe her feelings, as when she meets Stella, she is inarticulate. Roderick understands the importance of language in the war, and Stella knows that those at the center of command use a language of calculated vagueness. Only Robert and Harrison refuse to believe in the power of language.

For Bowen, belief in easy language only leads to destruction and war. The war, then, is not a political issue but a psychological climate, a state of mind characterized by emotional disorder and expressed in language designed to avoid communication. In such a world, characters are not only lost and dislocated but have lost any hope of stability and purpose as well. At the end of the novel, Stella has moved to a much more dangerous apartment yet is engaged to marry a distant cousin: Love and death are the same. She has been able to keep herself intact but is unable to live meaningfully. Hers is the failure to connect the prose and passion of...

(This entire section contains 703 words.)

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life. Throughout the novel, her private passion for Robert has been separated from the prose of public life, in this case the mutability and devastation of war. When the public war invades her private Eden, love is destroyed. The central thesis of Bowen’s novel is that the only solution to the problem of deriving meaning in this world of endless change is through the individual, who must both be aware of and accept the essential dichotomy of life. In Bowen’s terms, the connection must be made between the romantic passion and the necessary prose of life.


Critical Evaluation