Mrs. Drover’s relationship to time governs her actions in the story. She is consistently trying to evade the past, she becomes uncomfortable and disturbed within the present moment, and she is always looking to the immediate future as a place of safety. Though she initially enters her house with the intention to retrieve items from her past to use in her present life (she and her family are living in the country in an attempt to avoid bombings in London), her return to the house allows the past to overwhelm her and even, apparently, consume her life. In both the form of the demon lover and the threatening captivity of the house, Bowen suggests that the effects of the past are beyond a person’s control.
At the very beginning of the story, Mrs. Drover is relatively at ease in the present moment; she moves through the house, making concrete observations about its appearance. Once Mrs. Drover reads the letter, however, she remembers something with “such dreadful acuteness that the twenty five years since then dissolved like smoke” and it becomes evident that the past has taken hold of her present. Furthermore, she suggests that certain memories are powerful enough to affect a person’s behaviour in the present and even cause them harm. Once she has read the letter and experienced her flashback, Mrs. Drover’s behaviour becomes increasingly irrational. She is eager to leave the house, but is too absorbed by recollections of how her fiancé treated her poorly to focus on the present. Mrs. Drover also either simply notes or instructs herself that “Under no conditions could she remember his face,” suggesting that to do so would give the specter of her former fiancé greater power or solidity in the present. In this way, Bowen seems to suggest that the past is an explicitly harmful, volatile entity that can't be controlled or held at bay.
In contrast to the past, which is dangerous and ever-present, Bowen presents the immediate future as a source of comfort for Mrs. Drover—a constantly deferred time in which she believes she will be safe. When Mrs. Drover is in the garden with her fiancé, for example, she feels deeply uncomfortable in the present and she looks to the house, imagining that in a few moments she will return to it and be embraced by her mother and sister. Once she departs from her fiancé, she runs to the house—but the scene ends before she reaches her family, so it’s never clear whether she finds the safety she desires there. Likewise, while Mrs. Drover is frightened inside her house in London, she sustains herself by thinking that she will be safe once a taxi driver comes to get her. However, this near future does not bring the safety she imagined: when she finally manages to exit the house and find a taxi, she is struck with terror at the sight of the driver. Though Bowen doesn’t explicitly describe the driver, by Mrs. Drover’s response it seems plausible that she has recognized him as her old fiancé, now somehow transformed into the demon lover. Once more her attempt to escape to a place she thought was emblematic of safety has failed, this time with greater drama as she continues screaming and beating at the windows.
That the future safety Mrs. Drover imagined turns into terror seems to be Bowen’s way of insinuating that time cannot be expected to follow one’s wishes—it is dangerous and unpredictable. In portraying the past as an active force that Mrs. Drover cannot avoid or bury, Bowen also seems to be making a point about the futility of repression. The flashback overwhelms Mrs. Drover entirely as she recalls, in detail, sensations and verbal exchanges with her fiancé, which suggests that this memory is alert and active beneath the surface. While Mrs. Drover may have avoided thinking about this final meeting for many years, its memory has not faded—it is still as fresh and vibrant as it was the day it occurred. Having referred to the clock marking the specific hour throughout the story, Bowen includes the word “eternity” in the final paragraph. It seems that now, after her attempts to control time and keep a clear boundary between the past and the present, time has taken over completely and any efforts to control it are now irrelevant.
Indeed, the pointlessness of attempts to control time is underscored by the plot being an almost literal return to the past, suggesting that no matter how many years go by, the past remains potent, forcing people return to it to work through unresolved issues. Mrs. Drover ardently resists this return but ultimately fails to prevent it: her old fiancé is waiting for her to pick up where they left off, behaving as though the quarter century since they last met is of no importance, and once she has read the letter Mrs. Drover is overcome by the anxiety and concerns she experienced as a young woman. Though twenty-five years have come and gone, the past still has a strong hold on her, and the issues she faced as a teenager have not been resolved. Ultimately, Bowen leaves the reader with a troubling message regarding the past: it is simultaneously unavoidable and dangerous, and while it must be confronted, it is capable of overwhelming and destroying an individual entirely.
Time and Repression ThemeTracker
Time and Repression Quotes in The Demon Lover
…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...
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.
…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.
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.