Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1032
Elizabeth Bowen’s ability to create suspense would have stood her in good stead had she chosen to write detective novels. The House in Paris gradually unravels a human secret that not only the characters of the novel but also the readers find both absorbing and oppressive. The author’s method is not to emphasize physical action but to unfold complex relationships between people, driving a story slowly to a conclusion that is logical but necessarily incomplete. There are no formulaic endings in Bowen’s novels, no dovetailing of desire and fulfillment; as long as people live, she convincingly and calmly implies, there are questions that will be only partially answered, wishes that will be only partially granted. In The House in Paris, she presents the situation that a child has created merely by existing: an inadvertent love and an inadvertent begetting become a problem to several people. Rarely has the problem of an illegitimate boy been traced with more keenness and candor.
Bowen uses the figures of an unwed mother and illegitimate child—traditional social pariahs—to express the child’s perspective of adult society, the changing role of women, and the importance of accepting the past. Although Henrietta and Leopold at first seem to be the most important characters in The House in Paris, they are not. Bowen uses their perception of reality, however, in portraying the adults’ stories. Bowen’s main concern is with the adults, but she is very much aware of the connection between the adult reality and the child’s world. The structure of The House in Paris suggests both the connection between the two realities and the absolute gulf separating them. The first and last sections of the book, both entitled “The Present,” frame the longer middle section, “The Past.” Henrietta’s and Leopold’s consciousnesses dominate “The Present,” whereas those of their parents’ generation dominate “The Past.” The character Naomi Fisher, for example, who appears in both parts, is viewed by the children as “Miss Fisher” and by her mother and her contemporaries as “Naomi.”
A child’s loneliness is often Bowen’s metaphor for that deep human loneliness brought about by fate or misfortune. Leopold—abandoned as an infant by his mother, his father dead—sees himself as utterly alone and bereft of identity. He is a stranger to the values of his biological family and to the community of the “house in Paris.” At nine years of age, he expects to be initiated into those mysteries, accepted by his mother, and made a part of the community. Instead, he must cope anew with his mother’s rejection; he weeps because this is the end of his hopes and plans. Much of the material devoted to Leopold is narrated through the consciousness of the observing child, Henrietta, whose perception helps to balance Leopold’s solipsistic self-analysis.
Bowen often uses the discrepancy between women’s changing aspirations and the traditional roles assigned by society as metaphor for the disintegration of society as a whole. Karen is ambivalent about the roles of wife and mother. Maturing in an upper-class environment free of anxieties about family or money, she nevertheless feels unfulfilled. Even after she becomes engaged to the man she is expected to marry, she keeps asking, “What next? What next?” She wants to escape from the too-secure future that is held out to her, and she complains bitterly to her Aunt Violet that she will be too “safe” with Ray as a husband. Karen rebels by taking her best friend’s fiancé as lover and canceling her own engagement. Ironically, Karen regrets that no one will ever know of her action, believing that her “revolution” changed nothing. There are, however, serious consequences. Max commits suicide when he learns that Madame Fisher insists that he break with Naomi; his rebellion is therefore useless. Karen becomes pregnant and places Leopold with foster parents. She cannot rid herself of ambivalent feelings toward her son and her past, and when she makes an attempt to see him on that day in the house in Paris, she lacks the courage to take the final step.
In The House in Paris, Bowen uses structure, symbol, and plot to achieve a clear statement about the value and organic character of the past. In the book’s structure, the past is bounded by the present, showing the essential interpenetration of the two. Leopold personifies the past’s ongoing character; in him the others are embodied. The house itself is a symbol of the past’s inserting itself into the present, for the events of the present had their origin when the characters first met there when Karen was a schoolgirl.
In her use of enclosed spaces to give meaning to her characters, Bowen reminds the reader of Jane Austen and George Eliot. Not only in “the house in Paris” but also at 2 Windsor Terrace in The Death of the Heart (1938), in Stella’s apartment and at Mount Morris in The Heat of the Day (1949), and in her early works The Hotel (1927) and The Last September (1929), Bowen places her female and adolescent characters within architectural structures. Rooms, houses, apartments, mansions—these are the spaces where the drama of female lives takes place. Employing little natural description, Bowen fills her works with depictions of interiors.
In The House in Paris, the house belongs to Madame Fisher, the strongest personality in the book. Both Karen and Max come to realize that if they fail to assert their wills, she will dominate them. Ray also senses this and takes the courageous step Karen cannot: He decides to accept Leopold (and Karen’s past). Ray’s gesture is not totally romantic; he understands the difficulties involved. It is now hoped that Karen can reintegrate past and present and break through to the future. Unwed mother and illegitimate son have been accepted and taken into society, but Bowen leaves open the question whether there will be a change now that Karen’s personal revolution has taken place. Possibly Karen will continue to wonder, “What next? What next?” Bowen does not seem to hold out much hope, merely implying that a beginning, an attempt at reintegration, has been made.