Places: The Death of the Heart

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1938

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Psychological realism

Time of work: After World War I

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*London

*London. Death of the Heart, TheCapital and largest city of Great Britain. As one of the novel’s characters walks through Covent Garden during the evening, the narrator describes a feeling of desolation, which is representative of a city “full of such deserts, of such moments, at which the mirage of one’s own keyed-up existence suddenly fails.” In this instance, the keyed-up character is Eddie, a dashing young man who has attracted sixteen-year-old Portia, the novel’s protagonist. She wants to believe that he represents an antidote to the cold, staid life she encounters in her brother Tom’s home near Regent’s Park.

Portia has come to stay in London after her father’s death. She is a love child, born of her father’s liaison with a woman outside his marriage. His legitimate son Tom has honored his father’s desire to have Portia come to live with him for a year in London. Neither Tom nor his wife Anna, who dislikes Portia and invades her privacy by reading her diary, really wants to make a place for her in their lives.

*Regent’s Park

*Regent’s Park. Large public park in London. The whole Regent’s Park area is described in terms that enclose Portia in a dehumanizing vacuum. The novel opens with a description of the Regency buildings at dusk: “colourless silhouettes, insipidly ornate, brittle and cold.” These very words might be used to describe Tom and Anna, who never take a warm or colorful interest in Portia’s feelings or experiences.


*Seale. Resort town on southeastern England’s Kentish coast which provides Portia with a respite from her dour London life. Tom and Anna have sent her there to stay with Mrs. Heccomb, Anna’s former governess, while Tom and Anna are in France for a summer holiday. Portia enjoys the more sympathetic Mrs. Heccomb, who does not have the reserve that Portia finds so alienating in London. Mrs. Heccomb’s children respond to Portia more forthrightly and expansively, energizing her and prompting her to ask permission to invite Eddie to come down from the city. Eddie’s visit proves to be a disaster, however, for he pays more attention to Daphne, Mrs. Heccomb’s daughter, than to Portia. Portia’s seaside idyll is destroyed as she realizes that Eddie really is no different from other secretive, duplicitous Londoners.

Returning to London, Portia learns that Anna has discussed Portia’s diary with Eddie and another male friend, St. Quentin, a writer. Feeling that she has no place in the city, Portia refuses to return to Regent’s Park and calls upon Major Brutt, an unlucky Englishman who has hoped to secure employment from Anna’s friends.

*Karachi Hotel

*Karachi Hotel. Residence of Major Brutt in the Kensington section of London in which the novel concludes in an agonizing scene. The hotel has been formed out of two houses. It is as grim and heartless as Tom and Anna’s Regent’s Park home. The bare windows, the poor moldings, the feeble lighting of the rooms, the “unsmiling armchairs” express the dimness of Portia’s prospects. The hotel is a space of “extensive vacuity,” and like other hotels in the area, “no intimate life can have flowered” inside such walls, even when they were homes.

Portia has come to Major Brutt because she believes he is as desperate and isolated as she is. When he tries to make her return to Regent’s Park, she refuses, pointing out that Tom and Anna have as much scorn for him as for her. In his austere, remote attic room, she offers to marry him, but he responds by calling Tom and Anna, who send their servant Matchett to fetch her.

BibliographyAustin, Allan E. Elizabeth Bowen. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1989. Good introduction discusses Bowen’s style, syntax, use of narrator, and evocative settings. Analyzes careful blending of the two themes–loss of innocence and the revival of a stagnant relationship–praising narrative voice for awareness, perception, humor, compassion. Annotated bibliography.Blodgett, Harriet. Patterns of Reality: Elizabeth Bowen’s Novels. The Hague: Mouton, 1975. Explores religious imagery, stressing the heroine’s status as a Christlike victim. Contains a bibliography of works by and about Bowen.Bloom, Harold, ed. Elizabeth Bowen. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. Offers an introduction and previously published criticism. The article by poet and fiction writer Mona Van Duyn examines the novel’s fictional techniques.Coles, Robert. Irony in the Mind’s Life. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1974. Clear, insightful analysis of setting, theme, and character, especially the adolescent Portia’s innocent capacity for malevolence as she struggles with the seven deadly sins. Discusses the importance of Lilian and Eddie.Glendinning, Victoria. Elizabeth Bowen: Portrait of a Writer. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1977. Presents Bowen as the last of the Anglo-Irish writers, discussing incidents and individuals in Bowen’s life that are reflected in The Death of the Heart. Evaluates innovative authorial voice over technique.Heath, William. Elizabeth Bowen: An Introduction to Her Novels. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1961. Discusses the novel’s structure, including transitions between its three sections. Analyzes character and theme, finding Matchett the moral authority of the novel. Compares Bowen with Henry James, Jane Austin, and T. S. Eliot. Extremely helpful introduction and annotated bibliography.Kenney, Edwin, Jr. Elizabeth Bowen. Cranbury, N.J.: Bucknell University Press, 1975. Presents The Death of the Heart as a culmination of Bowen’s themes of youthful innocence confronting a world of unsympathetic fallen adults. Describes Bowen’s contrasting the child with the adult, innocence with experience, and the past with the present, including detailed analysis of the relationship between Portia and Anna.Lassner, Phyllis. Elizabeth Bowen. Basingstoke, England: Macmillan, 1990. A timely, sophisticated evaluation with a feminist approach. The primary and secondary bibliographies include lists of pertinent readings in feminist theory, myth, and psychology.Lee, Hermione. Elizabeth Bowen: An Estimation. London: Vision Press, 1981. Includes an excellent chapter emphasizing the moral viewpoint of The Death of the Heart and its depiction of social values.
Categories: Places