Throughout the story, Mrs. Drover is sometimes uncertain of both the identity of her former fiancé and her own identity, stating that she cannot recall—and perhaps has never seen—her former fiancé’s face, and failing to recognize her own face in the mirror. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that Mrs. Drover’s dislocation of self began during the First World War (perhaps because of the trauma of wartime living, and certainly because of the emotional strain of being in a bad relationship). Furthermore, his dislocation of self is exacerbated whenever she has to think of this period of her life. As Mrs. Drover’s memories are forcibly returned to the trauma of WWI and her former relationship, her struggles with uncertainty and detachment magnify and she finds herself unable to engage with her present day surroundings, even to the extent that it puts her in physical danger. Bowen thereby suggests that not only is identity capable of being compromised through trauma, but also—perversely—that a strong sense of self is necessary in order to cope with trauma.
The face is the clearest representation of a person’s identity—it shows who a person is and gives clues as to what they think or feel. A major way in which Bowen troubles identity, then, is by hiding people’s faces, making it seem as though their identity is inaccessible or even absent. For example, Mrs. Drover cannot remember her fiancé’s face, and in her recollection of the last time she saw him, she notes that she had “not ever completely seen his face” at all. This detail raises the issue of whether Mrs. Drover has ever clearly seen his true self—his personality or character—and it suggests that, even though they are engaged, their relationship is not a close one. Furthermore, after Mrs. Drover reads the letter, she is disturbed to the extent that she feels “a change in her own face.” She goes to look at herself in the mirror, presumably to reassure herself, but she sees herself as though she were a stranger, feeling “confronted by a woman” of forty-four years. Her inability to identify with this full, clear view of herself suggests that something sinister has happened—she has lost herself, almost as though she has been possessed.
The possibility that the demon lover makes Mrs. Drover lose her identity is also present in her recollections of him. Of the time during and directly following their engagement, Mrs. Drover recalls that she experienced “a complete dislocation from everything,” and that “I was not myself—they all told me so at the time.” While the possibility that the demon lover saps Mrs. Drover of her identity is sinister enough, another (perhaps worse) interpretive possibility is that the demon lover is Mrs. Drover. After all, the letter is signed simply with “K” (Mrs. Drover’s first name is Kathleen), and after reading the letter, her first reaction is not a memory of her fiancé, but rather a sense of her own identity shifting. Furthermore, she is the only character to come into contact with her former fiancé, and even then she never sees his face, insinuating that perhaps he does not have an identity separate from her own. Moreover, since she loses herself any time he is evoked (she describes the “complete suspension of her existence” during the time she spent with him) it could be that only one of them can exist at a given time. In this interpretation, the demon lover’s supernatural presence seems less supernatural—instead of lurking in her house, he is simply lurking in her psyche (perhaps a play on a person’s “demons” haunting them).
Regardless of whether the demon lover is real or imagined, this uncertainty around identity produces a sharp sense of alienation: the inability to meaningfully connect with others, to clearly express one’s feelings or understand the feelings of other people. Bowen poses this alienation as somewhat inevitable during wartime. Not only does the nature of war cause people to spend long periods of time apart, it also results in traumatic experiences for soldiers, which in turn makes it difficult for them to interact meaningfully with friends and family once they return home. This alienation is clearly evidenced in the young Mrs. Drover, who, having learned that her fiancé is missing and presumed dead, experienced “a complete dislocation from everything.” Bowen suggests that this dislocation never completely went away by presenting Mrs. Drover as disconnected and disengaged from her surroundings in the present. This is clear when Mrs. Drover enters the house; Bowen describes her as “more perplexed than she knew by everything that she saw” and when she looks in the mirror she describes herself in the third person. This suggests that she’s unable to see things as they really are, and unable to look at herself too closely, perhaps for fear of what she’ll see.
An emotional distance is also obvious during Mrs. Drover’s final goodbye with her fiancé, as Bowen repeatedly draws attention to a lack of affection and physical contact. She describes that he treats her “without very much kindness,” and does not kiss her but rather draws away from her. It seems that he is unable or unwilling to engage meaningfully and give her the affection expected of a romantic relationship. This suggests that each character is experiencing alienation and, in their way, is trying to subconsciously maintain a certain distance, perhaps in order to keep certain illusions about themselves in place, or keep parts of themselves hidden or secret, both from themselves and others.
By destabilizing the reader’s view of Mrs. Drover, and Mrs. Drover’s views of her fiancé and of herself, Bowen makes it impossible for Mrs. Drover and the reader to fully grasp Mrs. Drover’s thoughts and intentions. It is clear that both Mrs. Drover and her fiancé have undergone experiences that cause them to lose a sense of self, either fighting in the war or experiencing a hostile and unsuitable romantic relationship. This in turn produces a powerful a sense of estrangement from other people and dislocation from the present moment and their surroundings.
Identity and Alienation ThemeTracker
Identity and Alienation Quotes in The Demon Lover
She felt so much the change in her own face that she went to the mirror, polished a clear patch in it, and looked at once urgently and stealthily in. She was confronted by a woman of fortyfour, with eyes starting out under a hat brim that had been rather carelessly pulled down.
The young girl talking to the soldier in the garden had not ever completely seen his face… Now and then…she verified his presence for these few moments longer by putting out a hand, which he each time pressed…painfully, on to one of the breast buttons of his uniform
Only a little more than a minute later she was free to run up the silent lawn. Looking in through the window at her mother and sister, who did not for the moment perceive her, she already felt that unnatural promise drive down between her and the rest of all humankind.
But her trouble, behind just a little grief, was a complete dislocation from everything. She did not reject other lovers, for these failed to appear. For years, she failed to attract men—and with the approach of her thirties she became natural enough to share her family’s anxiousness on the score.
…her married London home’s whole air of being a cracked cup from which memory, with its reassuring power, had either evaporated or leaked away, made a crisis—and at just this crisis the letter writer had… struck. The hollowness of the house… cancelled years on years of voices, habits, and steps.
She remembered not only all that he said and did but the complete suspension of her existence during that August week. I was not myself—they all told me so at the time… Under no conditions could she remember his face.