Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1103
The wartime setting of The Heat of the Day is no more than incidental, for the story, dealing with contrasting faiths and loyalties, is timeless. Though the general atmosphere is electric with danger, Elizabeth Bowen muffles the sound of bombs and antiaircraft guns so that they provide only background for the drama of Stella Rodney, Robert Kelway, and the enigmatic Harrison. The problem of Stella Rodney is that of a woman asked to question her own judgment of the man she loves. Bowen is at her best in dealing with complex personal relationships, and here she inspects some barriers to emotional and intellectual harmony that are embodied in a conflict between patriotism and love. Like Henry James, she is interested in the collision of finely grained personalities, and the very nature of her subject matter demands a style that is sensitive and involved.
Bowen often expressed her concern for the disintegration of tradition and value in the twentieth century by depicting the discrepancy between modern women’s changing aspirations and their felt desire for traditional roles. In The House in Paris (1936) and The Death of the Heart (1938), Bowen’s heroines are restless and dissatisfied in the roles of wife or mother; in The Heat of the Day, Stella tests “free womanhood.” This novel combines the portrayal of a woman’s dilemma with two other representations of Bowen’s concern—the neglected family estate and the events of World War II.
Stella Rodney is Bowen’s “free woman.” She is a professional working in military intelligence, a longtime divorcée, and the mother of a grown son. She has a lover whom she has known for two years, but she dates and knows other men. Still, her relationship with Robert is her most important. Stella is sensitive, strong, and articulate, not only about others but also about her own problems. She has let her son and others believe for years that she left her husband, that she was the femme fatale, the self-sufficient one. In fact, she was divorced by her husband, who left her for his nurse. Stella’s son Roderick discovers this fact and confronts his mother, saying it puts “everything in a different light.” She admits that her lie was a matter of saving face; when most people believed that she was the guilty party, she let the story go on. She says to Harrison that it is better to sound like “a monster than look a fool.” That remark suggests the paradox in Stella’s psyche: She craves to be identified as a free woman, capable of anything, but her inner self is not quite in concert with that image. Therefore, she lies about the circumstances of her divorce. In her relationship to Roderick, she takes pains to show that he is not tied to her, but she worries a great deal about him. Her relationship with Robert is a stable one, but Stella refuses his marriage proposal.
Stella is not alone in her ambivalence about changes in society. Cousin Nettie Morris is driven to insanity by the difficulties of woman’s “place” at the family estate, Mount Morris. She seems to take refuge in madness. One of the novel’s most memorable scenes is the nonconversation between Roderick and Nettie at Wisteria Lodge, the asylum. Nettie is not so mad as others would like to think. Visiting Mount Morris in Ireland, Stella understands how the lack of real choices for a traditional woman can drive her insane.
Stella’s dividedness is expressed in her attitude toward Mount Morris. She had sold her own house, stored her furniture, and rented a furnished luxury flat in London, making herself more independent. Nothing in the flat reflects her personality. Stella finds herself again saddled with place, family, and tradition when Cousin Francis wills Mount Morris to her son—whom he never met but who was conceived at Mount Morris when Stella and her husband spent their honeymoon there. Stella’s ambivalence begins when she attends Cousin Francis’s funeral; it grows when, after twenty-one years, she revisits Mount Morris, knowing that Roderick will carry on the tradition she has rejected. Bowen herself believed that the attitude of her time against family estates was erroneous and that it had even contributed to the general disintegration of society. She became the first female Bowen to inherit Bowen’s Court near Dublin since its construction in 1776, but in 1960, she was forced by financial exigency to sell the house, and in 1963 it was torn down.
Stella is repeatedly characterized as typical of her generation, a generation often described as having “muffed” the century. She became an adult just after World War I, and now finds herself living through World War II. The specific details of the war years in London give concrete reality to Stella’s trauma and are skillfully interwoven with her involvement with Robert. “The heat of the day” refers to Stella’s middle age, her “noon,” and the agony of the decision to question Robert’s loyalty. It also refers to the height of the war and a turning point in the century.
As both Bowen’s structure and her symbols suggest, the generation that follows Stella’s, that of Roderick and Louie Lewis, represents at once a new integration and a rebirth. Stella’s story—her “defeat” as a free woman—is framed and intersected by the story of the working-class Louie Lewis, whose vague desires for motherhood culminate in a triumphant pregnancy while her husband is fighting abroad. She is unaware of the identity of the child’s father. The novel ends with the birth of her son just after D-Day and her return to the south coast of England, where her parents were killed by a bomb in the early days of the war.
Roderick intends to reside at Mount Morris and has great plans about restoring it with modern farming methods. Both members of the next generation are able to resolve the dichotomies that so plagued their parents’ generation—dichotomies about family, place, tradition, and role. The three white swans, a recurrent positive symbol in Bowen (they figure in The Death of the Heart as well) appear only at Mount Morris and at the end of the book as Louie wheels her new baby. Flying straight, the swans symbolize a positive rebirth and the resolution of the war in the “direction of the west.” Bowen’s symbols, however, are more suggestive than absolute. Louie’s and Roderick’s clear choices provide direction for interpreting the novel. Stella’s generation has “botched” it; the only hope is in the next.