2007: 117. The Death of the Heart

“That morning’s ice, no more than a brittle film, had cracked and was now floating in segments.”

The Death of the Heart, Elizabeth Bowen

I read a review that referred to this book as a tragedy masking as a comedy of manners, and another that called this the tragic story of the stripping of innocence.  I think I must be a cold hearted snake, because, while I thought this was a grand, excellent book, I didn’t think it was sad, so much as the way life is.  Maybe I’m not old enough yet, to see a sixteen year old being forced to accept the way life is as a tragedy, rather than a necessity.

The book is the story of Portia, who has gone to live with her half brother Thomas and his wife Anna.  Their relationship is made awkward by the circumstances of Portia’s birth - basically, their father had an affair with Portia’s mother, and Thomas’ mother, in the perfect act of over done self sacrifice, forced him to divorce her and make Portia legal, thereby ruining his life and breaking his spirit.  Of course, it was the right thing to do (well, unless you consider not having the affair at all the right thing to do), but the chapter that talks about the incident and Thomas’ mother is quite horrifying.  Bowen does a remarkable job capturing the notion of a horribly upright woman.  

Anyway, Thomas doesn’t know what to do with Portia, and Anna, who is a cold woman herself, loathes her, so Portia just goes about her business, falling in love with one of Anna’s friends, and trying to figure out her life.  The book is about the corruption of her innocence - not through evil, but through pure thoughtlessness.  None of them care about poor little Portia, really, which is what she learns in the end.  God, that is pretty heartbreaking, when you think about it.  Here is what her lover  (not in that way, just emotionally) says when he is confronted with his betrayal of her:

“Well, when I’m with Anna you do seem pretty funny, I should think, in fact I’m certain you’d seem pretty funny to anyone but me.  You’ve got a complete lunatic set of values, and a sort of unfailing lunatic instinct that makes you pick on another lunatic - another person who doesn’t know where he is.  You know, I’m not a cad, and I know you’re not batty.  But, my God, we’ve got to live in the world.”


Ouch, yo.  This is a great book to read to think about the ways we hurt each other and the ways that people grow up and figure out life.  More for characters than plot, but I recommend it highly.

Recommended for: People who appreciate interesting and accurate characterizations, and stories about people growing up.


Date/Place Completed: 7/30/07; Flying back from Albany

Categories: Fiction; Commuting Book; Modern Library

© Carrie Dunsmore 2017