Twenty-five years ago, Mrs. Drover was engaged to a soldier—an unkind and mysterious man—who then died in the First World War. Somewhat relieved by his death, she married someone else and created a life. However, after fleeing London during the Second World War, she returns to her house to collect some belongings and finds a letter, signed “K,” reminding her that today is “the day we said.” Immediately, she thinks of her old fiancé and an “unnatural promise” she made a quarter century before. While Mrs. Drover believes that her demon lover is about to arrive with sinister intentions, Bowen remains ambiguous about whether the demon lover actually exists. At various moments throughout the story, it seems possible that he is indeed real, and at others equally possible that he is imagined. In maintaining this ambiguity, Bowen seems to suggest that each alternative poses an equally urgent threat: in one scenario, an unnatural and evil demon is coming for Mrs. Drover, and in another, her psychological trauma from her old relationship and from the wars has led her to anguish.
Bowen presents compelling evidence that the demon lover is real by showing his apparent physical presence in the world. The best evidence for this is the letter, which Mrs. Drover seems certain is from her old fiancé. It is dated with that day’s date, and it suggests that the sender has been watching Mrs. Drover for a long time, which echoes something he said before leaving for war: “I shall be with you…sooner or later. You won’t forget that. You need do nothing but wait.” Furthermore, after she has read the letter and reflected on how best to get out of the house, the disturbed air of the basement rises up the stairs to meet her, suggesting that someone has opened a door or window through which to exit the house themselves. These physical disturbances to Mrs. Drover’s home suggest concretely that there is a real, tangible presence in the house.
However, the significance of these details depends entirely on Mrs. Drover’s reliability as a narrator (after all, readers have to trust her that the letter is from a dead man and that the basement air did, in fact, behave unusually), and Bowen undercuts Mrs. Drover’s credibility by portraying her as confused and vulnerable. First of all, Mrs. Drover’s emotional state seems fragile. The simple appearance of the letter leads her to believe she is being watched by “someone contemptuous of her ways,” and reading the letter and recalling her old fiancé sends her into “a crisis.” Following this, when she believes herself in danger, she continues to act in a neurotic way—for example, she fails to even recognize herself in the mirror, and she makes a somewhat illogical commitment to being out of the house before the clock strikes the next hour, just in case that brings the demon lover to her. Furthermore, it is objectively highly unlikely that Mrs. Drover’s former fiancé is not only alive, but has been observing her for twenty-five years, gathering information about her life. The amount of time that has passed since her fiancé went missing, combined with the unlikely coincidence of Mrs. Drover being at the house alone on their “anniversary,” makes a strong case for the demon lover being imagined. In this way, Bowen creates tension by introducing the threat of the demon lover, and then heightens the tension by making the reader question if the demon lover is in fact real or imagined.
It’s possible, however, that what Mrs. Drover is experiencing is—in a sense—both real and imagined: Bowen explicitly suggests the demon lover might be a manifestation of Mrs. Drover’s psychological trauma from her frightening relationship with her old fiancé and from the violence of living through two World Wars. One of the basic characteristics of psychological trauma is that it confuses a previous event with the present moment with such intensity that the traumatized individual feels they are living the past all over again. This seems to occur when the clock strikes the hour and the story flashes back to Mrs. Drover’s final meeting with her fiancé, as though she is fully re-living the moment in the present. It seems as though the stroke of the clock has triggered this memory (traumatic recollections are often induced by loud noises), and she is unable to resist the power it holds over her. Furthermore, when she returns to the present moment, she is just as agitated as she was in the moment she remembered, underscoring the trope of a traumatic episode allowing previous emotions and responses to play out again in the present. Perhaps, then, Bowen is using the ambiguity of the demon lover’s existence to mirror the feeling of psychological trauma, in which a person truly believes that a past event is recurring and behaves as such, even if that thing is safely in the past.
While it’s possible that the demon lover is real, Bowen never says for sure. Depending on the reader’s interpretation of the story, Mrs. Drover’s behavior is either typical of a woman trying to escape a real and urgent threat, or symptomatic of a deep-seated trauma. In maintaining this uncertainty, Bowen’s narration mirrors the psychology of someone suffering in the aftermath of trauma: events unfold in a confused middle-ground between past and present, and the person is unable to determine what’s real or unreal. This suggests that violence is often most debilitating once its physical threat has passed, and emphasizes how trauma renders even one’s immediate surroundings disorienting and opaque.
Reality, Illusion, and Trauma ThemeTracker
Reality, Illusion, and Trauma 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.
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.
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.
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.