Bowen's "Demon Lover"

by , 2004

Elizabeth Bowen retells a popular folk tale in her short story, "The Demon Lover." The title suggests that the plot consists of a woman being confronted by a demon lover from her past. Bowen does not stray far from this original tale. Instead of originality, Bowen's prose relies on the use of subtleties to keep the story interesting. The story's subtleties feed us questions that continually grab our interest.

Bowen immediately begins to create a sense of uneasiness in the first paragraph. As Mrs. Drover, the protagonist, walks toward her London house, "an unfamiliar queerness had silted up; a cat wove itself in and out of railings, but no human eye watched Mrs. Drover's return" (36). The author's use of the word "queerness" puts the reader on guard for something out of the ordinary. She then follows it by the description of a cat-a mysterious creature-wondering down the street with no regard to any passersby. The phrase "no human eye watched" seems to be overstating the situation. Instead of just saying that nothing was watching Mrs. Drover, the author chose to say that no human was watching her. We are led to question whether the cat was the only non-human watching her or not. And, if not, what else was watching her?

The feeling of uncanny continues throughout the next paragraphs. The house Mrs. Drover enters is given characteristics that suggest that it is living. There is a "bruise in the wallpaper" and a piano "had left what looked like claw-marks" (36). On their own, these descriptions would not have created uneasiness. But, the house that bruises and furniture that leaves claw-marks contribute to the sense of uneasiness that had already begun to develop. With all of these queer descriptions, we as readers are led to expect a continuing pattern of abnormalities. The descriptions build up to what was creating all this uneasiness-the letter. "She stopped dead and stared at the hall table-on this lay a letter addressed to her" (36). As she stopped, we did also, wondering what was the cause of her uneasiness. Then, our apprehension became focused on the letter. Why did the letter make Mrs. Drover stop dead in her tracks?

If Mrs. Drover's response to the letter had been simple fear, we readers probably would have lost interest, assuming that we then knew exactly how the story was going to play out. But, she did not express fear upon finding the letter; instead she showed annoyance. The caretakers negligence in placing the letter on the table, "leaving it to wait in the dusk and the dust, annoyed her" (36). And then "Annoyed, she picked up the letter" (36). The use of the word "annoyed" two times so close to each other accentuates the fact that Mrs. Drover was not immediately overcome by fear of the letter as she should have been. How did the letter startle Mrs. Drover so much yet cause more annoyance than fear?

The fear that we expected only came after the reading of the letter. The letter itself was very cordial and on its own was not in the remotest way scary. But, immediately after reading it, Mrs. Drovers lips began to go white. She stared into the mirror at a reflection of a boring, middle-aged woman. Her pearls, V neck sweater, and "normal expression... of controlled worry" all contributed to the portrait of a very unexciting woman. We later find that her "utter dependability was the keystone of her family life" (39). This dependable, monotonous woman had arranged a meeting with the author of the letter. K, the author of the note, wrote "You may expect me, therefore, at the hour arranged" (37). Had the woman known for her utter dependability tired of her monotonous routine and arranged a mysterious meeting with the writer of this note?

After the letter, the author includes a flashback and Mrs. Drover becomes Kathleen, a girl making some sort of promise to her fiancée. The author is intentionally vague when giving details of the promise. The uncertainty concerning the promise is a further source of uneasiness for the readers. We learn that she "felt that unnatural promise drive down between her and the rest of all human kind" but we do not know what the promise itself was (38). Of course, an unspoken promise that could have such powerful effects heightens every reader's sense of curiosity. Back in her London house, Mrs. Drover wonders "What did he do, to make me promise like that?" (39). We ask the same question but are not given an answer. We also ask, what did Kathleen promise to her lover?

Yet another sort of uncertainty stems from Mrs. Drover's failure to remember things about her old lover. After reading the letter, she asks, "what hour? How should I..." (37). She seems not to know at first what the letter was speaking of. But then, her flashback links the letter writer to the dead fiancée. "As things were," the author writes, "dead or living the letter-writer sent her only a threat" (38). The mention of dead or living implies dead; if the author was living, it would not need to be stated. The politely written letter written by "K" had suddenly become a threat written by something dead. And yet Mrs. Drover could not remember what that dead man looked like. Her memory of his face was a "white burning blank as where acid has dropped on a photograph" (40). It seems strange that Mrs. Drover would not be able to remember her lover's face even when "she remembered not only all that he said and did but the complete suspension of her existence during that August week" (39-40). Even though she could remember everything else clearly twenty-five years later, Mrs. Drover could not remember her old lover's face. Why is Kathleen's fiancée's face hidden in the same mysterious way as the promise?

All of the questions that we formed as readers stay with us through the end of the story. Mrs. Drover decides to go call a cab to collect her belongings and head back to the country. We are led to believe that the cab driver is Kathleen Drover's dead fiancée returned as a demon, although we are not told so explicitly. When he stopped the cab and turned around to her, they "remained for an eternity eye to eye" (40). The word "eternity" is obviously a hyperbole, but also accentuates the supernatural effect of the demon lover being brought back from the dead. When she realizes who her driver is, Mrs. Drover "continued to scream freely and to beat with her gloved hands on the glass" but with no resulting rescue (40). Her screaming leads us to believe that she had in fact gotten into the demon lover's taxi. As the driver "made off with her into the hinterland of deserted streets," we are still left questioning who exactly the driver was, how he had come back from the dead, what Kathleen had promised him, and whether she had actually remembered her promise and had used it as an escape to her monotonous life (40).

All of the unanswered questions, along with subtle uses of unsettling language, create an unsettling effect throughout the story. The title, "The Demon Lover," gave a good general idea of what Elizabeth Bowen was writing about, but her clever writing left interesting questions lingering throughout the story and even after its end.