Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

In this short, simple story, Elizabeth Bowen presents two contrasting characters, elderly sisters who have followed their natures and lived very different lives.

The focus of the story is on the differences between the two main characters. Hilda, the younger of the two, exemplifies a warm, sociable person who enjoys a good time—who derives pleasure from looking at the big cafés, the buses, the movie theaters, and the shops. She is saddened by Lucille’s alienation from her, but does not allow the constant condemnation of her daughter and her sister to affect her own outlook on life.

Rosa, on the other hand, has a cold nature and has imposed it on her niece, wrapping “her virginity round her like someone sharing a mackintosh.” In striking contrast to her younger sister, Rosa harbors resentment, even for a disappointment that occurred so long ago that Hilda has forgotten all about it.

The title of the story suggests the basic theme: After Rosa accuses her of being shallow, vain, and silly, Hilda pities her and wishes she could do something to make up for that disappointment that has stayed in Rosa’s heart all these years. It is too late to make up for it, Hilda realizes as she thinks about Rosa’s “queer heart.” Because of her outgoing, generous nature, Hilda understands why Rosa has wanted to dominate Lucille, in effect stealing her from her mother. Hilda sees the mean-spirited capture of Lucille’s heart as Rosa’s revenge over the Christmas tree doll, and forgives her.

Bowen thus delineates two opposite natures, or hearts. She shows the simplicity of the one who lives in the moment, taking pleasure from small things, quite unaware that her cheerful nature has provoked envy in her sister’s heart, just as did her long, blond hair and pretty ways as a child. Rosa’s cold nature, by contrast, has brought her to her deathbed in rancor and resentment and poisoned Lucille’s life.