The Moral Argument of Elizabeth Bowen's Ghost Stories

By Coates, John | Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature, Summer 2000 | Go to article overview

The Moral Argument of Elizabeth Bowen's Ghost Stories


Coates, John, Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature


BY common consent, Elizabeth Bowen was a distinguished writer of ghost stories. While fully capable of giving her readers all the usual and anticipated satisfactions of such tales, she made, and fulfilled, other, larger claims for the form. As she remarked in 1947 in a preface to Le Fanu's Uncle Silas, "Our ancestors may have had an agreeable-dreadful reflex from the idea of the Devil or a skull-headed revenant, popping in and out through a closed door: we need, to make us shiver the effluence from a damned soul" (Mulberry Tree 112). Tales of terror may always have contained an element of "moral dread" but its "refinement" in literature has been "modern." She aimed to build on this post-Jamesian "refinement" to explore moral evil as well as, but much more than, the spooky or uncanny. Far from being marginal, if accomplished, diversions, Bowen's ghost stories offer some of the most concentrated examples of her moral vision. It is possible to explore the ghost stories, or that vision in general, in purely humanist terms. In such terms, the tales discussed in this paper deal with the consequences of failures of imagination or of sympathetic understanding. Although such readings may be sensible enough as far as they go, there is a loss in restricting oneself to a humanist frame of reference. Refusal to discuss the bearing of Bowen's strong religious beliefs and of her "feeling of the thinness of the barrier between the living and the dead" (Glendinning 236) on her writing is a "black hole" in recent accounts of her fiction. Bowen's ghost stories grow from, and yield their fullest satisfactions in terms of a spiritual vision, a sense of the utter reality of good and evil, of strange dimensions and unlooked-for consequences which lie beyond what "realism" may describe or contain. As Elizabeth Bowen uses it, the ghost story form touches a nerve of wonder, defamiliarizing English upper-middle class household scenes. It forces readers to see moral issues in far deeper and more spiritual terms, with the veils of habit and familiarity removed. Angus Wilson, a novelist nothing if not resolutely humanist, recognized the significance of Bowen's "apparent total acceptance of ghosts, of the occult" as part of her perception of life, and of her art. For her "ghosts make sense of life, not nonsense" (Collected Stories 10).

Complex and multi-faceted as Bowen's moral vision was, at its heart lay a concern with social, spiritual and emotional disintegration. The loss of order and rootedness, of agreed codes of manners and behavior, is a central concern in her novels. "Rootedness" had never been without its own pain or problems (as Stella reflects on her visit to Mount Morris in The Heat of the Day [174]) but the contemporary destruction or refusal of roots and order inflicted a deep damage on the individual and on society. Readers of Bowen will readily recall cases of psychological and emotional disturbance consequent on the loss of an agreed upon moral order; febrile, inward-turned relationships like that of Thomas and Anna in The Death of the Heart (40), dysfunctional, brittle, emotionally impaired families such as the Holme Dene menage in The Heat of the Day (107-24) or the Michaelis household in The House in Paris (126-33). Lack of the secure basis, of the ease accepted moral or social codes bring, produces a malaise whose various symptoms Bowen's novels chart; morbid self-consciousness, and a restless search for a "brilliant personality" like that of Eddie in The Death of the Heart (62-67); people (like Anna and Thomas in the same novel) who cannot receive a casual visitor (87-90) or make a young girl dependent on them welcome in their home; individuals, such as Markie in To the North, unable to eat a meal in quiet with a woman he is supposed to love (202), enraged at the mere thought of repose or content.

Deracinated, egotistical and ill-at-ease, many of Bowen's characters are also casually cruel and treacherous. They are betrayers of innocent young victims like Portia in The Death of the Heart and the children in The House in Paris or of love, as Markie betrays Emmeline in To the North. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

The Moral Argument of Elizabeth Bowen's Ghost Stories
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.