At the heart of this story is an unkept promise, and the question of whether Mrs. Drover should be held accountable for her apparent failure to keep it. While the letter states a promise has been made, its exact terms are unclear: is the promise that Mrs. Drover would marry her fiancé, whom she believed died at war? Is the promise to meet on this day as the letter describes, which is a promise Mrs. Drover claims not to remember making? Or, is it something more sinister and terrible that she cannot quite express, a more unusual kind of pact with a figure now coming to claim what’s owed to him? Bowen suggests that, whatever the terms, this is a promise Mrs. Drover shouldn’t be held to keeping. Furthermore, she seems to suggest that women are often held to an unfairly high standard where romantic relationships and promises are concerned.
According to the letter, Mrs. Drover has made a promise that includes meeting the sender on this particular day and at a pre-arranged time: “You will not have forgotten that today is our anniversary, and the day we said… In view of the fact that nothing has changed, I shall rely upon you to keep your promise.” Regardless of whether or not Mrs. Drover did indeed enter into the promise or pact the letter alludes to, Bowen presents the agreement as morally untenable. During the flashback to the time in which the promise was allegedly made, Mrs. Drover is presented as a vulnerable teenager who is obviously uncertain of what her fiancé expects of her. Furthermore, when he tells her that he isn’t going away as far as she thinks, she clearly states she doesn’t understand what he means, and he replies that she doesn’t have to, which makes his threat/promise to remain in her life seem one-sided and menacing, rather than mutually desired and agreed upon.
As the story develops, the reader witnesses the painful deterioration of Mrs. Drover’s mental health once she learns that she’s expected to meet “K.” She becomes upset that the letter has caused painful memories to resurface, the effects of which threaten her present day role as a wife and mother: “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.” She is also confused as to the boundary between past and present, looking to her palm to see if the wound caused by her former fiancé’s button is still there. Through these details, Bowen seems to suggest that, whatever the nature of the promise, it is placing her emotional wellbeing in jeopardy. Bowen suggests that, given the toll it is taking on her, Mrs. Drover should not be held to a promise she did not understand when she was a teenager, and furthermore that the wellbeing of women within such arrangements should be taken into greater account.
The story ends with Mrs. Drover’s abduction, and so ultimately she is indeed punished for her failure to keep her promise: after all, she has married another man and made a life for herself, and she is determined to leave the house before the promised meeting can occur. However, Bowen’s sympathy for Mrs. Drover’s actions—regardless of whether they are breaking a promise—gives the story’s ending a troubling implication: Mrs. Drover’s undeserved punishment seems to be a commentary on the unfair punishment of women at large. It is again relevant that the story takes its title from an old ballad, whose lesson was that women should not forget their lovers while they’re away at war. Rather than make judgements about the behaviour of women in wartime relationships, Bowen offers her empathy for Mrs. Drover, suggesting that her plight is unfair.
Promises and Punishment ThemeTracker
Promises and Punishment 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...
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 heard nothing—but while she was hearing nothing the passé air of the staircase was disturbed by a draft that traveled up to her face. It emanated from the basement: Down where a door or window was being opened by someone who chose this moment to leave the house.
Through the aperture driver and passenger, not six inches between them, remained for an eternity eye to eye. Mrs. Drover’s mouth hung open for some seconds before she could issue her first scream. After that she continued to scream freely…as the taxi…made off with her into the hinterland of deserted streets.