Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Elizabeth Bowen's Things: Modernism and the Threat of Extinction in the Little Girls

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Elizabeth Bowen's Things: Modernism and the Threat of Extinction in the Little Girls

Article excerpt

Much has been made of the objects present in Elizabeth Bowen's fiction, which is no surprise given her increasing focus on the external world over the internal one. (1) For most scholars, Bowen's obsession with objects either proves her to be a realist writer or disrupts such a categorization. Maud Ellmann argues that Bowen, in a superior distinction from Virginia Woolf, "relishes the narrative business of the realist, insofar as it releases her from the stifling rose-house of inner life into the world of cars and cocktail-shakers, typewriters and telephones Heather Ingman argues that "the realist mode was insufficient to represent--in short into the modern world" (2003, 5). On the other hand, the subconscious states revealed not only by recent investigations into psychoanalysis and the paranormal, but by [her] own experiences of modern life" (2010, 200). One of the critical commonplaces of Bowen scholarship, and one of the examples of how Bowen moves beyond realism, is her treatment of objects, which are more attuned to memory and history than their owners are. (2) However, these arguments (both pro- and antirealist) remain tied to human experience, whether social or psychological, and thus do not go far enough. In Bowen's fiction, objects become more than props for a scene, but they are still critically interpreted as (or even expected to be) representations or critiques of human relationships and social interactions. Yet if characters and critics alike have expected objects to be mirrors of human subjectivity, that mirror is now broken; if we have imagined objects to function as containers for personal memories--holders of the past--Bowen's late work reveals the coffer to be empty.

One of the social expectations Bowen exposes in her novels is the supposedly solid relationship between subject and object. In what follows, I turn to recent theorists of "thingness" (namely, Bill Brown and Jane Bennett) in order to position a consideration of "things" as an alternative to our thinking about the objects in Bowen's fiction. In their appearance in parlors, tearooms, and boutiques, these things can be read not as supporting social relations but as markers of a type of existence beyond the human. While Bowen's things intersect with the social terrain (that of the realist novel, say), they also simultaneously and paradoxically destabilize that very reality. In a parallel fashion, these things can be located as part of a human spatiotemporal existence--take a teacup, for instance, at four o'clock in the afternoon in any given parlor-but they are also coded as both pre- and post- these same (human) temporal and spatial parameters. The matter of material(isms), then, in Bowen's fiction might have something to do with imagining modes of existence other than the present "human, all too human" one we currently occupy. (3)

Such a consideration of the nonhuman elements (i.e., the "things") of Bowen's work also gives rise to a thinking about the posthuman, which I approach in two ways: (1) as, quite literally, a concern about the world after humanity; and (2) as a nonanthropocentric worldview, which is opened up by our realization that "things" have a life outside the realm of the human. According to Rosi Braidotti, "the common denominator for the posthuman condition is an assumption about the vital ... structure of living matter itself" (2013,2). Braidotti's vital materialism grows out of Spinoza's one-substance philosophy, "a monistic philosophy, which rejects dualism, ... and stresses instead the self-organizing (or autopoetic) force of living matter" (3). Thus, the presence of matter--or, in the terms this essay uses, "things"--raises a set of ethical questions about how we define the "self" and how we understand our relationship to the nonhuman world. Bowen's writing, particularly in her 1963 novel The Little Girls, expresses an obvious need for objects to mean something or to represent the human, but her fiction also recognizes their inability to do so. …

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