Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

In her spare, carefully crafted narratives, Bowen utilizes every character and every image to develop her theme. In “Her Table Spread,” only five characters appear. Every one of them is important to the author’s theme. For example, Mrs. Treye and Miss Carbin represent the dependents, to whom the marriage of the heiress is of practical importance. Should she not establish a permanent home and continue the line, their own security will be imperiled. In contrast, Valeria Cuffe herself wishes to marry for more romantic reasons. Even though she has not selected the man, she imagines an exciting life; childish though she is, she wisely understands her need for someone with whom to spend her life. Similarly, the elderly Robert Rossiter contrasts with young Alban. Old though he is, Rossiter is still part of life, chasing the parlor maid, drinking in the boathouse, despite the bats. His participation in life underlines Alban’s flight from it.

In this story, the dominant symbols are light and darkness. The women may almost be said to be the carriers of light; from the gleam of Valeria’s red satin dress to the sparkle of the other ladies’ beaded dresses, feminine garb is intended to entice men into liveliness. Valeria deliberately uses light to attract her naval officers. The candles are lit so that they will be seen from the ship; later, the lantern Valeria carries is as much a signal as a light for her wanderings outdoors. On the other hand, though he is in the lamplit drawing room, Alban, at the piano, muses that he is “fixed in the dark rain.”

At the end of the story, the light-dark symbolism becomes more complex. Valerie’s lantern goes out, and she encounters Alban in the darkness. Although light streams from the terrace, Alban sees the beauty of the three women without seeing their faces; transformed in the darkness, he stands in the “flame” of their warmth toward him, or, indeed, toward the supposed Garrett. The fact that the Castle is “extinguished” in the morning leaves the issue in doubt; perhaps, having felt warmth, Alban will not be extinguished so easily.