Critical Evaluation

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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.

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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...

(The entire section contains 1032 words.)

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