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The Death of the Heart: A Pessimist Outlook on the Loss of Innocence

The Death of the Heart (1938) is a novel which assimilates the strategies of nineteenth-century and modernist literature. Elizabeth Bowen, a popular British author known for her wartime fiction, “both inherits and disowns these two types of earlier literature.” (Kitagawa, 2000, p. 484). As a result of the dread caused by the First World War, the author associates the loss of innocence with violence and war. By depicting the inner death of the main character, Bowen subverts the conventions of the coming-of-age story and presents the loss of innocence of the heroine who, ultimately, ends up being empty-hearted. To accomplish this task, the author appropriates 19th century literary techniques and the genre of the Bildungsroman to subvert them and use them to her advantage.

The Death of the Heart opens with Portia Quayne, an orphaned girl who is sent away to live with her half-brother Thomas. There, the girl falls in love with a young philanderer, Eddie, but she slowly understands that she has been betrayed by him, and Thomas’s wife, Ana. Scholarly criticism had exclusively depicted the novel as aBildungsroman, that is, as a coming-of-age story until 1980 (Kitagawa, 2000). Literature professor Hermione Lee starts to gradually separate from traditional discourse, but she still recognizes that the novel is “the story of an education” since “Portia is repeatedly said to be at school experience.” (1981, p. 114). Therefore, the humanistic and moralistic reading of the novel seems to prevail and reflects Bowen’s “conservative sensibility” (Kitagawa, 2000, p. 484). Nevertheless, Bennett and Royle (1995) call into question the conventional interpretation of the work and stress Bowen’s subversion of traditional satire and comedy. According to them, Bowen depicts “a quite different kind of logic and ethics” and, by doing this, subverts “notions of self, subject, ego, codes of individual ethics and morality” (Bennett and Royle, 1995, pp. 70-71).

Figure 1. The Death of the Heart Cover.

Therefore, not only does Bowen make use of the Bildungsroman genre, but she manages to dismantle the old form while writing within its framework. Bennett and Royle’s rejection of previous criticism resides in their doubts regarding Portia’s entrance into womanhood (Kitagawa, 2000). Portia’s death of the heart when she finds out that her first love does not want her back is what is generally considered to be her first step toward maturity. Nevertheless, in the novel, love is a fruitless notion since it does not work for any of the characters who rather pursue the status of being married than to find a soulmate. For example, Anna enjoys the social relevance that the role of a wife gives her whereas his husband, Thomas, only desires someone with whom feel safe, but both think that “love simply cannot work.” (McDowell, 1978, p. 14). Given that the moral principles of the characters seem quite distorted, the reader does not witness Portia’s maturation, but rather her dissolution (Kitagawa, 2000).

In this way, Bennett and Royle (1995) also separate the novel from the Bildungsroman because the characters are not what they seem and their personalities are often volatile. Bowen draws inspiration from late nineteenth-century modernist novels that subvert the concept of the character. Modernism in literature tried to deconstruct the well-fixed ego of the characters in a quest for “the dissolution of the human subject” (Kitagawa, 2000, p. 485). French philosopher Hélène Cixous explored the notion of identity, and, in turn, which features make a person recognizable: “the single, stable, socializable subject, represented by its types or characters” (1974, p. 389). In Bowen’s novel, Eddie introduces himself by stating what he is not: “I suppose, that I’m I at all is just a romantic fallacy. It may be vulgar to feel that I’m anyone, but at least I’m sure that I’m not anyone else” (Bowen, 2000, p. 250). In the end, his desire to define himself through denial drift into an empty void since he doesn't offer any clear explanation of his identity.

Figure 2. Sacred Journey. Michael Reeder. 2018.

This negative speech is in line with the personality of the novel whose narrator, ultimately, is skeptical (Kitagawa, 2000). Eddie’s behavior is often regarded as a “pantomime” for his tendency to tease the rest of the characters and his desire for anonymity (Bowen, 2000, p. 82). For instance, he usually made impressions on other people. He wished he “had no face” because he could not stand “people getting a line on” him (Bowen, 2000, p. 124). Nevertheless, Eddie does not mimic other characters because he wants to hide his true self but rather becasue he desires to cover his absence of personality (Kitagawa, 2000). When describing Eddie throughout the novel, “the vacuum inside him” is often highlighted because he has not developed his persona and, therefore, he has an emptiness which has to be filled (Bowen, 2000, p. 82). In fact, Eddie is a representation of all the characters within the novel which represent the hollowness of modern society (Kitagawa, 2000). This is also embodied by the objects surrounding the characters which, in turn, are described with human features: “nude-looking windows” or “unsmiling armchairs” (Bowen, 2000, p. 374). Therefore, the spaces “can be regarded as embodying the state of the people inhabiting them.” (Kitagawa, 2000, p. 489).

In this world, Portia feels like she is “the only person in the world” since she perceives herself as a foreigner to London society and she thinks that there is a secret plan involving the shallow appearance of everything (Bowen, 2000, p. 136). She understands the human essence in romantic terms which is the driving force of the novel since her assumptions always clash with the real behavior of her counterparts. For example, Portia romanticizes the character of Eddie and believes that they both will end up as lovers. Nevertheless, Eddie is incapable of feeling real love and betrays Portia with Anna. Not only that, but he mocks his first date with the young girl because he had never intended to stay with her. Portia is sweet and naïve, but, more importantly, she lacks the necessary awareness to understand the world she lives in (Warren, 1999). For Eddie, Portia’s innocence is completely “intolerable” since he cannot grasp what makes her different from the other characters: “All the other women I've known but you, Portia, seem to know what to expect, and that gives me something to go on.” (Bowen, 2000, p. 369).

Figure 3. Disappointed Love. Francis Danby. 1821.

Therefore, the young girl thinks that she must solve the puzzles and the enigmas which are engrained in this society (Kitagawa, 2000). As the plot unfolds, she gradually abandons her expectations, but not in a complete manner since she still affirms her belief in individual authenticity: “But after all, Eddie, anything that happens has never happened before. What I mean is, you and I are the first people who have ever been us.” (Bowen, 2000, p. 369). Undoubtedly, her moral principles and understanding of self have nothing to do with Eddie’s perception and, in the end, she must abandon her values (Kitagawa, 2000). Portia does not have any refuge in London society which is depicted as a demoralizing world and loses her dream fantasy: marrying Eddie (Ashworth, 1987). Ultimately, the young girl’s inner death is caused by two betrayals: on the one hand, when she finds Eddie holding another girl’s hand in the cinema and, on the other, when she discovers that Anna has been reading her diary and that she and Eddie are secretly mocking her. As a result, she escapes from Windsor Terrace, her half-brother’s house, and seeks refuge in Major Brutt’s hotel, an acquaintance of Anna, but he cannot offer a place for her to stay (Kitagawa, 2000).

The Death of the Heart represents the process in which the main character’s illusions are destroyed. According to McDowell, “the innocent must be excluded” (1978, p. 14) since she is the only one who can decipher and touch the other characters’ inner emotions which have been carefully hidden from the world. That is why Portia’s naïveté must be wiped out since it could be the base of a society built upon shallowness and poses. According to Ashworth (1987), the importance of innocence has been explored by other artists, such as American writer Henry James who analyzed the relevant tensions and conflicts of human life which took place in form of social conventions. In this way, Elizabeth Bowen focuses on the moral ambiguity of human behavior which is completely linked to her experience of World War I. Bowen maintains a skeptical outlook on the world which has been met with criticism, but her portrayal of the interwar society has always been appraised.

Figure 4. L'innocence. William-Adolphe Bouguereau. 1893.

Portia as the innocent faces a great dilemma of which she does not know the magnitude. She must protect her inner self while living in a society and developing her identity at the same time. However, Bowen does not present the twentieth century as a great place for adolescents because morals have been subverted. Therefore, the young self must learn how to pretend and adopt a faux façade to cover the true feelings (McDowell, 1978). As a result, the unforeseeable essence of the twentieth-century individual who “keeps battened down inside himself, a sort of lunatic giant―impossible socially, but full-scale” (Bowen, 2000, p. 407). Portia is depicted as the innocent character of the story, but she does not receive anything in return for her kindness. Instead, she is punished and condemned to become just like the others, that is, an empty person surrounded by vacuity (Ashworth, 1987). As Major Brutt observes when Portia asks him for help, the young girl has been drained out of her persona: “That betrayal is the end of an inner life, without which the everyday becomes threatening or meaningless. At the back of the spirit a mysterious landscape, whose perspective used to be infinite, suddenly perishes” (Bowen, 2000, p. 391). That is, in fact, Portia’s death of the heart which dramatizes the change from depth to shallowness.

Part of the richness of the novel lies in Bowen’s ability to thread all the relationships of the characters together in order to uncover a general ethical crisis. In the absence of ethical codes, the characters become lost opportunities because if they had been brought up in a decent society, kind relationships would have blossomed. In the end, the author highlights “the wider implications of the failure of private and domestic traditions and civility” which echoes the impossibility of developing an ethical-driven world (Coates, 1985, p. 265).

Figure 5. Hotel Room. Edward Hopper. 1931.

In conclusion, Bowen excels at shaping her inner fears and anxieties mainly produced by World War I. The author considered the war to be a product of a selfish and manipulative world which made her question the implications that the conflict would have in the twentieth century. Her narration of loss of innocence stresses the author’s negative outlook on the interwar period and, by doing so, she manages to subvert one of the most conventional genres of literature, the Bildungsroman. Indeed, The Death of the Heart does not present a heroine who overcomes the obstacles which she has been thrown at, but a young girl who loses her ability to fight as the plot unfolds.

Bibliographical References

Ashworth, A. (1987). “But Why Was She Called Portia?” Judgment and Feeling in Bowen’s The Death of the Heart. Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, 28(3), 159–166.

Bennett, A & Royle, N. (1995). Elizabeth Bowen and the Dissolution of the Novel: Still Lives. NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Bowen, E. (2000). The Death of The Heart. New York: Anchor Books.

Coates, J. (1985). In praise of civility: Conservative values in elizabeth bowen's "the death of the heart". Renascence, 37(4), 248.

Cixous, H. (1974). The Character of “Character.” New Literary History, 5(2), 383–402.

Lee, H. (1981). Elizabeth Bowen: An Estimation. London: Vision Press.

Kitagawa, Y. (2000). Anticipating the Postmodern Self: Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart. English Studies: A Journal of English Language and Literature, 81(5), 484–496.;1-8:FT484

McDowell, A. (1978). “The Death of the Heart” and the Human Dilemma. Modern Language Studies, 8(2), 5–16.

Warren, V. (1999). “Experience Means Nothing till It Repeats Itself”: Elizabeth Bowen’s “The Death of the Heart” and Jane Austen’s “Emma.” Modern Language Studies, 29(1), 131–154.

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1 Comment

A nice article that clearly shows the writer ability to work with different sources and to position her argument within a broader discussion.

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Ana Isabel Bugeda Díaz

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