Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Although it is never made clear whether the figure Katherine hit was human or animal, the creature does bring evil into the Eden which the woman and the girl seemed to have created in their solitary stone cottage. Before the accident, Hester was blissfully happy with the companion who replaced the lost Hilde of her childhood. As she plans their future together, Hester assumes that their Eden will last forever, through shopping sprees and trips to Europe. After the accident, her relationship with Katherine is broken. The real or imagined lover has taken her place, and even though Katherine finally forgets him, it is clear to Hester that although Katherine possesses her, she will never again possess Katherine.

Yet the conflict between good and evil, which is the subject of the novel, is subtler than the plot line suggests. Even before the accident, Hester’s Eden was an illusion, doomed to destruction by her own sinful nature and by that of Katherine. Hester’s love for Katherine is a sexual love, jealous and possessive in nature; even though Hester would never bring it to physical fulfillment, her desire is evident in her attitude toward Katherine’s young body, flimsily dressed or moving in a dance, and in her wish to keep Katherine only for herself, as secluded as a harem woman. Katherine’s seeming docility is exposed in her letters to her friend and in her hysterical outbursts. It is suggested that, as Mr. Bird suspects, she is manipulating her benefactor for her own greedy purposes, and that her own sexuality might lead her into the depths of evil. Therefore, the evil within the relationship, the fact that each person is using the other for emotional or material purposes, was built into the seeming Eden, making it inevitably temporal. As an ideal of the selflessness which is possible in human beings, Mr. Bird quietly moves through the book and through Hester’s life. Only after his death, when she reads his records, does she realize how truly he cared for her and how little gratitude she showed him. Without his selfless love, his goodness, she knows that she is truly alone.