Department of English
Master of Art
As I read Elizabeth Bowen's The Last September and The Death of the Heart, questions arose, persisted, and remained unanswered until I undertook the project of applying poststructuralist theories to these novels. Reading The Last September, I puzzled over the female protagonist's relationship to an ancillary character, which Bowen repeatedly represents in terms of the father-daughter relationship. Reading both The Last September and The Death of the Heart, I was struck by the fact that although Bowen is typically categorized as a "classical realist," she embarks upon the quest of depicting the identity construction of two female adolescents but abandons the representations of her main characters at the end of each novel—without completion or explication. Finally, I noticed in each novel remarkable attention to the relationship between language and identity. Particularly, in The Death of the Heart, explicit attention is given to the female's role as "author." I questioned the presence of these ambiguous, disconcerting issues in novels by a "classical realist." None of these issues has been specifically addressed by Bowen's critics, but by applying poststructuralist theories to these novels I acquired insights which "answer" my questions. Primarily, I have relied upon the psychoanalytic theories of Jacques Lacan, but I have also applied a multitude of theories provided by feminist and deconstructionalist theorists. I do not assume that Bowen wrote her novels with an awareness or conscious complicity with these theories, but I do suggest that these novels raise issues which poststructuralist theories provide an unprecedented "lens" to observe and address. While Bowen, obviously, did not have access to these specific theories, the issues which they address were indisputably a factor in her life. As an Anglo-Irish female author, she faced the implication of oppositional terms which construct identity. In Ireland, she was perceived as a colonizer, in England as one of the colonized, and as a female in the first half of the twentieth century she, faced the dichotomous roles defining her as both "wife" and "author." Psychoanalytic and feminist theory address these issues: psychoanalytic theory reveals the intersection of language/culture, gender, and identity; feminist theory illuminates the hierarchical oppositions within patriarchal discourse which structure our thinking and influence behavior. I do not presume that my application of these theories to The Last September and The Death of the Heart provides a "totalizing" reading of the novels. Inevitably these theories will fall out of "out of vogue" and new theories will replace them. Further, while I have not read these novels in a purely historical context, the theories which I use are grounded in a particular historical/ social circumstance. Lacanian theory, for example, is not of an ahistorical, universal language, but is a theory of the structures of language and identity within a specific cultural/ historical framework. However, recognition of the temporality of the theories I employ does not render my reading irrelevant or dismissable. While recognition of the hierarchical ordering structures within patriarchal discourse will modify these structures—perhaps, for example, the male/phallus will not always be the dominant signifier—the notion that language is a mediator of our beliefs and identity will endure.
English Language and Literature
Bartlett, Laura, "Reflection/Reflected The Construction of Female Subjectivity in Elizabeth Bowen's The Last September and The Death of the Heart" (1997). Masters Theses & Specialist Projects. Paper 333.