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Elizabeth Bowen’s "The Death of the Heart": Portia Quayne’s Destructive Innocence

Updated on June 26, 2012
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Stephanie Bradberry is an herbalist, naturopath, and energy healer. Her academic career includes teaching, tutoring, writing and editing.

My copy of the novel
My copy of the novel | Source

Portia Quayne from Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart is one of Bowen’s innocent orphans. Portia may be innocent, but she does pay close attention to what people say and how they behave. Portia’s attempt to avoid loneliness leads her to look to those who fake belonging as an attempt to avoid loneliness themselves. The Death of the Heart, therefore, is as much a novel in search of truth as any other modern British novel. Unfortunately, the Quaynes and their unofficial family members are so disillusioned that they pass up the perfect opportunity for a coherent family where everyone’s needs can be met: Thomas needs a more feeling wife, Anna needs a child, Portia needs a mother and father, Matchett needs someone to look over and talk to, and Major Brutt needs stability. As seen in Nostromo, there are two categories of men, those of thought and those of action (Harrod 1). The same division can be applied to the females of The Death of the Heart, especially Portia, Anna, and Matchett.Portia looks to older, more experienced females as a model of what to do and how to behave. However, Portia’s role models are not the epitome of womanhood. And it is Portia, the naïve one, who successfully combines her thoughts and actions to get what she wants.

Incomplete Coming of Age

Kitagawa believes The Death of the Heart does not work as a bildüngsroman because the novel seems more like “Portia’s gradual dissolution rather than her ‘formation’” (485). Much like Stephen Daedalus, Portia just needs time to figure out what she really needs to do. Portia does begin to act more like an adult when she realizes she needs to face Eddie alone after Lillian offers to accompany her (Bowen 354). Portia attempts, in multiple ways, to fit into London society just as Stephen tries various times to fit alternately in the church and the world of art. Being innocent, Portia “seeks a way of [fitting in] while protecting [her] inner self” (McDowell 13). Nevertheless, Portia is kept on the outskirts of society like at the party at Waikiki when “isolated at the end of her long straw, Portia looked on” (Bowen 286). Portia experiences the beginning of an epiphany as she sees she will never find a place to belong. The epiphany comes to fruition when Portia understands her father’s wishes: “I see now that my father wanted me to belong somewhere, because he did not” (383). As Portia enters into adult understandings of the world, she is able to anticipate what will happen next. Portia’s new “point of view” (403) forces the adults to acknowledge her presence and play the game she has created.

Elizabeth Bowen
Elizabeth Bowen | Source

Obtaining New Skills

Portia learns that she can make things happen inadvertently. The fact is Portia tries to exist in a world that refuses to acknowledge her significance (McDowell 5). Corcoran’s reading of The Death of the Heart as a “novel of the child, or young adolescent, at risk of too great a knowledge of adult heartlessness” is valid (110). Portia picks up tricks from Anna that successfully gets people to pay attention to her. As Portia flees from Eddie to Major Brutt and finds that there is no place for her anywhere (Kitagawa 491), she resorts to the most passive action she has witnessed. As Major Brutt makes clear his intent to get rid of Portia, she lays on his bed (Bowen 390). When Anna could think of nothing better to do to get her point across, she often laid across the couch. A long interjection of narrative prose sums up the reason for Portia’s action:

“Innocence so constantly finds itself in a false position that inwardly innocent people learn to be disingenuous. Finding no language in which to speak in their own terms, they resign themselves to being translated imperfectly. They exist alone; when they try to enter into relations they compromise falsifying—through anxiety, through desire to impart and to feel warmth. […] The system of our affections is too corrupt for them. […] In love, the sweetness and violence they have to offer involves a thousand betrayals”. (Bowen 133)

Portia’s actions are the result of not knowing what else to do, so she resorts to what she sees most often. But her actions put those around her in a precarious situation. Portia makes suggestions that she does not really intend to make happen despite her current attempts to show Major Brutt otherwise (389). Major Brutt relies on his actions to prove to Portia that he means his refusal of her proposal: “Unconscious, he could not have made plainer his determination to always live alone” (389). But Brutt’s current actions are just as insincere as Portia’s. Major Brutt is obviously upset that Anna does not want him around, so he does not want to live his life alone. He just has not found, until recently, the kind of people to spend his life with.

Constant Turmoil

The world in The Death of the Heart is “composed of dull, exhausted, and insecure people who share only competitiveness and hold no other values in common, people who feel no connection with each or with a significant past” (McDowell 7). The problem is Portia and Anna fight for the same men and both intrude on each other’s privacy. The main source of tension is over Thomas: “‘What happens when you go down? Do you turn Portia out?’ ‘Out of her brother’s study? However could I’” (Bowen 34). Portia is an outsider amongst people “isolated from tradition and hiding their real selves behind masks and facades” (McDowell 9). But Portia’s lack of education makes her capable of committing “one of the cruelest actions in the novel” (McDowell 12). Portia uses the commonality that she and Brutt are laughed at to form a kind of emotional alliance with him. Brutt and Portia together can solve the problem of living in constant flux created by living is a hotel where one gets “used to people always coming and going” (Bowen 57). The creation of “wobbly and insecure alliances, which somehow benefit both parties” works more in Portia’s favor (McDowell 14).

Still Searching

As stated by Blodgett, the modernist world “scarcely wants Portia’s exuberance, her impractical candor, or her open heart” (116). Therefore, Portia is left to find her own way through the world (Warren 137). Since Portia “does not know how to behave in a world where feeling is devalued” (Warren 140), she heartlessly puts on an air of feeling to convince Major Brutt to take up her offer. Bowen’s typical “restless or rootless transient” becomes hard set ironically in another hotel (Corcoran 104). Portia grows from a girl at the transitional age of sixteen to a knowledgeable young woman. While Matchett and Anna are stuck at a crossroads in their lives, Portia springs into a new stage of her life. Portia will not remain stagnant like those that surround her.

A True Sense of Reality

An exceptional gift Portia has is reporting and seeing the world as it is. Portia has not only the ability to write but also the ability to write things as they are, unfiltered. When in the presence of others, Portia’s observance is described as “steady, level and unassuming, miss[ing] nothing the other two did” (Bowen 30). The words “steady”, “level,” and “unassuming” shows that Portia in unbiased. Portia’s diary “contains the ‘truth,’ as opposed to the shadows and lies of the dominant discourse” (Chessman 80). This is why there is opposition between Portia and St. Quentin: St. Quentin is a rival writer to Portia. The “cruelty of innocence […] is that it destroys an illusion” (McDowell). So, where Portia “sees the victimized character” (406) St. Quentin victimizes characters in the novel that are considered other. Portia tries to point out that St. Quentin is a hypocrite when he says, “‘It is madness to write things down’” (Bowen 327). St. Quentin knows that writing the truth means one must be real and leave the realm of illusion.

Beware the Innocent

Portia is considered dangerous for a number of reasons, but none more so than the fact that she possesses an “outsider’s point of view—cold-eyed, unillusioned” (Tillinghast 30). Even after Eddie makes the point several times that Portia is not to write about him in her diary, she does so anyway. Portia does not see the harm in writing about what actually occurs in her life. But, St. Quentin makes it clear that one should not follow Henry James’ advice and write from experience but rather from fiction: “‘You set traps for us. You ruin our free will’” (Bowen 328). Portia’s innocence scares those around her into action. Portia plays her hand well and leaves all the adults in a quandary as she waits “to see whether [they] do the right thing” (398). Much like the puzzles Major Brutt gives Portia to work on, the adults are not given a roadmap as to how to make everything whole. Eddie finally admits that he is no better than Portia because he is lost in life (370). Even though Eddie describes Portia as a lunatic, he realizes that because she is not much different than him, she has the ability to pick him apart for what he is or more importantly for what he is not. After her highly emotional experience with Eddie, Portia heads for Major Brutt as a last resort. She tempts Major Brutt with the prospect as marriage, which seems quite silly since Portia’s proposal is as enticing as she is sexual. This does not undermine the “opacity of Portia’s feeling, which is tentative, exploratory, undecided, but still intensely physical” (Corcoran 108). Portia single-handedly forces others into action, which puts them in a very awkward position. Her main victim is Major Brutt who is coerced to do a series of things he does not want to, like being alone with Portia in his room. Portia is determined to have one person remain as alone in the world as she feels. She does this by telling Major Brutt that Anna laughs at him behind his back (Bowen 378). Major Brutt’s dream of belonging is shattered and he is left with nowhere to go since he learns he is not welcome at the Quaynes and Portia has sullied the sanctuary of his hotel room. Portia is successful in making it clear that Brutt is just as alienated and unwanted as she is.

Still Danger Ahead

Those around Portia are falling apart as their world of illusion becomes less appealing. Portia attempts to unify these broken characters through love. Unfortunately, everyone part of or visiting Windsor Terrace are self-centered and avoid intimacy, and “Each person at Windsor Terrace lived impaled upon a private obsession, however slight” (Bowen 11; 221). However, everyone is resistant to the love Portia has to offer. And Portia’s lack of a “normal” childhood makes her ignorant of how to simply ask for love (Tillinghast 31). Thus, a battle ensues. Portia being innocent is most destructive because she does not realize the larger implications of her actions. And as described by Bowen, when there are two innocents, “their victims lie strewn around” (qtd. in Hopkins 277). The reader senses Portia “will be the survivor of [many] relationship, and that [everyone] may well end up as hopelessly destitute as Major Brutt appears on the way to becoming” (Corcoran 114). So while Eddie laughs about the occurrences at Waikiki (Warren 137), Portia has the last laugh on Eddie by leaving him alone in his room with her belongings—a very awkward situation for Eddie. Being left alone is worse than death (Bowen 97). But Portia becomes triply left alone as: 1) Thomas and Anna leave her to the care of Mrs. Heccomb, 2) Mrs. Heccomb “hope[s] she would not be lonely in her room at Waikiki, and 3) Matchett still refuses to speak to Portia (180). However Portia also laughs hardest as she makes everyone pay attention to her at the same time. For this reason, “innocence is not necessarily pure” (Tillinghast 34).

In Sum

The Death of the Heart reinforces the modernist sense of pervasive loss. If the Quaynes and those close to the Quaynes cannot convince people to see the error of their ways, Portia will force them to. Portia’s obsessive behavior to be loved in lieu of her premature orphaning is an attempt to restructure a family life she misses. However the “traditional family structure is missing” (McDowell 5). Portia is left trying to negotiate as a figure marginalized for many reasons: gender, age, status in life, and so on.

Works Cited

Blodgett, Harriet. Patterns of Reality: Elizabeth Bowen’s Novels. The Netherlands: Mouton & Co., 1975.Print.

Bowen, Elizabeth. The Death of the Heart. New York: Anchor Books, 1966. Print.

Chessman, Harriet S. “Women and Language in the Fiction of Elizabeth Bowen.” Twentieth Century Literature 29.1 (Spring 1983): 69-85. Web.

Corcoran, Neil. Elizabeth Bowen: The Enforced Return. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2004. Print.

Harrod, Harvey. Class Notes. Feb. 21 2007. The College of New Jersey. Print.

Hopkins, Chris. “Elizabeth Bowen: Realism, Modernism and Gendered Identity in Her Novels of the 1930s.” Journal of Gender Studies 4.3 (1995): 271-279. Web.

Kitagawa, Yoriko. “Anticipating the Postmodern Self: Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart.” English Studies (2000): 484-496. Web.

McDowell, Alfred. “The Death of the Heart: and the Human Dilemma.” Modern Language Studies 8.2 (Spring 1978): 5-16. Web.

Tillinghast, Richard. “Elizabeth Bowen: The House, The Hotel and The Child.” New Criterion 13.4 (Dec 1994): 24-34. Web.

Warren, Victoria. “Experience Means Nothing Till It Repeats Itself: Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart and Jane Austen’s Emma.” Modern Language Studies. 29.1: 131-154. Web.


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    • StephanieBCrosby profile imageAUTHOR

      Stephanie Bradberry 

      6 years ago from New Jersey

      Hi Redberry Sky. Well we are on an equal playing field as I have not read The House in Paris. But I have heard that her works do tend to be similar. So, this would explain why "The Death of the Heart" speaks to you through this write-up even though you have not read it. Thanks for reading and commenting! I am glad I piqued your interested.

    • Redberry Sky profile image

      Redberry Sky 

      6 years ago

      I've only read The House in Paris by Bowen, but much of this strikes a chord about her very restrained writing style - you give an excellent list of sources that I'll be exploring in the near future; I have a fascination with Irish literature, and Bowen's name pops up so often I really want to read more of her work and more about her. Really enjoyed reading this, you've piqued my interest in reading more of Bowen's works.


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