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 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.