Elizabeth Bowen's "Her Table Spread": A Joycean Irish Story
Gonzalez, Alexander G., Studies in Short Fiction
One of Elizabeth Bowen's earliest published Irish short stories, "Her Table Spread" (1930), merits serious attention for two central reasons: not only is it an engrossing and rewarding work of art but it also reveals yet one more Irish fiction writer contemporary with James Joyce who was clearly influenced by him. Moreover, Bowen's story demonstrates surprisingly similar aesthetic and social attitudes - despite obvious differences in the authors' social classes and general cultural upbringing - which are a testament to how strong an influence Joyce was. Bowen's Court and the streets of Dublin are as strikingly diverse raw materials of experience as one may imagine in Ireland. At first Her Table Spread" would appear to have nothing Joycean about it, since it involves Ireland's Protestant upper class during the twenties; Dublin's slums and middle-class neighborhoods are nowhere in sight. However, further connections do exist once we consider certain significant subtleties of symbol, theme, and technique - all of which Bowen successfully adapts to suit her own purposes.
Not much has been written on Bowen's short stories, and precious little is dedicated to the study of her Irish stories. Antoinette Quinn, the only recent scholar to focus specifically on Bowen's Irish stories, unfortunately restricts herself to the period 1939 to 1945. Heather Jordan, however, not only lists Joyce among those authors Bowen most admired (75) but also reminds us that Bowen's first published book, a volume of short stories, was titled Encounters (69) - a fact of some significance for two fairly obvious reasons: it echoes the title of Joyce's second Dubliners story, "An Encounter," and it suggests Joyce's epiphanic method in his collection, a method utilized by Bowen in "Her Table Spread" to imbue the story with significant depth and poignancy. Mary Jarrett has noted Bowen's use of paralysis as spiritual metaphor in another of her stories, "The Dancing Mistress," likening it to something out of Dubliners (74); the same metaphor is clearly at work in "Her Table Spread," whose protagonist has much in common with Gabriel Conroy of "The Dead" both in terms of character traits and in the narrator's rhetorical stance toward the protagonist.
Bowen makes it very clear throughout her story that she is criticizing not only a handful of upper-class individuals, and one in particular, but also the remnants of Ireland's formerly powerful ascendancy as a whole. In fact, Bowen's story seems the logical ending point of a tradition in Irish fiction concerned with exposing the ascendancy's ailing spiritual condition. Beginning with George Moore's A Drama in Muslin (1886) and continuing through Seumas O'Kelly's The Lady of Deerpark (1917) and various short stories by Daniel Corkery, Brinsley MacNamara, and others, this tradition has always emphasized the ascendancy's paralysis in parallel fashion to the better known tradition that criticizes Ireland's other classes for having the same disease - as manifested in Dubliners, its most salient example. Even though Valeria Cuffe may own her palatial home while Joyce's Misses Morkan merely rent their sprawling second-floor middle-class apartment, considerable similarities exist between the dinner parties in the two stories, especially since the events presented at each party occupy the bulk of each story. The party in Bowen's story is something of a reduced version of the one in Joyce's, for it involves far fewer participants. Still, when the story's protagonist, Mr. Alban, plays the piano, no one listens; Mr. Rossiter, Bowen's version of Mr. Browne, drinks to excess and has some ridiculous flirtation -or worse - going on with the parlor maid; and the general veneer of good manners hides only temporarily the underlying indelicacies of human nature.
The role of Mr. Rossiter, who conceals his bottle of whiskey in the most undetectable places, seems to be to show the debauched and seedy side of the self-consciously polite aristocracy - to expose the falseness skulking behind refined airs. …