One reason that this story is so unnerving is that it turns the familiar cliché of wartime romance on its head. Rather than a romantic relationship between a woman and a soldier who must leave his home to protect his country, Bowen portrays Mrs. Drover’s former fiancé in a suspicious and sinister light and suggests that Mrs. Drover is with him not out of love, but fear. The man seems infected by wartime, taking on the characteristics of war: he wounds Mrs. Drover, surveilles her, and comes to haunt her domestic life many years later, in tandem with (and even seemingly as part of) another war. Indeed, Mrs. Drover is eager to escape her old fiancé both in the past and in the present, explicitly associating his presence with harm and discomfort. In this way, Bowen suggests that that soldiers are not necessarily good romantic partners, since they can take on the violence of wartime and bring it into the home.
Bowen explicitly associates Mrs. Drover’s fiancé with wartime violence. She does this most clearly through making him a soldier in WWI who reappears in Mrs. Drover’s life during WWII. In addition to his presence being associated with both wars, he takes on the violent characteristics of war. For example, during WWI he physically wounds Mrs. Drover—perhaps deliberately—by continually pressing her palm into his brass button until it cuts into her flesh. As Mrs. Drover registers this hurt, she intuits that he is capable of hurting her further. In addition to this physical discomfort, he surveilles her like an enemy, promising her in a threatening way that he will return sooner or later, and then leaving her the letter, which suggests that he has been observing her movements for the past 25 years. Much like war, the effects of Mrs. Drover’s fiancé haunt her for years to come. The scar from his sharp button is still on her hand, and she still fears that her fiancé might arrive at any moment, bringing violence and terror to her life. Clearly, then, her fiancé and the war are conjoined presences, and his association with war makes him an unsuitable and violent partner.
By contradicting the notion that soldiers are all romantic heroes who deserve to come home to their eagerly-awaiting partners, Bowen raises the issue of female loyalty. The story’s title is drawn from an old ballad that warned women against infidelity while their husbands or fiancés were away at war, but Bowen seems to turn this message on its head. While Mrs. Drover did indeed marry someone else after her fiancé went missing in the war and was presumed dead, Bowen does not share the ballad’s perspective that Mrs. Drover should have been more loyal. Since Mrs. Drover’s fiancé was cold, mysterious, and threatening, both she and her family had few regrets when he disappeared. Bowen’s sinister depiction of the demon lover justifies Mrs. Drover’s attitude. Furthermore, while the ballad warns against adultery, Mrs. Drover is not an adulterer: she did not meet her husband for many years after her fiancé disappeared, and in those intervening years, she did not connect with or attract other men, so there is no possibility that her relief at her old fiancé’s disappearance is rooted in adulterous desire. Rather, it’s clear that Mrs. Drover would prefer to be alone than to be with this sinister man.
By depicting the former fiancé as violent and sinister, and by contradicting the trope of frivolous and adulterous women, Bowen extends empathy to the spouses and partners of soldiers and critiques the sentimental melding of love and war. Instead of being obligated to wait for men (who might be made cruel by the violence in which they are participating), Bowen suggests that these women should make their own moral choices about whether their relationships are fulfilling.
Love and War ThemeTracker
Love and War Quotes in The Demon Lover
Against the next batch of clouds, already piling up, ink-dark, broken chimneys and parapets stood out. In her once familiar street, as in any unused channel, an unfamiliar queerness had silted up; a cat wove itself in and out of railings, but no human eye watched Mrs. Dover’s return.
…looking about her, Mrs. Drover was more perplexed than she knew by everything that she saw, by traces of her long former habit of life—the yellow smoke stain up the white marble mantelpiece, the ring left by a vase on the top of the escritoire; the bruise in the wallpaper where…the china handle had always hit the wall. The piano…had left what looked like claw marks...
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.
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.