The Uncanny House in Elizabeth Bowen’s Fiction

by Olena Lytovka (Author)
©2016 Monographs 142 Pages
Series: Mediated Fictions, Volume 11


The book focuses on the uncanny in the domestic space of Elizabeth Bowen’s fiction. Providing a psychoanalytic reading of selected works it aims to examine the image of the house in Bowen’s prose and to analyse its uncanniness in relation to the characters’ identity.
In her book, Olena Lytovka focuses on an important aspect of Elizabeth Bowen’s fiction – the motif of the uncanny house. By applying the Freudian notion of the unheimlich to the analysis of selected novels and short stories, Lytovka demonstrates how the traumatic experience of loss is mirrored in the characters’ perception of the domestic space as uncanny. The uncanny, she argues, is a reflection of the psychological condition of the perceiving mind in the state of crisis rather than the quality of the space. This insightful and well-researched study is a valuable contribution to Bowen criticism and will be relevant to literary scholars and students alike. (Anna Kędra-Kardela, Maria Curie-Skłodowska University in Lublin)

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Abbreviations
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1. The Uncanny in Fiction
  • 1. The Concept of the Uncanny
  • 1.1 In the Wake of Jentsch and Freud
  • 1.2 From Gothic Spectre to Modern Anxiety
  • 2. The Chronotope of the Uncanny
  • 2.1 The Uncanny in the City Space
  • 2.2 The Uncanny in the Domestic Space
  • 2.3 Uncanny Objects
  • 3. The Uncanny and the Self
  • 3.1 Identity Disintegration
  • 3.2 The Place of Memory and Memory of Place
  • 3.3 The Uncanny as a Post-Traumatic Effect
  • Chapter 2. “Homeliness Uprooted”: Oppressive Abodes in Elizabeth Bowen’s Novel The House in Paris and Selected Short Stories
  • 1. Domestic Space in Bowen
  • 1.1 Semi-Reality of Bowen’s Houses
  • 1.2 Time and Narration: The Uncanny Return
  • 1.2.1 The Epiphanic “Now”
  • 1.2.2 In Search of the Lost Time
  • 2. Resisting Domesticization: The Uncanny House and Marriage
  • Chapter 3. “Suffering from Reminiscences”: Memory and Trauma in Elizabeth Bowen’s Novel The Death of the Heart and Selected Short Stories
  • 1. The Uncanny Aftereffect
  • 1.1 Silence, Darkness and Solitude
  • 1.2 Landscape and Character
  • 2. The Burden of Memory
  • 2.1 The Uncanny Reentry of the Past
  • 2.2 Disintegrating Homelessness
  • 3. Reality in a Dream or a Dream-like Reality
  • 3.1 The Interpretation of Dreams
  • 3.2 Waking from Reality
  • 4. The Shadowy Other in Bowen's Short Fiction
  • Chapter 4. The Spectre of the Big House in Elizabeth Bowen’s Novel A World of Love and Selected Short Stories
  • 1. The Big House Tradition
  • 1.1 Big House fiction
  • 1.2 Big House Short Fiction
  • 2. The Big House in A World of Love
  • 2.1 Uncanniness of the Houses: Insecurity and Troubling uncertainty
  • 2.2 The Phantoms of the Big House
  • 2.3 Space and Time Relations in the Novel
  • 2.4 The Inhabitants and Their Trauma
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Index

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The following abbreviations are used in this book. Details of publication are to be found in the Bibliography.

Elizabeth Bowen

LSThe Last September (1929)
HPThe House in Paris (1935)
DHThe Death of the Heart (1938)
BCBowen’s Court (1942)
WLA World of Love (1955)
CSThe Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen
BOSThe Bazaar and Other Stories

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Elizabeth Bowen occupies a special place among twentieth-century writers. A superb novelist and a master of short story, she is known for her exquisite style and unconventional narrative technique. For the deep psychological insight she demonstrates in her works, Bowen has been called the “anatomist of consciousness” (Ellmann 2003, xi), the “historian and custodian of memory” (McCarthy, x). Her fiction has been considered in the light of modernist experimentalism and realist innovation, Gothic tradition and gender studies. Nevertheless, without doubt, her contribution to world literature has been considerably underestimated. In critical accounts, for a long time, Bowen’s fiction has been overshadowed by the achievements of James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and other canonical writers of the time.

Born in Dublin in 1899, heiress of a Big House in the south of Ireland, Elizabeth Bowen belonged to Anglo-Irish Protestant Ascendancy but spent a great part of her life in England. Her literary sensibilities were largely influenced by the ambiguities of her cultural identity as well as by her disintegrating childhood, fractured by her father’s mental illness and her mother’s early death, and by witnessing the two most horrible wars of the previous century. Thus, the world of Bowen’s protagonists is never secure, never defined; men and women in her novels and short-stories become hostages of their memories which keep returning and haunting them in most disturbing ways. The uncanny atmosphere becomes one of the elements that distinguishes Bowen’s fiction from the work of other great writers and makes her prose magnetic and gripping for readers.

In the last decade, Bowen’s fiction has been attracting more and more attention of the scholars, partially due to the reconsideration of the place of women writers in modern literature and the development of Irish studies. Among the bulk of research on Bowen’s fiction of the last ten years, there are books and articles written by Maud Ellmann (2003), Neil Corcoran (2004), Anna Kędra-Kardela (2003, 2005, 2010), Eibhear Walshe (2009), Vera Kreilkamp (2009), Bethany Chafin (2011), Luke Thurston (2012, 2013) and others. The theses published on Bowen and her prose include the works by Pauline Morgan (2003), Esther Rey Torrijos (2004), Katy Alexandra Menczer (2006), Jessica Gildersleeve (2009), D. V. Lavlinski (2011), etc. Still, many aspects of Bowen’s work have been neglected in these and earlier studies and some of her fiction works, in spite of their high literary value, have received very little or no interest. ← 11 | 12 →

The present book is part of the new wave of criticism which seeks to reread Bowen’s work in a new light. It takes into consideration previous findings and offers a new look at Bowen’s fiction, putting the house into the focus of investigation and revealing its key role in the creation of the atmosphere of uncanniness, which is so characteristic of Bowen’s fiction. In her novels and short stories, Bowen conveys an acute sense of “where” and “when”. She seems to be very conscious of location and of the power of the house within the landscape but the particularity of her style relies on locating the house simultaneously in the present and the past, blurring the borders between now and then and, most of all, on making the house a reflection of her characters’ disintegration of identity.

Like many other modernist novelists, Bowen attempts to reimagine death and to reconsider losses that it inevitably yields. In her fiction, there is a recognition of both the need and impossibility of understanding the past, the longing and the failure to assimilate its painful experiences. The protagonists of Bowen’s novels and short stories are distressed and disoriented individuals attacked by their own memory. The traumatic experiences of the past shatter the construction of their identity and plunge them into a state of existential crisis with the sense of uncanniness persisting. Therefore, psychoanalysis seems to be the most appropriate instrument for exploration of trauma and Freud’s theories to be crucial to the reconceptualisation of death and loss in Bowen’s work.

The object of the present study is the uncanny (Germ.: das Unheimliche) in the domestic space of Elizabeth Bowen’s fiction. The purpose of the study is to examine the image of the house in Bowen’s prose and to analyse its uncanniness in relation to the characters’ identity. Taking Freud’s essay “The ‘Uncanny’” as a starting point and relying on the works of Gaston Bachelard, Michel Foucault and Nicholas Royle, the study provides a psychoanalytic reading of three of Bowen’s novels and a selection of her short fiction in order to rethink the position of her work in relation to literary theory, with particular emphasis on time and space relations and the identity of the characters. As far as I am aware, this has not been previously attempted in any exhaustive way.

Chapter One presents the theoretical framework of the study. It relies on the concept of the uncanny, traced back to the works of Freud, Jentsch, Heidegger, Royle and other scholars of the twentieth century. According to Freud, the uncanny is defined as something familiar, but foreign at the same time, resulting in a feeling of it being uncomfortably strange, a feeling of not-being-at-home or a feeling of danger. At the same time, as Jentsch suggests, it presupposes a cognitive dissonance, an uncertainty about the surrounding world, but mostly about ← 12 | 13 → oneself. In addition to that, as Freedman points out, the uncanny turns out to be the double figure of repression and return.

Furthermore, the chapter draws on etymological roots of the term and explores its place and meaning in the Gothic and modernist literary traditions underlining the conceptual change the notion underwent in the twentieth century. It also explores the role of the uncanny in time and space relations of a work of fiction and suggests that uncanny space should be viewed as a heterotopian portal where temporality and spatiality collapse.

Finally, the chapter argues that the uncanny is the product of characters’ psychological trauma and the crisis of the self. The traumatic experience of characters’ past contributes to their identity disintegration and makes them see the world and themselves differently, feel the danger and unfriendliness of the environment and be haunted by the memories of the past. It is thus concluded that the uncanny must be analysed through the perspective of characters’ consciousness.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (February)
Memory Trauma Domestic space Modernist fiction
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 142 pp.

Biographical notes

Olena Lytovka (Author)

Olena Lytovka has a PhD in British Literature. She is the president of Interdisciplinary Research Foundation. She researches European modernist literature, time and space representations in fiction, psychoanalysis and feminist literary criticism. Her recent publications focus on the uncanny, dreams, memory and trauma.


Title: The Uncanny House in Elizabeth Bowen’s Fiction
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144 pages