Summer Night Themes (Elizabeth Bowen)

Elizabeth Bowen

Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The psychological complexities of life and of social intercourse, especially the interactions between the public and the secret lives of the characters, are vividly evoked in this story. The “European war” is vaguely upsetting even in neutral Ireland. Emma wants excitement, Robinson wants to enjoy fully his time away from work, Aunt Fran feels threatened on all sides, and Justin, the sensitive thinker, sums up: “Now that there’s enough death to challenge being alive we’re facing it that, anyhow, we don’t live.”

Emma’s bid for excitement disturbs everyone except Queenie. The Major is apprehensive and worried by her departure from home; her daughters think that she may not return; Aunt Fran urges Vivie to pray after rolling the child up in a protective eiderdown as if she were on fire; Justin is outraged; Robinson evidently has some scruples because he twice suggests that Emma should return to her home. Only Queenie does not react, probably because she has not heard the town gossip or the war talk and apparently does not understand the significance of Emma’s car at the gate of Bellevue. Queenie has been touched by Robinson’s kindness to her and lives in her own dreamworld.

Critics often mention Elizabeth Bowen’s sense of social comedy, but there is no comedy in this story except Aunt Fran’s efforts to ward off evil. It is the somber record of humans hurting one another. The author has managed to catch her people at the moment when, through action or speech, their inner lives are exposed.