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When Fear is Feared: Repression, Anxiety, Trauma and War Neurosis in Elizabeth Bowen’s Short Fiction

Kate Imwalle
p. 55-70


Pendant la Seconde Guerre mondiale, la peur était l'émotion dominante de l’expérience civile à Londres. Elizabeth Bowen est sans doute l’une des meilleures interprètes réalistes des différentes facettes de la lutte menée par les civils londoniens contre la terreur induite par la guerre et le Blitz de Londres. Cependant, en raison des efforts communs visant à garder un moral élevé en Grande-Bretagne, les manifestations extérieures de peur étaient méprisées et considérées comme honteuses à l’époque. Les civils ont ainsi refoulé le désir naturel de montrer leur peur physiquement, entraînant une difficulté extrême dans la recherche de sources disponibles pour étudier la peur de la guerre. L’œuvre d’Elizabeth Bowen est cruciale pour étudier la fiction issue de l’époque de la Seconde Guerre mondiale. Plus précisément, ses nouvelles des années de guerre évoquent de façon plus significative la peur incessante et dérangeante qui hante le subconscient de ses personnages. Bien qu’il relève de la littérature gothique et alimente des discussions sur le gothique chez la plupart des chercheurs, le travail de Bowen sort largement du cadre de l’histoire de fantômes ordinaire lorsqu’il est examiné à travers le prisme du réalisme et de la théorie du trauma. Ainsi, cet article avance que les nouvelles d’Elizabeth Bowen, telles que “The Demon Lover”, “The Happy Autumn Fields” et “Mysterious Kôr” sont bien plus que des exemples typiques de littérature gothique : ce sont plutôt des sources majeures pour l’étude de la névrose de guerre dans un discours plus culturel que littéraire.

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Elizabeth Bowen

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1WWII was a time in which fear was the dominant emotion of the civilian experience in London. Elizabeth Bowen is arguably one of the best at realistically portraying the various ways in which London civilians struggled with the terror that war and the London Blitz induced. However, due to the communal efforts to maintain high morale in Britain, outward demonstrations of fear were looked down upon during the time and considered shameful. Thus, civilians suppressed natural desires to physically show their fear, and “fear was to be feared” (Bell 156). Historian Amy Bell highlights this situation, stating that “Fear is an emotion that is easily understood intuitively but that is difficult to define historically. […T]he first difficulty in examining wartime fears lies in the nature of the available sources” (154). Therefore, Bell argues that we must look at wartime fiction in order to evaluate the effects on the psyche from wartime fear, since such information is frequently left out of historical documents (165).

2The work of Elizabeth Bowen is crucial when examining the fiction that came out of the Second World War era. More specifically, her short stories from the war years most significantly evoke the uncanny and continual haunting fear that loomed in the subconscious of her characters. Although aspects of Bowen’s fiction have been aptly characterized as gothic and have been meaningfully explored as such by scholars including Jessica Gildersleeve, Diana Wallace, Janice Rossen, and many others, Bowen’s wartime fiction has yet to be examined through the lenses of realism and trauma theory. I argue that much of Bowen’s short fiction, especially “The Demon Lover,” “The Happy Autumn Fields,” and “Mysterious Kôr” are much more than examples of typical gothic literature, and are instead prime sources of study for war neurosis in a cultural discourse rather than a literary one. Although I find Gildersleeve’s characterization of hallucinations and dreams in the texts as realms of “protection and safety” useful, my study examines them more as case studies to acquire a better understanding of war neurosis at the time (88).

3Gothic literature became popular in the eighteenth century and made a revival years later with the coming of the World Wars (DiBiasio 85). Up until this point, Bowen’s short fiction has mostly circulated within gothic literature; Diana Wallace goes so far as to say that Bowen is one of the leading figures in the female ghost story (57). Janice Rossen sums up most scholars’ attitudes about Bowen’s short stories, stating that Bowen uses “gothic tradition to challenge [her] characters’ thoughts and beliefs about the powers of reason” (7). Becky DiBiasio views Bowen’s work as taking on an evident postmodern shift, yet still classifies them as unrealistic ghost stories. She argues that “[Bowen’s] fiction is representative of the shift from the traditional ghost story and the weird tale to postmodern horror and science fiction” (93). Although Bowen’s stories contain many of the technical features of gothic literature, the exquisitely realistic aspects of Bowen’s depiction of her characters’ trauma are not sufficiently accounted for by the description of “ghost story.” As Robert Calder states, “Given her other writing, Bowen is unlikely merely to have written a ghost story or a tale of murder” (93). In other words, classifying some of her works as a mere ghost story limits our consideration of their meaning and purpose. Bowen herself points this out to us, explaining that her stories “may be found interesting as documents, even if they are negligible as art. This discontinuous writing, nominally ‘inventive,’ is the only diary I have kept” (Ivy xiii). Thus, Bowen’s war stories invite scholars to move beyond literary consideration in order to fully explore the cultural and historical significance of her depictions of trauma and war neurosis.

  • 1 Rivers’s original suggestion for the name of the illness was “repression neurosis”; however, war ne (...)

4Before an in-depth analysis of Bowen’s war stories can occur, one must have an understanding of the psychological discourse about war trauma prevalent at the time Bowen was writing her short stories of war. During a pivotal time period for psychology, W.H.R. Rivers was considered a founding father of the field in late-nineteenth and early twentieth-century Britain and focused most of his work on soldiers of WWI (Hemmings 29). His text “The Repression of War Experience” (1918) states, “There are few, if any, aspects of life in which repression plays so prominent and so necessary a part as in the preparation of war” (2). Thus, Rivers’s definition of repression is essential in regards to war, defining it as “the process whereby a person endeavours to thrust out of his memory some part of his mental content, and it is also used for the state which ensues when, either through this process or by some other means, part of the mental content have become inaccessible to manifest consciousness” (1; emphasis in original). However, when anxiety and trauma are felt as a result of war during typical daily life, in addition to having repressed memories of war experience, the combination of symptoms is called war neurosis (Hemmings 34-35).1

5In Modern Nostalgia, Robert Hemmings provides an excellent, in-depth explanation of the exact manner in which the most notable early twentieth-century psychology figures construct war neuroses. When it comes to trauma and war-related psychological issues, Hemmings contends that “the response occurs not immediately, but in a series of delayed and repetitive after-effects” (29). These “after-effects” may vary depending on the individual and the exact trauma that he or she has experienced. Rivers’s 1920 introduction to Instinct and the Unconscious also affirms that “the shell-explosion or other event which forms the immediate antecedent of the illness is only the spark which sets into activity a morbid process for which the mental stresses and strains of warfare have long prepared the ground. […T]he essential causes of the psycho-neuroses of warfare are mental, not physical” (2-3). A majority of Bowen’s characters live through both World Wars and experience episodes of mental breakdowns for long periods after the initial shock, similar to those described in Rivers’s work.

  • 2 The concept of hallucinations also goes along the lines of Freud’s theory of “The Uncanny” in which (...)

6Following WWI, Rivers conducted a study on soldiers who were experiencing high levels of mental distress. He argues that “the most trying and distressing symptoms from which the subjects of war-neurosis suffer […] are due to the attempt to banish from the mind distressing memories of warfare or painful affective states” (“The Repression of War Experience” 3). Rivers’s study revealed that, in most cases, soldiers experienced distorted and terrifying versions of their frightening war experiences in their sleep when asked to forget about the war memories during the day. The soldiers felt immense feelings of anxiety and dread for each night to come, knowing that their suppressed memories would resurface in their dreams. Hemmings also touches on the notion of “dream despair,” when the repressed memories that are manifested through dreams add to the total collection of the war experiences for the individual, and, regardless of conscious or subconscious reality, both are equally traumatic for the subject. Thus, even during an individual’s post-war life, he or she is still living in war subconsciously (44). Rivers argues that the purpose of the dreams is an attempt of the unconscious to solve an underlying, traumatizing issue that has been occupying the conscious reality of the dreamer (Hemmings 45). In extreme cases (which were numerous), repressed experiences that dwell within the subconscious can also be brought into consciousness through hallucinations, which, according to Hemmings, was another common symptom of war neurosis (41).2

7Hemmings also discusses Charles Myers’s study of the effects of shell shock on individuals. The final results led Myers to conclude that when an individual is subject to the physical effects of a bursting shell or any other type of explosive from war, he or she suffers either from symptoms of concussion or from a state of “mental shock” in which a loss of vision, smell, taste, and/or memory may be experienced. However, the root of the condition is the individual’s “mental strain” or “emotional disturbance” which any type of sudden shock or fear is capable of activating (Hemmings 32). Thus, a subject is susceptible to experience a loss of the senses for long periods following the occurrence of the initial “mental shock.”

8Additionally, there were many civilians living during the Second World War who were also alive during the First. Therefore, there was a unique situation in which memories from years before were repeating themselves. Hemmings defines the experiences as follows:

Conscious anxiety-provoking thoughts in the present about the possibility of a new war with Germany forged a connection with the unconscious memories of the war past. On a more passive level, the sounds of traffic invoked echoes of bursting shellfire. The memories and extreme anxiety of the past experience were thus drawn up into the conscious mind with confounding consequences. (38)

9According to Hemmings, these “consequences” are, in a sense, the effects of the double repression and war neuroses of two wars instead of one. Furthermore, with the Blitz and V-raids that took place in Britain during WWII, and “the alarming prospect of widespread bombardment of civilian targets, there was also the expectation of extensive afflictions of war neuroses in civilians,” not just soldiers. With civilians among the possible victims of war neurosis, the overall issue of the illness intensified. Hemmings explains that “Psychological illness in a soldier could remove him from the battle zone, but for a civilian there was no escape when the battle zone was where he lived and worked” (38). One could therefore argue that in certain ways, civilians had a more intense feeling of being trapped within the constraints of the mental condition.

10Bowen’s fiction can be read as a prime source of study for war neurosis because among the various symptoms and outcomes of the war neurosis, none are physical. Bowen’s short stories execute the mental manifestations in such a realistic and powerful manner that it is arguably only possible because she brings her own war experience into her fiction. In 1945 she served as an air raid warden, which exposed her to aspects of the war that most other civilians did not encounter. During a BBC interview, Bowen describes the atmosphere during air raid duty, explaining that “You stump up and down the streets making a clatter with the boots you are wearing, knowing you can’t prevent a bomb falling” (Hepburn 334). In addition to serving as an air raid warden, Bowen was affected by the air raids on multiple other levels. Her London home was bombed first in 1941, with repairable damages, and again in 1944 by a V-1 bomb that forced her family out for several months. Bowen notes the toll that the bombings had on her body in a letter to Noreen Colley: “I am getting quite nice and thin. Air raids are slightly constipating” (Glendinning 160). Bowen also lived through both World Wars which took a toll on her mental state. Heather Bryant Jordan explains that war “weighed on her consciousness increasingly heavily throughout her life” (13). When WWII began, her own repressed memories of the prior war (WWI) came back to her with “renewed urgency” (13). For example, Bowen’s husband Alan Cameron died after the end of WWII, but due to injuries he had sustained from WWI from which he never fully recovered (Bloom 162). Although it is unknown whether or not Bowen personally suffered from war neurosis, she did struggle with depression and admits, “undoubtedly bombing does something to you” (People, Places, Things 55). Bowen reveals the “after-effects” that war leaves on the psyche throughout her short stories.

11“The Demon Lover” is arguably Bowen’s most popular story and one that has garnered the most critical attention; it is the ultimate example of showcasing war neurosis in wartime civilians. Heather Bryant Jordan even goes so far as to argue that the entire story is a fabrication of the mind, stating that “As [Mrs. Drover] struggles to escape [the soldier’s] hold on her, the reader realizes that what she is really trying to flee from are demons created by her own mind” (133). In the story, Mrs. Drover visits her abandoned, damaged house to “look for several things she wanted to take away.” It is significant that the “things” she wants to take out of the house are never specified and are kept hidden away, under lock and key “in a bedroom chest” (Bowen 661). In relation to repression, we can view the “bedroom chest” as the site for Mrs. Drover’s subconscious: a locked box within the walls of a bombed-out structure during wartime. One can therefore view the unspecified items, or subconscious, as her repressed memories of war. It is only after she “went to the chest where the things were, unlocked it, threw up the lid and knelt to search” that Kathleen experiences her first hallucination of her past during the previous war with the soldier where she “had not ever completely seen his face” (663). As Robert Calder notes, “The faceless, featureless soldier becomes a representative figure, a threatening everyman in military uniform […] a ghastly symbol of endless, inescapable violence” (95). Jessica Gildersleeve also argues that “the demon is an allegory for war” (91). However, instead of viewing the unidentified soldier as a symbol of generalized violence and “the face of war itself,” it appears the soldier might actually represent much more (Calder 97).

12Bell discusses the meaning behind the faceless soldier and contends that “His unseen face is the perfect metaphor for Londoners’ wartime fears” (175). However, the faceless soldier may stand as a metaphor for a more specific fear than just wartime in general. The soldier, whose face is repressed from Mrs. Drover’s memory, could be emblematic of the London V-raids, instead of war in general. This distinction in the root of Kathleen’s repression is significant because, when it comes to war neurosis, victims feared specific traumatic events from war, not the idea of war itself. Thus, Kathleen’s trauma effects the narratological and linguistic elements of the story in that the appearance of the faceless soldier is meticulously described similarly to the way Londoners described and feared the V-raids during that time. Given the level of engagement Bowen had with the war and the V-1 and V-2 bombs, the connection between the faceless soldier and the V-raids becomes relevant for analysis. In the summer of 1944, the Germans introduced the V-1 rocket which, in essence, was a “flying bomb” carried in the air by an automatic pilot system. They produced a “distinct buzzing sound” and when detected, civilians below had only twelve seconds to find cover. During the fall of the same year, a more sophisticated version of the rocket was created, the V-2 (162). The main advancement in the rockets was their speed. Bell explains that “Like the V-1’s, the V-2’s could and did come at any time of day or night. They traveled from their launching pads in Holland in four minutes, faster than the speed of sound” (163). Thus, civilians maintained a constant level of high anxiety due to the inevitable and untraceable raids that they could not stop or hide from.

13Kathleen Drover’s anxiety of the inevitability of the bombings is evident: “There were some cracks in the structure, left by the last bombing, on which she was anxious to keep an eye. Not that one could do anything” (661-62). Bell’s article also touches on the factor of the “unknown” and “unidentifiable” quality that the rockets held: “Eyewitnesses heard loud explosions, but they had no idea what this new weapon was [….] The constant fear created a feeling of helplessness in civilians [….] No one in London knew what they were when they began to fall” (162, 163). Thus, the feeling that was given by the V-raids is similar to the tension that Kathleen feels toward the faceless soldier. Bowen’s text describes a situation in which “under no conditions could she remember his face. So, wherever he may be waiting, I shall not know him. You have no time to run from a face you do not expect” (665; emphasis in original). Much like the unexpected and unpredictable nature of the V-raids, there is also an acute awareness, yet unpredictability, ascribed to the faceless soldier. Therefore, not only does Kathleen hold repressed memories, hidden in the locked chest of her bombed-out bedroom, but she also suffers from bombing anxiety and shell shock, which, as already noted, may result in a loss of vision and memory (32). Such symptoms of shell shock help to explain why she cannot remember the face of the soldier from her past. In addition, just before Kathleen leaves her former house with her “items,” or repressed memories, that she has uncovered through her earlier hallucination, she feels a draft coming from the basement: a common site of repression in fiction. Bowen writes, “down there a door or window was being opened by someone who chose this moment to leave the house” (666). In this context, it is arguable that the faceless soldier, representative of bombing anxiety from the V-raids, is the root of Kathleen’s repressed war memories that she has not yet faced.

14The striking of the clock throughout the story also evokes the “distinct buzzing” and bombing anxiety that Kathleen still struggles with from the V-1 and V-2 bombs. Moments before her first hallucination, “the clock of the church that still stood struck six—with rapidly heightening apprehension she counted each of the slow strokes” (Bowen 663). The anxiety produced by the strokes of the clock are similar to the high anxiety produced by the buzzing and ticking of the approaching bombs that Kathleen had also experienced in her past. Thus, the ticking of the clock activates the sudden fear explained in Charles Myers’s study, and, in Kathleen’s case, triggers the “mental shock” produced from having experienced shell shock (Hemmings 32). Bell also emphasizes that “The 1944-45 attacks could have no such consolatory meaning, and coming after five years of civilian stress, anxiety, and privations, they led many people close to the breaking point” (163). Therefore, towards the end of the story, just as Kathleen “put her hand on the door” of the taxi driven by the faceless soldier, “the clock struck seven,” which is, arguably, “the hour arranged” in his letter, pushing Kathleen to her breaking point from the various mental struggles of war neurosis (Bowen 666, 662).

15The story’s conclusion allows Kathleen to finally confront her most repressed war memories as she literally meets them face to face and “remain[s] for an eternity eye to eye” through her scream (Bowen 666). The scream is not let out until after she has seen the face of the soldier, metaphorically bringing her repressed memories to the surface, and finally allowing her fear to become traceable through the outward projection of her voice. Thus, “her first scream” is the sole purpose of the story (Bowen 666). Kathleen had to revisit her bombed-out house in order to retrieve her repressed memories from the locked chest. From there, the faceless soldier was able to leave the basement, or deepest realms of her subconscious, and finally allow Kathleen to confront the two wars that she had lived through. The scream signifies both Kathleen’s collapse and recognition of her innermost fears caused by war. Therefore, because Kathleen uncovers so much of her past and former repression, she is able to finally confront it.

16 Although much more complicated in its sense of time and place, “The Happy Autumn Fields” features many of the same elements that point towards war neurosis amongst civilians as “The Demon Lover” does. In the story, Mary sleeps in a bombed-out home so covered in white dust that it seems “it must have snowed” (Bowen 676). She dreams or hallucinates about an earlier time with her family as they walk through a field in Ireland. Jessica Gildersleeve contends that for Mary, “escape is a fantasy,” and that in her hallucinations “Ireland represents a region of safety for the psyche desperate for survival” (92). Comparable to “The Demon Lover,” “Happy Autumn Fields” is infused with descriptive elements that indicate a character has suffered through two wars. Kathleen lives in the war zone of WWII, but hallucinates back to moments before her unidentified fiancé leaves for duty in WWI. Some critics highlight the intense effects that double war trauma has on the psyche, arguing that when the faceless soldier drives Kathleen away at the end of the story that “he drove her to his no man’s land, the place where two world wars converge in perpetuity” (Lassner 155). Others also argue that it is “the victim of war reaching across time to claim one of its survivors” (Greaves 48). Similarly, Mary’s hallucination includes moments when the characters feel as if the past is repeating itself. For example, while walking in the fields, Henrietta states, “we know this is only something happening again. It happened last year, and it will happen next” (Bowen 672). A sense of anxious apprehension is conveyed once again when Sarah states, “But something terrible may be going to happen” (682). Arguably, in Mary’s subconscious mind, both Sarah and Henrietta are referring back to the past war that is undoubtedly repeating itself. According to Hemmings, the result of war neurosis from two wars has “confounding consequences” on the psyche, which Mary experiences throughout the story (32). However, it is when Mary is in a state of consciousness that her most evident symptoms of war neurosis occur.

17While conscious, both Mary from “The Happy Autumn Fields” and Kathleen from “The Demon Lover” experience physical effects from the wars past. While thinking back to an earlier time, Kathleen notices “an intermittent muscular flicker to the left of her mouth” (Bowen 663). Just moments after coming out of her hallucination from the past, Mary feels a “shock of striking pain in the knuckles” (675). There is no obvious reason for these bodily reactions to occur for either character, and thus, their presence within the stories is worth examination. These unusual physical manifestations during times of stress can be better understood by connecting them to Rivers’s study on war repression in which an individual is still experiencing real war trauma during his or her postwar life. Rivers notes that “The special function of the unconscious is to act as a storehouse of instinctive reactions and tendencies, together with the experience associated with them […W]hen present, they produce pain and discomfort” (Instinct and the Unconscious 38). In other words, the unconscious pairs reactions with experiences which are brought back to the surface and enacted when a similar experience or memory of the experience occurs. His study on postwar dreams also helps to explain Mary’s statement that “I am a person drained by a dream. I cannot forget the climate of those hours” (Bowen 684). Rivers’s work on war dreams suggests that “It is as if the process of repression keeps the painful memories or thoughts under a kind of pressure during the day, accumulating such energy by the time night comes that they race through the mind with abnormal speed and violence” (“The Repression of War Experience” 13). Mary’s experience of two wars heightens these after-effects where the consequences that follow the initial trauma are much more real for the victim.

18Mary and Kathleen are both stuck in a bombed-out house because they are determined to retrieve “things” out of the structures in which they reside. In “The Happy Autumn Fields,” Travis tells Mary: “You keep telling me that you have things to see to” (Bowen 676). Although the items that Mary is after are identified in general terms (unlike Kathleen’s), one can still view them metaphorically as her repressed memories that sit in a house of a war zone in which she must confront, as Travis defines them, “good morbid stuff” (678). Similar to Kathleen—whose subconscious is represented by a locked chest—Mary’s “things” lie within “a musty old leather box.” Critics such as Kristine Miller argue that Mary shows characteristics of having a complete mental breakdown with the box, where “Mary is more interested in losing herself in this box than in protecting herself from an air raid, and she therefore becomes ‘a person drained by a dream’; her identity is ‘irrelevant’ because she has mentally ‘shut up shop’ during the war”, contends Miller (39). Others also argue that “a box of old letters brings her into uncanny contact with a moment of threat” (Walshe 88). While discussing the items with Travis, Mary states that “Everything one unburies seems the same age” (Bowen 677). This is a peculiar statement in general terms; however, when the items are viewed as Mary’s repressed memories, one can argue that Mary is continuously struggling with the war trauma from her past, and thus, it still consumes her present. Although a breaking point and consumption of identity from the box are probably not present, the box does make it evident that Mary is still struggling with war trauma from her past.

19The faceless soldier holds a significant role in “The Demon Lover” and is also present in “The Happy Autumn Fields,” however, in a much more subtle manner which has been left unexamined by scholars. Because loss of vision is a symptom of both shell shock and war neurosis in general, Mary is unable to see clearly. Similar to the faceless soldier, when Travis first enters the room, he is described by Mary as “A man she knew to be ‘Travis’, but failed to focus” (Bowen 676). Additionally, Travis has qualities similar to those of the faceless soldier. They both have elements resurfacing from an unrealistic or subconsciously manifested world that is feared. In the text, it is stated that “Travis’s presence preyed on her as figments of dreams that one knows to be dreams can do” (677). The unusual term “preyed” in this context parallels the uncanny trope of the faceless soldier in “The Demon Lover.” Travis also proves to be the apex of Mary’s repression—as the faceless soldier was for Kathleen—when he takes away her box of items or repressed memories. Bowen evokes the same demonic qualities in Travis: “[Mary] did not therefore see him pick up the dangerous box, which he took away under his arm, out of her reach” (678). Although Travis comes across as a typical friend of Mary, his actions and descriptions by Bowen necessitate a deeper reading, revealing another “demon” amongst her short fiction.

20While the constant anxiety from the V-raids becomes visible through the faceless soldier in “The Demon Lover,” bombing anxiety is also manifested in “The Happy Autumn Fields.” With added emphasis on the psychological effects of the V-raids, the implications of bombing anxiety are an element of the story that has been left unacknowledged by other scholarship. Sarah reveals the same anxiety in waiting for Eugene as one would experience in waiting for the inevitable explosion of a bomb. Bowen writes, “The ordeal of awaiting Eugene’s approach thus became for Sarah, from moment to moment, torture” (674). Similar to Mrs. Drover’s apprehension about the inevitable and unknown arrival of the soldier, Sarah fearfully anticipates Eugene. The intense speed of the V-2 rockets is also addressed: “One more moment and it will be too late; no further communication will be possible. Stop oh stop.” Interestingly, just after this moment, a character shows symptoms of shell shock in the form of a loss of memory. It is impossible to recall the right word: “Say—oh, say what? Oh, the word is lost” (675). Like Mrs. Drover, who had “no time to run from a face you do not expect” and “under no conditions could she remember his face,” both characters manifest their anxiety for bombs in other parts of their life (665; emphasis in original).

21Similar to “The Demon Lover,” repression and hallucinations from war neurosis are paramount in “Mysterious Kôr,” to the extent that Heather Bryant Jordan contends, “This story provides an alternate vision to the daylight demons of Mrs. Drover” (139). Just as the basement is the site of repression for Mrs. Drover, while Arthur and Pepita walk the deserted London streets in “Mysterious Kôr,” “the Underground sounded loudest” (Bowen 728). One may argue that Bowen is speaking to both Arthur and Pepita’s repressed memories from war, which are “loudest” during their walk as they discuss an imagined, utopian city called Kôr. Thus, it is plausible that Kôr serves as a hallucinatory safety net for the characters, where they are able to escape a war zone by letting their minds travel to a safer place. Past critics have conducted a psychological reading of Pepita, where the notion of Kôr serves for her as a metaphorical breaking point and total collapse from reality. Edward Mitchell argues that “For Pepita mysterious Kôr […] represents the isolation, the withdrawal from time and reality […I]t is both a product of the desiccated world and the final symbolism of Pepita’s desire to escape into nonentity” (45, 46). Phyllis Lassner contends that “The very ‘finality’ of Kôr which represents the end of imperial solutions is for Pepita the beginning of a new kind of plotting for a female character entrapped by war” (154). Therefore, similar to Mrs. Drover, Pepita is haunted by the demons of war from which she struggles to escape.

22Although it is a scene scarcely discussed by critics, Pepita’s unconscious act of “fl[inging] out one hand [… and] knock[ing] Callie lightly across the face” is crucial in terms of the after-effects of war neurosis (Bowen 739). Prior to the event, Callie’s body lying next to Pepita’s is described as being “sword-cold,” as if it were a weapon of war. Critics such as Phyllis Lassner argue that Callie’s function in the story is to keep Arthur and Pepita apart from one another (Lassner 153). In this regard, we might view Callie as a personified “demon” of war, and interpret Pepita’s smacking Callie while asleep in bed as her subconscious actively confronting her repressed memories of war. Bowen further describes Pepita’s state of mind after the hit, stating that “Pepita’s act of justice had been unconscious” (739). By using the term “justice” to describe Pepita’s gesture, this otherwise insignificant, sleep-induced fling of the hand becomes an act of war. We may also connect Pepita’s act to Rivers’s study where the unconscious deals with repressed war memories that are often of “distorted importance and significance” (“The Repression of War Experience” 14). Much like the function of Mrs. Drover’s scream in “The Demon Lover,” Pepita’s act of smacking Callie allows her to confront her repressed war memories.

23Arthur could also be the “alternate vision” to the faceless soldier. Just as Kathleen is unable to remember the soldier’s face, Callie exhibits the inability to see Arthur. While waiting for Arthur and Pepita to arrive at her London flat, she “sat like an image, facing the three cold cups, on the edge of the bed to be occupied by an unknown man” (Bowen 732). The “unknown” and imaginative qualities are emphasized later in the story: “With awe she pictured, asleep, the face that she had not yet, awake, seen” (733). Although Arthur in no way presents the same demonic characteristics of the man in “The Demon Lover,” there is a compelling peculiarity in the consistency of the “faceless soldier” trope throughout Bowen’s war fiction.

24Similar to “The Demon Lover,” “Mysterious Kôr” depicts bombing anxiety within the psyche through clocks. The story shows an acute awareness for the striking of clocks. While Pepita and Arthur walk through London, “a clock near […] set about striking midnight.” However, just following the striking of the clock, “Pepita, feeling Arthur release her arm with an abruptness that was the inverse of passion, shivered” (731-32). Arguably, the clock is what provokes both Arthur’s release of Pepita and Pepita’s shiver. The “mental shock” of bombing anxiety for both characters is due to the similarity between the sounds of the clock and the buzzing of the V-1 and V-2 rockets. Later in the story, the clock also affects Callie in the same way: “A clock struck four as Callie woke up again—but something else made her open her swollen eyelids” (737). Once again, the consistent levels of anxiety produced by intense bombing among the civilians force them to keep a heightened level of hearing, where even the strike of a clock can cause a feeling of shock apprehension for the victim.

25During WWII, war zones were in close proximity to where London civilians “lived and worked.” Through the disastrous bombings that occurred frequently, these civilians were just as susceptible to war neurosis and war trauma as were the soldiers. However, the ways in which war neurosis can affect the mind are immeasurable. Critics have and will continue to study Elizabeth Bowen’s war stories because of her incomparable ability to portray the mental disturbances caused by war in civilians, as well as her firsthand war experience. Heather Bryant Jordan affirms that “Bowen’s private understanding of the world as a dangerous and mysterious place contributed to the way she evoked war’s effects in her fiction” (11). These “effects” are arguably, purely psychological. Jordan later observes, “[Bowen] frequently resorted to the world of the hallucinatory in her short stories to counter the psychic stress of war” (130). Therefore, in order to fill in the gaps that historiography has been unable to document, one must look to the wartime fiction of the culture. Although most scholars use the lens of gothic literary studies to explore Bowen’s war stories, approaching her work from a more historically and culturally realistic perspective will lend significant insight into not only Bowen’s fiction, but also our understanding of war neurosis during World War Two. This initial survey of Bowen’s short stories provides the groundwork for locating symptoms of war neuroses in London civilians. Bowen’s short stories such as “The Demon Lover,” “The Happy Autumn Fields,” and “Mysterious Kôr” serve as the foundation for analyzing the various ways a civilian experiences mental trauma from war. The peculiar similarities between the stories point toward a deeper understanding of war neurosis as a whole. The vivid examples of war neurosis that Bowen provides may move us closer to obtaining a more accurate picture of wartime London. Because “fear was to be feared,” the personal mental struggles were “repressed” from London’s subconscious; like some of Bowen’s war-time characters, we may only confront these memories years later through fiction.


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1 Rivers’s original suggestion for the name of the illness was “repression neurosis”; however, war neurosis was the term that caught on.

2 The concept of hallucinations also goes along the lines of Freud’s theory of “The Uncanny” in which one struggles to decipher the real versus the imaginary.

Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Kate Imwalle, « When Fear is Feared: Repression, Anxiety, Trauma and War Neurosis in Elizabeth Bowen’s Short Fiction », Journal of the Short Story in English, 69 | 2017, 55-70.

Référence électronique

Kate Imwalle, « When Fear is Feared: Repression, Anxiety, Trauma and War Neurosis in Elizabeth Bowen’s Short Fiction », Journal of the Short Story in English [En ligne], 69 | Autumn 2017, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2019, consulté le 25 janvier 2020. URL :


Kate Imwalle

Kate Imwalle is a PhD candidate in English Literature at Miami University of Oxford, Ohio, where she focuses her study on Women’s Literature after 1800. She graduated with highest honors from Wright State University in 2016 with an MA in English Literature and Women’s Studies. Her thesis explores Elizabeth Bowen’s portrayal of the effects of trauma on the psyche, specifically, trauma during wartime. She currently teaches at Miami University and the Lake Campus of Wright State University. She is also a professional English tutor for the Student Success Center of Wright State University’s Lake Campus, and a co-editor with Dr. David Wilson (Wright State University) for Anti-Oedipus Press.

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