"A More Sinister Troth": Elizabeth Bowen's "The Demon Lover" as Allegory
Calder, Robert L., Studies in Short Fiction
Of all of Elizabeth Bowen's short stories, none has been anthologized as often as "The Demon Lover." First published in The Listener in November 1941 and reprinted in The Demon Lover and Other Stories (1945) and Ivy Gripped the Steps and Other Stories (1946), it is usually introduced as a clever tale of occult possession. Early critical commentary is typified by Allen E. Austin's remark that "|The Demon Lover' is a ghost story that builds up and then culminates like an Alfred Hitchcock movie" (117).
This interpretation was first challenged by Douglas A. Hughes in his 1973 note "Cracks in the Psyche: Elizabeth Bowen's "The Demon Lover.'" Far from being a supernatural story," he argued, "|The Demon Lover' is a masterful dramatization of acute psychological delusion, of the culmination of paranoia in a time of war" (411). The ghostly threat, rather than having any external reality, is a product of the disturbed mental state of the protagonist, Mrs. Kathleen Drover. Her guilt over her fiance's disappearance and presumed death in the First World War, buried by years of conventional marriage, has been reawakened by another war, and she hallucinates his vengeful return. The inconstant woman in the English ballad "The Demon Lover" discovers that the lover is in fact the devil; in Bowen's story, "war, not the vengeful lover, is the demon that overwhelms this rueful woman" because it strips her of her recent memories and plunges her back to her betraying past (Hughes 411).
In 1980, in an article entitled "Elizabeth Bowen's |The Demon Lover': Psychosis or Seduction?," Daniel V. Fraustino disputed Hughes's interpretation, arguing that it interpolates several key points in the text. There is no evidence, says Fraustino, that Mrs. Drover suffered an emotional collapse after the loss of her fiance or was gripped by "psychotic guilt," and nothing in her thought processes indicate incipient mania. To the contrary, the fiance was clearly a psychopath who survived the war and has now returned to kill Mrs. Drover on the twenty-fifth anniversary of their parting. Impelled by an unconscious desire to escape from an impoverished and unfulfilling marriage, she becomes the victim in a "murder mystery of high drama" (487).
Fraustino's analysis rightly identifies some serious flaws in Hughes's reading - there is indeed little evidence that Mrs. Drover suffered an emotional collapse after the loss of her fiance - but in making his own case he is guilty, if not of interpolation, certainly of exaggeration. To counter Hughes's argument that Mrs. Drover's disarrayed house, which Bowen describes in characteristic detail, reflects her internal collapse, Fraustino claims that she has had an unsatisfactory marriage, marked by years of "accumulated emptiness." Her London house is an objective correlative, not of Mrs. Drover's psychological state, but of her "impoverished married life" (Fraustino 484).
There is nothing in "The Demon Lover," however, to indicate that Mrs. Drover is dissatisfied with her marriage. After some years without being courted, she married William Drover at the age of 32, settled down in a "quiet, arboreal part of Kensington" (Ivy 100), and began to raise three children. When the bombs drove the family out of London, they settled in the country, and on the day of the story, wearing the pearls her husband had given her on their wedding, she has returned to the city to retrieve some things from their house. Empty of any human presence, it now seems to her full of "dead air" (Ivy 95) and "traces of her long former habit of life" (Ivy 96): a smoke stain up the fireplace, a watermark left by a vase on an escritoire, and scratch marks left on the floor by a piano. These may be images of emptiness, repetition, and stagnation, but they underline the absence of the family and its normal human interaction, not dissatisfaction with the marriage. She is a "prosaic" woman (Ivy 96), whose "movements as Mrs. Drover [are] circumscribed" (Ivy 101), and her marriage is simply conventional. …