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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 409

In this novel about World War II, Elizabeth Bowen explores the impact of prolonged warfare on the human heart and psyche. She probes the intricacies of ethical decision-making that sometimes turned people against their loved ones, and she also delves beneath the surface of patriotism in wartime, considering why someone...

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In this novel about World War II, Elizabeth Bowen explores the impact of prolonged warfare on the human heart and psyche. She probes the intricacies of ethical decision-making that sometimes turned people against their loved ones, and she also delves beneath the surface of patriotism in wartime, considering why someone would betray his country. The characters of Stella Rodney and Robert Kelway epitomize these two extremes. Looking beyond the war’s end, Bowen also speculates about Great Britain’s future in the hands of the young people who lived through the war, such as Stella's son, Roderick, and about the children born after the war, such as the baby born to Louie Lewis.

While Stella is presented as a three-dimensional character, her role in the novel is somewhat anomalous. The other characters often seem rather flat, and their appearance in the novel seems to advance the plot or support the thematic points that the author is making. Stella, a middle-aged woman with an adult son, was divorced before her ex-husband died. Although in some regards she is free to live as she wishes, which includes taking lovers, the war has created many restrictions. Much of the novel is set in London when it was under siege from German air raids. With everyone’s physical safety at risk, taking emotional risks may seem entirely natural. Stella’s happiness with her lover, Kelway, is threatened when she hears disturbing information about his alleged treasonous activities on behalf of the Nazis. Unable to believe that a military hero could betray his country, she spends much of the novel trying to process the information. Her situation is complicated by the pressure that the informant, Harrison, places on her to drop Kelway and become his lover—the price he names for not informing the authorities about Kelway.

Bowen spares Stella the necessity of making a decision, however, by having Kelway confess to her. Stella is doubly shocked by his treason and his bitterly cynical assessment that Britain will be on the losing side. The novel’s resolution is not fully satisfactory in this regard. Kelway conveniently turns up dead the next day and, while the reader suspects Harrison’s involvement, his fatal plunge off a rooftop might have been suicide or accidental. Bowen incorporates two subplots concerning Roderick and Stella’s family’s Irish connection and Louie, a lost soul who serves a nationalist Madonna role; both seem like incidental rather than necessary components.

Form and Content

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 833

Set during the Blitz in the fall of 1942, The Heat of the Day is more than a spy thriller or a war novel. Although it has some elements of both, these genres rarely have a woman as the protagonist. Bowen makes the war a backdrop for Stella Rodney’s ordeal and the issue of Robert Kelway’s treason secondary to his betrayal of her. Stella faces the mutability and dislocation inherent in twentieth century life as she struggles to keep herself intact in a world that seems to be crumbling around her. Amid destruction and danger, class distinctions are broken down and emotions intensified. The people who have remained in London live without a past or a future. Caught in this external atmosphere of chaos, Stella’s story is essentially the narrative of her expulsion from her self-defined Eden and her reconstruction of a new life.

As the story opens, Robert Harrison waits in Regent’s Park for his meeting with Stella. Louie Lewis, a married working girl in the habit of picking up men in the park on Sundays, approaches Harrison. He rudely rebuffs her advances, but Louie’s perception of Harrison as “funny” sets the stage for Harrison’s obscene proposition to Stella. Stella has seen Harrison only once, at Cousin Francis’ funeral, where he appeared looming over tombstones under a darkened sky. She imagines he is either a madman or a salesman. When he comes to her with his proposition that she become his mistress in order to stop or at least postpone her lover’s exposure as a spy, Stella is overcome by uncertainty. She dismisses Harrison without an answer, but she cannot dismiss the seed of doubt that he has planted. The relationship that has sustained her and been the center of her life has been called into question. Stella is not horrified by Robert’s treason so much as by what it reflects about the man she thought she knew perfectly. If Harrison’s accusations are correct, Robert has betrayed more than his country.

The novel traces Stella’s growing knowledge of the man she thought she knew. She prompts Robert to take her to meet his mother and sister at Holme Dene. There she realizes Robert has grown up amid lies and deceit, where language is meaningless and emotions are nonexistent. Visiting Robert’s home forces Stella to give more credence to Harrison’s accusations. Stella’s son, Roderick, has inherited Cousin Francis’ estate in Ireland, but because he is underage and in the army, he cannot attend to the affairs there. Stella must act on his behalf and visits Mount Morris, the scene of her honeymoon and where Roderick was conceived. Ireland remained neutral during the war, so Mount Morris provides a pastoral retreat from the devastation of London. Renewed by her visit, she confronts Robert with Harrison’s story. He appears shocked at the suggestion but even more dismayed by Stella’s keeping her suspicions to herself. The serpent has entered their garden and tainted their once-perfect understanding and trust. After the confrontation, Robert knows that he will be apprehended soon. Robert comes to Stella’s apartment and confesses his guilt. He tries to escape his pursuers by climbing over Stella’s roof but slips, or jumps, and is killed. Stella comes to realize the truth that Harrison and Robert are the destroyers of law, of morality, of identity.

Other truths come out as well. Roderick decides that he must visit Cousin Francis’ wife, Nettie, at Wisteria Lodge, an institution for the mentally ill. Unlike the talk at Holme Dene, where nothing is said, the talk with Cousin Nettie brings to light the truth of Stella and Victor’s divorce. Everyone assumed that Stella divorced Victor because of her involvement with another man, when in fact Victor fell in love with his nurse and left Stella to marry her. Stella allowed the fiction of her adultery because she would rather be an adulterer than a fool.

Amid these revelations, only Louie manages to create her own truth. Taken in hand by the competent Connie, Louie feels anchored and through the friendship gains some insight and knowledge. Her meeting with Stella overwhelms Louie and prompts her to reconsider her infidelities. Stella becomes for Louie an ideal of virtue until she reads about Robert’s death. Without the ideal of Stella, Louie is forced to create an identity for herself. Inevitably, she becomes pregnant by one of her faceless lovers, but her husband is killed in action before she tells him of the child. When the boy is born, she names him Thomas Victor, even imagining a likeness between him and her dead husband. She returns to the South, presumably to devote herself to rearing her child. The novel ends with Louie holding up baby Tom so that he can see three swans flying west. Hence, the most positive solution to the issues of the novel is found by the most naïve and uncomplicated character.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 256

Elizabeth Bowen was once heard to observe that when her friend Virginia Woolf discussed her feminist views, she was exceedingly tiresome. While Bowen may have been bored by Woolf’s feminism, she certainly was not the upper-class conservative woman writer she was once thought. Her own life was filled with unconventional relationships, and she voiced repeatedly in her works a suspicion of “normal” conventional morality.

Her reputation as a writer of drawing room comedies of manners is inaccurate when one considers her longer fiction. In The Heat of the Day, Bowen questions traditional assumptions about the roles of women. She chooses the male-dominated genres of the war novel and spy thriller and makes her protagonist a woman. Further, the novel is not plot-centered, as are most novels of these genres. It is instead an examination of the emotional life of the female protagonist. Always wary of convention and normality, Bowen places Stella outside the role of moral anchor for her family. She dwells apart from any male idea of honor, either Harrison’s or Robert’s. Her homelessness is a willful choice, as is her perceived role as adulterer. Moreover, her relationship with Robert is not sanctioned by marriage. Louie, the other female character in the novel, is no more conventional in her behavior than Stella. Bowen may not have voiced active support for feminist issues, but in the case of this novel—as in her final work, Eva Trout (1968)—she shows her concern with women’s issues and a deep understanding of the feminine psyche.

Places Discussed

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*London. Great Britain’s capital city that provides the novel’s primary setting. London is the center of the last European Allied country to withstand German conquest, although it endures continuous German bombing attacks. These attacks cause enormous destruction to the city, leaving no area untouched—including the royal Buckingham Palace. Seeking cover in air raid shelters becomes a daily occurrence for Londoners, for whom being roused from sleep by air raid sirens is a nightly ritual. Smoke from each night’s bombs drifts throughout the city, giving off an acrid smell. Melancholy nights filled with the ever-present danger of falling bombs evokes the darkened mood in London and becomes almost surreal.


*Ireland. Island country west of Britain that Stella visits on family business. Ireland remains neutral throughout the war and is depicted in the novel as representing what is still good and innocent as the war rages elsewhere. When she visits Mount Morris, she finds it a pastoral retreat from the devastation of London. Meanwhile, the British are unable to understand why the Irish do not join the alliance against Germany; to prevent Ireland from supporting Germany, Britain blockades Ireland’s main ports. Stella’s son Roderick claims that Cousin Nettie’s madness is a result of Ireland’s decision not to fight against Germany.

Holme Dene

Holme Dene. Foreboding Irish family home of Robert Kelway, the enemy spy, where Stella goes to meet Kelway’s parents. Built around 1910, the house is three stories high and much too large for the four people living in it. It has French windows and three balconies. Begonias grow in flowerbeds under each window, and the grounds have a tennis court, a pergola, a sundial, a rock garden, a dovecote, a seesaw, and a birdbath. The interior of the house has dark furniture, and its heavy draperies allow little light to enter its dark interior. Holme Dene appears to be linked to a horrible and evil power. The surrounding woods seem to be bewitched.

Mount Morris

Mount Morris. Rodney family estate in southern Ireland that Stella’s son inherits from her cousin Francis. After visiting Holme Dene, Stella goes to Mount Morris to attend to her son’s interests because he is legally underage and is away in the army. In contrast to what she experiences at Holme Dene, she feels that Mount Morris seems to exist outside of time. Harrison, the British counterspy, describes Mount Morris as a white elephant whose last owner has badly neglected, leaving its heating, lighting, and plumbing systems in almost their original states. Moreover, he claims that the estate’s farm uses equipment known in his grandfather’s day.

When Cousin Francis was alive, he lived much of his life in his home’s library, in which an ancient smell emanates from the books that line the walls, and oil paintings are arranged over the fireplace. To complete the feeling of antiquity, a Shakespearean calendar from 1927 hangs in the room. Despite this antiquated atmosphere, the young and innocent Roderick will put his Irish estate to proper use. It is an illusion of pastoral innocence that to Roderick represents a future of possibilities that other characters in the novel lack; it thus 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.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 376

Austin, Allen E. Elizabeth Bowen. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1989. Good introduction that discusses Bowen’s style, syntax, use of narrator, and evocative settings. Provides a detailed analysis of the setting, theme, and character in The Heat of the Day, comparing Bowen’s portrayal of three English classes with Forster’s. Helpful annotated bibliography.

Glendinning, Victoria. Elizabeth Bowen: Portrait of a Writer. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1977. Primarily a biography, with some literary criticism interspersed. Often referred to, it provides good background material.

Heath, William. Elizabeth Bowen: An Introduction to Her Novels. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1961. Good introductory source. Provides clear analysis of setting, character, and theme in The Heat of the Day, revealing the novel’s use of the Faust motif and connecting private anguish and public disaster.

Jordon, Heather Bryant. How Will the Heart Endure: Elizabeth Bowen and the Landscape of War. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992. An especially relevant topic when studying The Heat of the Day. Jordan discusses Bowen as an Anglo-Irish writer and the attitudes that she displays toward war as a result of her heritage. Not all the works are discussed, but the book contains a well-researched bibliography.

Kenney, Edwin, Jr. Elizabeth Bowen. Lewisburg, Pa: Bucknell University Press, 1974. Presents connections between the personal world of the Anglo-Irish country house and the larger world of international affairs and between public and privates concerns. Also stresses the importance of Bowen’s setting during the bombing of London, which intensifies the feelings of her characters.

Lassner, Phyllis. Elizabeth Bowen. London: Macmillan, 1990. Analyzes Bowen’s novels in somewhat technical prose with a feminist slant. Included is a brief summary of Bowen’s life and a useful bibliography.

Lee, Hermione. Elizabeth Bowen: An Estimation. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble Books, 1981. Excellent introduction. Emphasizes the novel’s use of structure, style, and syntactical mannerisms such as inversion, double negatives, and passive constructions, to reveal the emotional state of the characters’ lives and the turmoil of wartime London.

Rule, Jane. Lesbian Images. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1975. Contains a chapter on Bowen but concentrates mostly on her final novel, Eva Trout. Focuses not so much on the literature as on how women writers fit into and influence the society of their times. Useful as background reading.

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