Tears, Idle Tears

by Elizabeth Bowen

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Last Updated February 12, 2024.

Set in post-World War II England, Elizabeth Bowen's "Tears, Idle Tears" takes place in the vibrant landscape of Regent's Park in London. During a time of societal shifts and the aftermath of war, the story navigates the emotional complexities of a young boy and his widowed mother. The park becomes both a symbol of escape and a stage for the characters' struggles as they grapple with grief, unspoken sorrows, and the search for solace in a world often blind to a person's inner struggles.

The story begins as seven-year-old Frederick throws a tantrum in the park, sobbing uncontrollably. His widowed mother, Mrs. Dickinson, is mortified and scolds him for the embarrassing scene. Frederick cries often, and she worries about how he will behave at school and feels ashamed of his tears. 

Despite being a strong, put-together woman, Mr. Dickinson feels out of place with a crying child. Mostly, she fears the judgment of the other park-goers, but her efforts to calm her child only draw more attention. Deciding he does not deserve the planned trip to the zoo, she storms off with her son, leaving Frederick's tantrum unresolved.

Frederick is full of sadness as he walks next to his mom. Even though she does not openly punish him, she finds ways to get back at him when he acts up. Frederick believes he deserves it because he often cannot control his tears. His crying feels like a big, dark pit opening inside him, and it makes everything around him seem to shake. People near him, especially his mom, make him feel even worse.

Crying made him so abject, so outcast from other people, that he went on crying out of despair.

Frederick's mom, who clearly struggles as a single parent, only makes her son feel worse as she shames him for his tears. She tells him that she is glad Frederick's father, a pilot who died after a crash, is not alive to see such behavior. After these hurtful words, she quickly leaves her son by a duck pond to calm down on his own.

The narrative shifts to Mrs. Dickinson's state of mind five years earlier, after the death of her husband. Despite the urging of her friends to let her feelings out, Mrs. Dickinson remains perfectly stoic throughout this tragedy. Only once, at the side of her child's crib, does she cry. 

As she sobs herself to sleep, her two-year-old son looks on as if aware of what is happening. After that day, Mrs. Dickinson refuses any emotional support from others, cultivating a composed and resilient demeanor. This serves to alienate her female friends. However, it attracts the attention of male suitors, whom she rebuffs, saying, "... there's Frederick. He's the man in my life now."

Back in the park, Frederick finally stops crying. However, instead of rejoining his mother, he climbs over a railing and tries to touch a duck. At this point, a young woman sitting on a nearby bench kindly warns him that he will get in trouble for approaching the pond. Something different about this woman fascinates Frederick, and he approaches her. Without judgment, she asks why he has been crying and offers him an apple.

The kind woman tells Frederick of another boy, some years older than him, who also cries uncontrollably. This boy, named George, lived at a place where she used to work. He would cry "as if he knew something he better not." She advises Frederick not to continue crying or else he will end up like George. At this point,...

(This entire section contains 731 words.)

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she sees Frederick's mother returning and says he should get going or there will be more trouble. They shake hands, and Frederick walks away. The young woman stares at the lake and thinks about both George and Frederick, whose eyes:

seemed to her to be wounds, in the world's surface, through which its inner, terrible unassuageable, necessary sorrow constantly bled away and constantly welled up.

Mrs. Dickinson is anxious as she looks for her son but is careful not to show it. When she spots Frederick, she patiently waits for him to come over to her. He gleefully tells her that he almost caught a duck, and the two of them head off to their next appointment. Years later, Frederick would remember with pleasure trying to touch the duck, but the young woman and her story of George are soon forgotten.