Tears, Idle Tears

by Elizabeth Bowen

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In "Tears, Idle Tears," what are Mrs. Dickinson's feelings towards her son?

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Mrs. Dickinson is clearly a woman who finds it particularly hard to engage with her emotions. Consider what we are told about how she responded to the death of her husband and in particular the way that she shut herself off emotionally and did her best not to express any emotion whatsoever. Her emotional detachment makes it particularly difficult for her to understand her son and why he keeps on crying. The story focuses on her reactions to her son's tears and the way she is unable to comprehend why he should cry. Note how she responds when he first begins to cry:

She whipped out a handkerchief and dabbed at him with it under his grey felt hat, exclaiming meanwhile in tearful mortification, "You really haven’t got to be such a baby!"

For her, tears are a sign of weakness, and because she has shut herself off from tears, she is not able to comfort her son. Although she does love him, she is unable to empathise with his tears and finds herself withdrawing from him:

She walked fast, the gap between her and Frederick widened.

Bowen in this story provides us with an example of how our emotions shape our relationships with those around us. Even though the mother loves her son, she is unable to cope with him when he is crying because of her own emotional detachment.

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Does Mrs. Dickinson lover her son in "Tears, Idle Tears"? 

This is a very good question to ask. Of course, the way in which Mrs. Dickinson responds to her son when he cries and her embarrassment, mortification, and desire to distance herself from such unbridled demonstration of emotion is something that would cause us to question whether or not she actually loves him at all. Note what she says to her son when he starts to cry:

She whipped out a handkerchief and dabbed at him with it under his grey felt hat, exclaiming meanwhile in tearful mortification, "You really haven’t got to be such a baby!"

However, before jumping to such a conclusion, we need to be very careful that we understand her character and in particular the information we are given about her background and what happened to her during and after her husband's death. Let us remember that Mrs. Dickinson was able to remain "unnaturally" calm during and after her husband's death, but the only time she did cry was the first time she saw Frederick again after her husband had died. Clearly, we can see from this that she does love her son deeply, but she has repressed her emotions to such an extent that she is not able to cope with such a free expression of sadness. What we see in Mrs. Dickinson is somebody who has detached herself from her emotions to such an extent that she is unable to understand her son and needs to distance herself as a result. She still loves him, however.

 

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