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 ) 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. …