Themes and Meanings
“Ivy Gripped the Steps” appears in a volume of war stories written by Elizabeth Bowen during World War II. Gavin Doddington reflects on his shattered life amid the ruin of a deserted and bombed coastal town in England. His specific loss—his inability to love—caused by Mrs. Nicholson is a microcosm for the loss felt by those who experience war. Although the war occurs some thirty years after Doddington’s traumatic experience at Southstone, it is the war-torn city that calls him back to relive his experience of devastated love.
War is continually alluded to even in the flashback section of the story, which takes place between 1910 and 1912. The admiral forecasts war, warning that England will have to protect itself from Germany, and the Concannons host a meeting to promote the Awaken Britannia League. As an adult, Doddington still considers World War I to be Admiral Concannon’s War, the one that the admiral predicted. He remembers the talk of war and Mrs. Nicholson’s refusal to believe in it. The admiral, Mrs. Nicholson, and Gavin Doddington’s diverse views on the possibility of war reflect their characters: The admiral reacts with concern, Mrs. Nicholson reacts either with unconcern or with denial, and the young Gavin reacts with confusion. Similarly, in the social triangle—including Admiral Concannon, Mrs. Nicholson, and Gavin—which was only a triangle of love to Gavin, the behavior of the three follows the same pattern. Gavin, who is too young to comprehend either the imminence of war or the mere facade of love, suffers as a result of Mrs. Nicholson’s ego. She acts with insensitivity and selfishness, while the admiral shows concern for Gavin’s feelings. The shallowness of Mrs. Nicholson’s world has proved ephemeral. Her society, as well as her character, is only a facade; neither can survive reality. The once carefree community of Southstone—a town now in ruins—is slowly being released from the grip of war; Gavin Doddington, a man emotionally devastated, has not yet been released from the grip of the past. As the town retreats into darkness at the end of the story, Doddington is left alone with his memories.