Time, Memory, and the “Uncertain I”: Transtemporal Subjectivity in Elizabeth Bowen’s Short Fiction

by Doryjane A. Birrer

September 22, 2008


Key to the psychological realism of Elizabeth Bowen's short fiction is her insight into human subjectivity via depictions of what I term "transtemporal subjectivity": the destabilized "I" as existing in a fluid realm comprised simultaneously of past (memory), present (experience), and future (expectation), accessed both consciously and unconsciously, predictably and unpredictably by each individual. Bowen's fiction thus imaginatively enacts and extends visions of subjectivity explored in the concept of nachträglichkeit or "deferred action" as established by Freud and developed by psychoanalytic theorists Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok and literary critic Peter Nicholls. Drawing on this psychological concept, as well as on Abraham and Torok's metapsychological discussion of Reality versus reality, this essay argues that Bowen's psychological realism and representations of transtemporal subjectivity comprise a vision of the human subject that, though not necessarily comfortable, offers increased scope for human agency in a radically destabilized social world.


The dream of human agency, of the transcendent subject whose personhood precedes—even exceeds—history, society, language: a dream that dies hard.  However much we are or feel bounded by social forces external yet somehow internal to our “selves,” however often we are or feel determined by an inexorable logic of cause and effect set in motion by an indeterminate past, we may yet act in the world as if we are indeed people and not merely subjects: people who can take action, make choices, play an integral part in the construction of our own subjectivities, write the narratives of our own lives.  The rhetoric of the myriad self-help books that flood contemporary bookstore shelves—such books surely a more widely read genre than postmodern deconstructions of the self—everywhere implies this potential: to “find yourself.”  The self is lost.  It has become, in Elizabeth Bowen’s evocative phrase, the “uncertain I” (MT 98).  That the “I” is destabilized in part by external forces is everywhere clear in Bowen’s fiction, from her depictions (to give just two representative examples) of the terrible impact of world war, to her engagements with the troubles/Troubles of Irish national history.  And certainly, despite significant shifts in critical attention (most strikingly in the case of Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle), it has been through attention to the classic realist aspects of her novels and stories that Bowen’s insights into the relationship between individuals and the social realities of the material world most often have been framed.1

Key also to Bowen’s insight into human subjectivity, however, is her non-material vision of temporality: for Bowen, time is not linear, but a realm of simultaneously existing past and present—at times, even future—accessed both consciously and unconsciously, predictably and unpredictably by each individual.  Such a vision makes for a complex relationship between human subjectivity and lived experience, for while a subject moves through the material world, or what I’ll still call reality, in what feels like a temporally linear and empirical fashion, the human mind allows for a much freer movement through time, particularly through such mechanisms as memory and expectation.  While this often considerable and pervasive disjunction between the physical experiences and details of, for example, a lived day versus where one’s mind is in time at any given moment may seem self-evident (even granting the existence of those with more single-minded focus), theorists such as Lyotard in The Postmodern Condition and Ricoeur in Time and Narrative have explored the complexity of this temporal instability as it dramatically affects our experiences of history, of narrative, and indeed of reality itself.  Add to this complexity more specifically psychoanalytic considerations of time/space, reality/memory disjunctions impelled in part by memory-traces and wishes in the pre- and unconscious as they impinge on present experience, and the potential for a radically unstable ego with regard to temporality becomes increasingly clear.

Bowen addresses the dynamic and often startling interactions between temporality and subjectivity in her reflection on the short stories collected in The Demon Lover.  Of “The Inherited Clock,” “Ivy Gripped the Steps,” and “The Happy Autumn Fields,” she says, “The past, in all these cases, discharges its load of feeling into the anaesthetized and bewildered present.  It is the ‘I’ that is sought—and retrieved at the cost of no little pain” (MT 98).  There is, then, for Bowen an “I” that can be sought and retrieved, a “self” that might be found.  Yet given that Bowen’s short stories are replete with temporal disruptions in both characters’ lives and the fictional narratives themselves, if retrieval of the “uncertain I” means to situate subjectivity in a stable present, such a task seems manifestly impossible.  How, then, to conceive of these characters’ realities, dispersed, as they must be, across time, yet still connected, as they must also be, to lived experience in the ostensibly linear and empirical time of the phenomenal present?  From a perspective of poetics, the blurred boundaries in Bowen’s stories between physical/somatic/lived experience and the vicissitudes of the mind as it moves both consciously and unconsciously through time parallels a central tension inherent in competing accounts of fictional realism: that between social/classic realism’s devotion to versimilitude and historical particularity, and literary modernism’s interest in a more psychologically oriented and inward turning realism.  The fact that Bowen has been called a “less experimental [read: more classic realist] heir to Virginia Woolf [sine qua non experimental modernist]” (Kershner 68) similarly points up the slippage between social and psychological realism in Bowen’s fiction—not to mention the kind of problematic hierarchical comparison Bennett and Royle argue has constrained Bowen’s literary reputation.2  Bowen’s work is riven not only with temporal instability and uncertainty of the ego, but with generic instability, for she rings provocative changes simultaneously on traditional social realism and quasi Jamesian and Proustian psychological realism3 that resonate unsettlingly in the atmosphere of her narratives.

The “I” is lost in Bowen’s fiction, and lost, too, is any stable understanding of reality, fictional or empirical—if the two can be separated, if the latter exists.  Yet replete as literary and philosophical history are with often incongruous, if not outright opposed, inquiries into the natures of reality and subjectivity, the desire to better understand human experience in the “real world” has continued to haunt both readers and writers of fiction.  Long before the rise of postmodernist and poststructuralist inquiry, proto-modernist Henry James found “the measure of reality . . . very difficult to fix” (15).  In his most famous discussion of realism, “The Art of Fiction,” James consistently emphasizes the provisional nature of human experience and suggests, “[a]s people feel life, so they will feel the art that is most closely related to it” (18).  If Bowen is, in part, a disciple of James, it is in such emphases on the opacity and provisionality of lived experience that she most closely echoes him, for it is an underlying current throughout her short fiction: “Up against human unknowableness, I made that my subject—how many times?” (Bowen, Afterthought 94).  Further, according to Bowen, “The writer who rates above all things versimilitude and the all-around view . . . does better to leave the short story alone” (CI 154).  Combining, then, Bowen’s unconventional realism (by any definition) with her pervasive explorations of subjectivity, temporality, and reality, I would argue that an analysis of characters’ temporal negotiations in Bowen’s short fiction is crucial not only to understanding how the “I” might be retrieved in the often bewildering and tragic realities of her characters’ lives, but also to assessing the interplay between her vision of reality and her intricate fictional realism.

Although any number of Bowen’s short stories could be discussed in terms of temporal negotiations, three of these stories—“The Inherited Clock,” “Ivy Gripped the Steps,” and “The Happy Autumn Fields” from The Demon Lover—form a particularly useful selection in terms of the varying perspectives they provide on human subjectivity in a complex and increasingly disjointed wartime and postwar world.  Bowen herself, as I mentioned above, grouped these stories in terms of their shared concern with temporality and subjectivity, and certainly all three narratives involve complex interactions among past, present, and future as characters attempt to ground themselves in the realities of their respective lives—to enact, as Bowen puts it, “I-saving strategies” (MT 98).  Because Bowen consistently wrote about her interest in the relationship between past and present (in fact, each of the essays I cite here mentions connections to the past at least once), numerous studies take up at some point the nature of this relationship in her short stories and/or novels.  Many critics, however, have struggled with what W. J. McCormack describes as the haziness of “the nature or even status of the relationship between eruptions of the past and the uncertainty of the ego” (233), and turn in the end to variations on the theme of indeterminate fiction as reflecting the indeterminacy of reality and human experience4—a move that sells Bowen’s contributions to the realm of fiction (if not human experience) far too short. 

Bennett and Royle turn more thoroughly and productively in their groundbreaking work to an intriguing and multifaceted discussion of “dissolutions” in Bowen’s novels “at the level of personal identity, patriarchy, social conventions and language itself—up to and including the language of fiction and criticism” (xix).  They establish these dissolutions and “the dissolution of the novel”—the subtitle of their monograph—as broad contexts within which to value Bowen’s novels (a description of their approach that does little justice to the force and ingenuity of their various analyses).  Yet both the style and narrative logic of their approach demand that their work, too, end in what becomes for them, quite literally, “A DISSOLUTION”: “mobile, fluid and uncontainably still, uncontainable still” (157; their caps).  While I am a thoroughgoing fan of their book, particularly as my allegiances lie strongly with postmodern theory, I want to wax humanist for a moment (setting aside with some discomfort the ideological baggage associated with the term) and think about how the uncertain “I” might be retrieved in the service of human agency, even if subjectivity tends more toward dissolution than transcendence.  Bowen herself asserts that there are “ways in which some of us did go on—after all, we had to go on some way” (MT 98; emphasis hers), and one significant element in “going on” in Bowen’s stories is related, as I have suggested, to the nuanced interplay of temporality, reality, and subjectivity Bowen both depicts and enacts in her short fiction.  To retrieve the “I” is not to stabilize it with regard to time, but to make full use of the nature of what I want to call transtemporal subjectivity, which, though not necessarily comfortable, offers increased scope for human agency in a radically destabilized world.

I. The Delusory Future in “The Inherited Clock”

Eudora Welty, in her 1981 review of Bowen’s Collected Stories, comments on Bowen’s “close touch with the passage, the pulse, of time,” and points out that “there was a clock in every story and novel she ever wrote” (22).  This concern with time is readily apparent in “The Inherited Clock,” particularly as the skeleton clock takes on nearly the status of a main character, at least in the mind of Clara.  Clara continually projects herself forward in time to what she foresees as the fulfillment of her life via her presumed inheritance of a substantial legacy from Cousin Rosanna.  Her life “hinged on the prospect of this immense change” (“IC” 630), most specifically in the hope that her eventual prosperity will shake up and advance her static situation as regards her nine-year affair with Henry.  Far from beginning her hoped-for future, however, Clara’s inheritance of Rosanna’s skeleton clock as part of her legacy threatens to bind her to a limiting past through her sudden memory of her disturbing childhood experience. 

Initially Clara, who otherwise has an excellent memory—she can remember, in her cousin’s abandoned ante-room, “which picture used to hang in each oblong” and “the names of the books in the bookcase under the sheet” (628)—significantly can remember neither the clock nor any incidents involving it, despite the fact that Paul and Aunt Addie seem to think she has an inordinate interest in it.  Not even when she sees the clock itself at Rosanna’s is her memory triggered.  Her strange reaction to the clock, however, merits quoting at length:

The skeleton clock, in daylight, was threatening to a degree its oddness could not explain. . . . Clara tried to tell herself that it was, only, shocking to see the anatomy of time.  The clock was without a face, its twelve numerals being welded on to a just visible wire ring.  As she watched, the minute hand against its background of nothing made one, then another, spectral advance.  This was enough: if she did not yet feel she could anticipate feeling her sanity being demolished, by one degree more, as every sixtieth second brought round this unheard click.  (628)

The threatening effects of the clock are to some extent explained when Paul forces her to stare into its works, which releases the buried memory that is central to the story.  Particularly significant is Clara’s memory of the language with which Paul tempted her to try and “hold” a piece of time: “‘Have you ever SEEN a minute?  Have you actually had one wriggling inside your hand?  Did you know if you keep your finger inside a clock for a minute, you can pick out that very minute and take it home for your own?”” (639; italics Bowen’s).  The young Clara, of course, discovers that she cannot keep hold of time; instead, as she wedges her fingers into the clock, they are “eaten up by the cogs” (639) and stop its motion, an action that is rendered more dramatic in that the clock is said to have been ticking ceaselessly for more than a century (624).

Given Bowen’s particularly psychological depiction of the mechanism of memory in tying past to present, Freud’s concept of nachträglichkeit —“belatedness” or “deferred action”—is helpful in assessing the significance of the adult Clara’s relation to time more fully, and with it a terror of the clock that seems out of proportion to her early experience.  Despite Bowen’s stance as a “professed anti-Freudian” (Lee 150), her stories are rife with psychological insight (Freudian and otherwise) and certainly “The Inherited Clock” captures the working of nachträglichkeit in an manner that imaginatively complements, if not surpasses, Freud’s discursive explorations of the concept—particularly as he never comprehensively delineated it in his corpus.5  Nachträglichkeit  involves the idea that the psychological impact of an experience has resonance for a subject at a later time, and that the affective force of an experience arises not so much from the experience itself as from how a person perceives that experience at some later time.  According to Laplanche and Pontalis, it can be inferred from Freud’s theory that “consciousness constitutes its own past, constantly subjecting its meaning to revision in conformity with its ‘project’” (112).  This re-vision(ing) of the past is exactly what Clara is doing with her memory of the clock.  The threat Clara initially feels from the clock is the first evidence of the affective force of her early attempt to grasp and fix time, although she does not yet fully realize the source of her reaction.  Clara’s present association of the clock with her static existence acts as a second step toward the release of her childhood memory with its newly acquired resonance.  Finally, when Clara’s memory is triggered, her dread of the clock makes sense in the context of unfulfilled expectations: whatever reasoning lay behind her attempt to grasp and control time by reaching into the clock as a young girl, the clock now has meaning only as it relates to her present stagnant situation.

In this latter context, Bowen writes that the clock, “chopping off each second to fall and perish, recalled how many seconds had gone to make up [Clara’s] years, how many of these had been either null or bitter, how many had been void before the void claimed them” (631).  Clara is unsure of whether Henry will ever leave his wife, though she had hoped her inheritance would speed a divorce; worse, Clara realizes how much “the tissue of her being had been consumed” (631) by waiting—both for Henry and her inheritance.  In this respect, Bowen’s admittedly heavy-handed symbolism clearly reads, as Lassner suggests, as “a ghostly reminder of a past that augured much but delivered little” (Study 23).  For Lassner, “[f]orgetting the incident is Clara’s effort to ignore the way she relinquishes responsibility for her life.”  True, but Lassner makes this point prefatory to stating that “Living as though there are no boundaries between past and present, obsessed with time and inheritance, Clara is doomed to replay the past” (23), an assertion that doesn’t adequately account for the operation of time in the story.  Clara perceives, in fact, a clear boundary between past and present, evidenced by both the unconscious boundary between Clara and her memory of her attempt to grasp time, and the conscious boundary Clara establishes between present and future, with the inheritance marking the dividing line where one will stop and the other begin.  It is not the lack of temporal boundaries, then, that causes Clara’s problems; rather, her distress arises from the fact that she attempts to establish unnecessary and deleterious boundaries.

This understanding of temporality in “The Inherited Clock” has considerable implications for human subjectivity.  Bowen, in a statement highly reminiscent of Freudian nachträglichkeit, states, “[e]xperience is the reaction to what happens, not the happening itself.  And in that sense, experience is, like environment, to a degree selected” (Afterthought 208).  Bowen seems to be suggesting that we have control to some extent over our subjective experience, since experience lies in how we decide to react to—and by implication, reframe—the events of our lives, and as such Bowen’s statement highlights her exploration of the degree to which people can be agents of/in their own realities.  For Bowen, a significant aspect of potential human agency lies in acceptance of the implications of a transtemporal subjectivity that involves the reciprocal interplay of past, present, and future experiences.  The Latin preposition trans- in English usage contributes as a prefix the sense of “‘across, crossing,’ or ‘beyond, on the other side of’ or both senses,” or alternatively “‘beyond, surpassing, transcending,’”6 but it is all of these senses that I want to encompass in transtemporal: the feeling of movement across lived experience, crossing time, beyond/on the other side of lived experience, while simultaneously transcending any perceived borders among past, present, and future.

Transtemporal subjectivity affords the possibility of freedom from an inexorable logic of cause and effect that determines our present and future actions based on inescapable early actions or experiences; as deferred action suggests, the present is just as capable of reframing the past as the past is of circumscribing the present or future.  And if this is so, then experiences in/through time are capable of being reframed in ways that allow the possibility of acting differently, choosing differently, imagining differently—toward creating a future, not merely expecting one to be created for us.  Blake wrote of “mind-forged manacles,” and certainly just as we consider those social forces that threaten to and often do constrain us, we should explore those constraints with which we shackle ourselves.  Here I don’t mean in the more world-oriented theoretical senses of, for example, Gramscian domination by consent or Foucauldian self-discipline and punishment, but in the more psychological—personal? affective? spiritual?—sense of subjecting ourselves to the tyrannies of our own minds. 

Clara erases the past and ignores the present as she lives each day only for the future; Bowen exposes the weakness of this “I”-saving strategy.  She depicts Clara’s life as stagnant and unfulfilling, haunted by the ticking of the clock that measures—note that Clara thinks in terms of the “seconds” and “years” of empirical time—the span of a life over which she has exerted little if any control.

Rejecting transtemporal subjectivity and creating debilitating boundaries with respect to time, memory, and (in this story) expectation are also equated with being out of touch with reality.  Abraham and Torok’s metapsychological discussion of Reality versus reality (they purposefully eschew quotation marks in favor of capitalization)7 further illuminates Clara’s situation, Bowen’s vision of subjectivity, and ultimately, a significant aspect of her fictional realism.  Though consistently critical of Freud themselves, Abraham and Torok expand on Freud’s concept of nachträglichkeit and theorize a place within the psyche where an early event or desire is located and preserved; they identify this place as Reality (“Topography” 63).8  Reality is “defined as what is rejected, masked, denied precisely as ‘reality’; it is that which is, all the more so since it must not be known.” “The past,” they conclude, “is thus present in the subject as a block of reality” (63, 65; both emphases theirs).  In “The Inherited Clock,” then, Clara’s reality consists of the “clement air” (630) of her anticipated new life; Clara’s Reality, however, is the fact of her “suspended life,” as embodied in her memory of the clock.  The end of the story depicts Clara attempting to come to terms with Reality as she tells Paul, “‘I shall sit with my memories.  I expect to spend some time getting to know them’” (640).  Yet hers is a limited negotiation, given, for example, that she asks Paul to take the clock from her flat.  When Paul declines to do so, we are left with Clara’s unconvincing statement that other than the clock’s not being particularly useful to her, she would “never know it was there” (640).  Based on the fact that she has already twice taken the clock to the window to throw it out and destroy it, and has at least once stayed out walking all night to keep from listening to it tick, it is doubtful that the clock will not continue to affect her at some level.  For Bowen, what level that is is now more fully Clara’s choice.  To the extent to which Clara is able to recognize and exploit the relationships among past, present, and future—instead of continuing to try to erase time/deny the past or leap forward in time/live in a hypothetical future—she will be able, as Bowen would put it, to retrieve her lost, uncertain “I” and improve her capacity for human agency.  Further, if the transtemporal subjectivity Bowen’s stories in part address is conceived of as, for her, central to both material and psychological realities, then characterizing and depicting such relationships can be seen as an implicit but important aspect of her fictional realism.

II. The Deterministic Past in “Ivy Gripped the Steps”

The temporal and psychological aspects of subjectivity and reality in “The Inherited Clock” are most specifically related to memory, a topos in Bowen’s fiction generally, and particularly in the memory-laden “Ivy Gripped the Steps” with its extensive analepses related to Gavin’s childhood.  Turning again to poetics, Bowen’s conception of memory is influenced, as she discusses, by Proust (MT 21), and in fact, though Joseph Frank’s focus in his study of time and spatial form in fiction is Proust, much of what he says of Proust is strongly evident in Bowen as well.  Consider Frank’s seminal discussion of representing time in narrative:

To experience the passage of time, Proust learned, it was necessary to rise above it, and to grasp both past and present simultaneously in a moment of what he called ‘pure time.’  But ‘pure time,’ obviously, is not time at all—it is perception in a moment of time, that is to say, space.  And, by the discontinuous presentation of character, Proust forces the reader to juxtapose disparate images of his characters spatially, in a moment of time, so that the experience of time’s passage will be fully communicated to their sensibility.  (68)

Bowen also seems interested in this ability to “grasp both past and present simultaneously” in order to better convey her vision of human subjectivity.  The narrative depiction of “pure time” gained by juxtaposing images, evident in “The Inherited Clock” when Clara flashes in and out of the past through her deferred memory, is also central to the narrative and psychological realities of “Ivy Gripped the Steps.”  In this story, Bowen presents another character, Gavin Doddington, who must negotiate with transtemporal subjectivity.  When Gavin begins his “tour of annihilation” (708) vis-à-vis his past by revisiting Southstone in order to “draw a line” through it (709), he is consciously trying to erase a past that he has already allowed to damage his present and future.  Unlike Clara’s encounter with the clock, the adult Gavin’s experience with Southstone is immediately and consciously connected to his most powerful—and disillusioning—childhood memories.  In a manner similar to the story of Clara, however, Gavin’s attempt to sever the past from the present is clearly exposed as a faulty “I”-saving strategy.

The story begins in the present, but, as in “The Inherited Clock,” the past is immediately in evidence as well in the dramatic (and revealing) comparison Gavin makes between Southstone as he currently sees it and how he remembers it.  The house where he once spent his holidays has been “consumed” by ivy in a “process of strangulation,” and a “vacuum [has] mounted up” in the town (686-7).  Characterized by “desuetude and decay,” “Southstone’s life . . . now had nothing but an etiolated slowness” (687).  Ironically, this outward description correlates more than Gavin realizes to the inward state of the town when he was there as a child; it was a “town without function,” a world of “polished leisure” (691).  Not only do the intangible but omnipresent ideologies associated with the aristocratic world of Southstone come to reflect it as an (imagined) community, they come to be materially reflected in the state of the town itself.  Gavin, however, appears to be blind to truth of this situation as he is too much wrapped up in what “had long ago been branded into his memory” (688).

The focal point of Gavin’s past, as we view it through his memory, is the time he spent at Southstone with Mrs. Nicholson.  For Gavin, time in Mrs. Nicholson’s world stands in sharp contrast to the “brutishness” of his own family’s life as “poor gentry” (691).  “Everything was effortless; and, to him, consequently, seemed stamped with style” (690); all he sees becomes part of an extended “fairy tale” (691).  Gavin idealizes this world, and lives in it as reality in stringent denial of the Reality, to adapt Abraham and Torok’s language,9 of his family life where “poverty could not be laughed away” (692).  While Gavin is lost in Southstone’s “magical artificiality” (693) and his childhood love for Mrs. Nicholson, his reality is hers—and hers is one that is completely severed from history and the passing of time.  Her belief, for example, that history is over—“‘I was glad I had stayed at school long enough to be sure that it had all ended happily’” (695-6)—and refusal to believe the Admiral’s prediction of war essentially place herself and Gavin outside time and into a world of illusion.  Gavin, however, moves from reality to Reality whenever he returns home.  When with his family, he can acknowledge the possibility of war: the “dead weight of existence” of his family’s world contributes to history its “repetitive harshness and power to scar.  This existence had no volition, but could not stop; and its never stopping, because it could not, made history’s ever stopping the less likely” (697).

Bowen’s juxtaposition of images of Gavin with relation to reality/Reality demonstrates the inherent I-saving strategy the creation of a fictional reality is.  Yet fictions can be exposed for what they are and the “I” again lost, as is ultimately the case with Gavin.  As a child, he doesn’t “feel” anywhere but at Southstone (705), and this investment of all feeling in a fictional world only sets him up further for the strong impact of his ultimate disillusionment upon overhearing Mrs. Nicholson’s conversation with the Admiral.  More devastating than his sensing the undercurrent of attraction between the two is his discovery that Mrs. Nicholson sees him as her “little dog”; she has no real feeling for Gavin, a thought that is reinforced when the Admiral chastises her as a flirt and for “making a ninny of that unfortunate boy” (707).  Immediately after this moment we are flung again into the present, and in a readerly version of nachträglichkeit, suddenly comprehend Gavin’s relationship to Southstone as it is re-signified for us in the context of his (for him) traumatic memories.  His illusory reality at Southstone has, in effect, become its own threatening Reality to be denied—his desire for such a burial already indicated by his determination to “draw a line” through his past.  Gavin does not meet the “deadline for feeling” (689) he set by visiting Southstone; he is, as is seen in his encounter with the A.T.S. girl, a “mechanical amorist, a wolfish preyer.”  While the narrative places some blame for Gavin’s loss of feeling on Mrs. Nicholson, Gavin clearly “is also his own victim” (9), as with Clara in “The Inherited Clock.”  In Gavin’s case, he has constrained his subjectivity by allowing himself to be defined solely by his past, and, given Bowen’s temporal logic, has undercut his possibility for agency by attempting to obliterate his past rather than coming to terms with it. This is particularly tragic considering that memory’s “subjective haze” (Bowen referring to Proust, MT 21) inherently suggests a malleability of the past that might be adopted in the service of a reconceived subjectivity in the present.

At the end of the story, we see in Gavin “the face of somebody dead who was still there” characterized by “the presence, under an icy screen, of a whole stopped mechanism for feeling” (711).  The addition that “[t]hose features had been framed, long ago, for hope” (711) reveals the extent of the damage done when Gavin allows himself to be tethered to the past, for he is clearly dead to both present and future.  He has rejected the chance to free his capacity for feeling by releasing the past, not in terms of erasure (as he attempted), but in terms of its power to be a primary determining force in his life.  If an analysis of “The Inherited Clock” reveals the psychological disaster of attempting to live divorced from transtemporal subjectivity in the unreality of false expectations for the future, the emphasis of “Ivy Gripped the Steps” is on the converse tragedy of allowing oneself to be too rooted to experiences, allowed to take the status of inescapably formative, in the past.

III. Fixed or Absent Present(s) in “The Happy Autumn Fields”

In both “The Inherited Clock” and “Ivy Gripped the Steps” the stories are in many ways traditionally verisimilar—we are given clear descriptions of the places where each character spends time, we know and can believe in the possibility of their life circumstances—yet Bowen’s temporal disruptions are just enough to jolt us out of complacency with a reality familiar through its linearity and “naturalistic detail” (Frank 70) into one that points up the importance of our relationship with time, that demands, in Frank’s terms, our “spatial apprehension.”  Similarly, Bowen’s realism demands that we not only recognize but also become comfortable with, even take advantage of, the continuous subjective interplay of past, present and future.  Bowen’s temporal/spatial representations of both reality and subjectivity are particularly demanding in “The Happy Autumn Fields.”  Most critics have of necessity explored the relationship between past and present in the story, but many are “left with only questions” (Lassner, Study 106).10  For reviewer William Trevor, “It is enough that the story is charged with the connection between past and present” (131), but as with the previous stories, it is the nature of that connection that is highly significant in Bowen’s fiction.

The story derives its spatial form through the juxtaposition of scenes from the life of sisters Sarah and Henrietta in the Victorian past, and the life of Mary, the “modern, destabilized heroine” (Lassner 109).  Critical attention has been fixed primarily on Mary, but characters in both past and present refuse to accept the realities of temporal instability that are echoed in the story’s form.  While Clara allows herself to become overly invested in the future, and Gavin to be determined by while attempting to deny the past, Sarah and Henrietta refuse to relinquish the present.  Their relationship is depicted as an idyllic reality of two, as when they manage to lag behind the rest of their family on a walking party: “The shorn uplands seemed to float on the distance . . . There was no end to the afternoon . . . hardly a ripple showed where the girls dwelled” (673).  These are the “happy autumn fields” of the title, in which they attempt to fix their shared present.  “‘You and I will stay the same,’” asserts Sarah, “‘then nothing can touch one without touching the other’” (672).  It is when the specter of change appears in the form of Eugene that Bowen’s narrative shifts to what we realize is the present of the story, and to Mary, who evades the war-torn present by leaving her “normal senses” and living in the world of Sarah and Henrietta.  When Mary’s connection with the past assumes the status of reality, both Travis and her surroundings become part of an “unreality”—what we recognize as Mary’s denied Reality of the Blitz—that “preyed on her as figments of dreams that one knows to be dreams can do” (677).

Mary’s uneasy recognition of the instability of her experience of the past (here, unlike with Clara and Gavin, a past not even her own) is reinforced with the next temporal shift to the life of Sarah and Henrietta.  The world of the sisters has shifted from one in which “[n]othing would fall or change” (680)—note that change here is associated with the notion of a fall, rather than of any positive imagined change—to Sarah’s “dislocation” and “formless dread” associated with her impending marriage to Eugene.  This dread impels a more conscious effort on Sarah’s part to remain fixed in the present: she tries with “vehemence . . . to attach her being to each second, not because each was singular in itself, but because she apprehended that the seconds were numbered” (681).  When Sarah begins to fear that “something terrible may be going to happen,” both Eugene and Henrietta try to reassure her, but ironically, their assurances signify antithetical meanings.  Eugene asserts, “‘There cannot fail to be tomorrow’” and Henrietta insists, “‘I will see that there is tomorrow’” (682; emphasis Bowen’s).  We quickly realize what the difference in the two statements is, as Henrietta cries out to Eugene, “Whatever tries to come between me and Sarah becomes nothing.  Yes, come tomorrow, come sooner, come—when you like . . . .  It is you who are making something terrible happen” (683; emphasis Bowen’s).  For Eugene, tomorrow is a key part of the change of the new life he hopes for with Sarah, but for Henrietta, the “tomorrow” she wants to ensure is in fact just another version of “today.”  While the three women in Bowen’s story differ in their desires to stabilize their “I”s in relation to time (Sarah and Henrietta by fixing themselves in the present, Mary by absenting herself from the present in favor the past), all three live in dream states, whether actual (Mary) or metaphorical (the sisters).

The final temporal shift to the modern scene combines both heavy symbolism—the final blast to the house and Mary’s stopped watch, indicating her loss of touch with time—with the psychological effects of Mary’s failed “I”-saving strategy.  Not only is the Victorian past “lost in time” to her, her attempt to sever herself temporally from the present and from Reality has in fact also severed her self from herself, or the “I” from the “me” (Abraham 19): now identified as “the woman” rather than Mary, she “no longer reckon[s] who she was” (683).  It is hinted that death—presumably the ultimate escape from time—is in fact the only means for Mary to maintain contact with the past, for the “one way back to the fields was barred by the fall of the ceiling” in Mary’s home (683).  Returning to the notion of deferred action, we can see Mary’s experience of the past being interpreted in light of her present situation.  She is numb to her relationship with Travis and to the Reality of the war.  Because of this, she sees the charged emotions of Sarah and Henrietta’s lives as somehow better than the blankness of her current subject position—as Travis tells her, she doesn’t even know what is happening around her (677).  Comparing modern life to her (literal) vision of the past, she asks, “‘how are we to live without natures?’”  For Mary, the “I” appears truly lost.  “‘So much flowed through people’” she continues; “‘so little flows through us.’”  Especially significant in this context is that her “memories” of the past are likely impelled by the Victorian characters’ letters (found in her house), which serve as Freudian screen memories for her, or what Lacan calls, more usefully (at least metaphorically) for my purposes, “archival documents.”  As Christopher Lane outlines, “Although these memories can be recalled, they are not simply preserved: their recollection is in fact part of their composition” (17; emphasis his)—an understanding of memory and subjectivity directly related to nachträglichkeit.   Because consciousness acts as a “distorting agent” with regard to memory (Lane 21)—Proust’s and Bowen’s “subjective haze”—Mary’s visions of the past are necessarily influenced by her experience of/in the present.

Mary’s elevation of the past over the present, then, is rooted in the idea that it offered an intense existence that renders her own subjectivity lifeless: “‘I am a person drained by a dream.  I cannot forget the climate of those hours [her ‘memories’].  Or life at that pitch, eventful—not happy, no, but strung like a harp’” (684).  This speech seems almost incomprehensible given the tension-ridden and certainly eventful temper of wartime London that Mary is experiencing directly as her house is blasted and crumbling around her.  Mary’s “rather strident speech” has been said to strike a “jarring note” on the grounds that the comparison of past and present should have remained implicit (Quinn 321).  Yet the speech is not ventriloquism on Bowen’s part, for although it is clear that Mary does idealize or privilege the past, Bowen most certainly doesn’t.  Given Bowen’s now apparent pattern of refusing to give primacy to any temporal mode—the past cannot be empirically any better or worse, more or less important, than the present or future—it is clear that there are problems in Sarah and Henrietta’s world that vivid feelings will not solve.  These problems do, as Lassner suggests, stem from family life (109), but also from the ways in which the sisters attempt to control time.  Each desires a reality that will not change, but though Sarah says that they will “stay the same,” they cannot stop the passage of time.  When change appears imminent, Henrietta believes she can insure a “tomorrow” that is in line with her (and presumably Sarah’s) wishes—and it may be that, on one level, she does so.  Bowen’s story hints at the possibility that Henrietta’s version of insuring that there is a tomorrow was to eliminate Eugene by causing an accident that led to his death.11  Yet this possibility aside, it is unlikely that any attempt to root oneself rigidly in time in a Bowen story could have positive consequences.  Certainly the marriage was stopped, but Bowen hints that the sisters died young (684), ironically fulfilling Sarah’s wish that “Rather than they [she and Henrietta] cease to lie in the same bed. . . they might lie in the same grave” (672).  Just as Mary’s loss of subjectivity, of feeling with regard to time and experience renders her reality unfulfilling (similar to though differently inflected than the flat affect revealing Gavin’s emotionless subjectivity), Henrietta and Sarah’s surplus of feeling leads to the Reality that only death can stop the mutability associated with time.

IV. Realism as Transtemporal Subjectivity

Psychic development, and by extension, the construction of human subjectivity, is for Abraham and Torok, a “forward-looking quest for individuality” (Rashkin 37).  The theorists, contra most postmodern conceptions of subjectivity, effectively “credit the ego with a basic capacity for coherence” (Lane 6); as Torok puts it, “the removal of repression brings with it strength, self-esteem, and especially confidence in one’s power and becoming” (qtd. in Lane 8; emphasis hers).  Bowen’s depictions of the relationship between temporality and subjectivity similarly allow for an “I” that, if lost, can be saved or retrieved via transtemporal subjectivity.  Further, much as Abraham and Torok see an important part of their therapeutic work as “making Reality acceptable” by “eliminating the psychological weight of a Reality that has existence solely through its repudiation” (“Topography” 67; emphasis theirs), for Bowen, any “I”-saving strategies that deny Reality and the importance of healthy relationships among reality, temporality, and subjectivity are doomed to failure.  Such a vision is also, in a literary sense, a significant aspect of the stories’ realism; it is one way in which Bowen, as James would say, “feels life.” 

In addition to the more personal and inward-turning considerations I have focused on so far, it is, I think, significant that considerations of psychology, subjectivity, and temporality also continually surface with regard to the historical and outward-turning aspects of her realism.  Bowen, for example, avers that the short fiction collected in The Demon Lover has “an authority nothing to do with me” (MT 95), and (in unequivocally psychological terms) that the stories are permeated by “the general subconsciousness” of those writing during the decade encompassing World War II (during which all three stories just discussed were written).  “During the war,” she states, “the overcharged subconsciousnesses of everybody flowed and merged.”  Elsewhere, in her discussion of the short story in England, she asserts that “[t]he tenseness and seriousness” of wartime experience “began to reflect itself in our short stories,” whether intentionally or not (“Short Story” 12).  And it is true that echoes of war reverberate throughout the three stories, from the strangely dissociated walk Clara takes during the black-out, to the change in Southstone after two world wars, to the bombing of Mary’s home.

Those critics who comment on the influence of Bowen’s biography and dual national heritage on her writing also tend to address at least briefly the relationship between temporality and subjectivity.  As Lassner points out, Bowen “links the theme of the past to her understanding of Anglo-Irish psychology” (EB 148) and cites Bowen’s assertion that “‘[i]n Ireland, if you do not know the past you only know the half of anyone’s mind’” (qtd. in EB 148).  Terry Eagleton, in his discussion of Anglo-Irish writers (including Bowen), highlights what he sees as the “difficulty of totalizing a coherent tale from the ruptured course of Irish history itself” (212).  For Eagleton, Ireland’s “present is not identical with itself, fissured and hollowed as it is by its relation to a past which at once nutures and disrupts it” (183).  This idea of a fissured present is further complicated by the fact of England’s undeniable influence on Ireland, resulting in the idea that “Irish society was stratified . . . made up of disparate time scales.  Its history was differentiated rather than homogeneous, as the anglicized and the atavistic existed side by side” (278).  This latter juxtaposition is evident in “Ivy Gripped the Steps” in the contrast between Southstone society and the quasi-feudal existence of the “poor gentry.”  And Bowen’s placement in either realm is complicated by her being neither fully English nor Irish.

With regard to these more historical considerations, Peter Nicholls’ discussion of nachträglichkeit in the service of what he terms “postmodern historicity” is particularly useful.  Reading Freudian deferred action alongside Derrida’s notion of “a past which has never been present,” Nicholls characterizes postmodern historicity as a construction parallel to “the time of the unconscious,” rather than conscious, empirical time.  Nicholls elaborates on this idea with the support of arguments by Lyotard and Althusser related to non-linear temporal experience, and asserts that postmodern historicity “is precisely that particular present of contemplation which is torn by the intrusion of a different time.”  This intrusion causes the subject to be “shaken out of its secure metaphysical time and exposed to the shock of a temporality which is always self-divided” (55-6).  While my characterization of Bowen’s transtemporal subjectivity is clearly related (and indebted) to Nicholls’ formulation of postmodern historicity, Nicholls’ use of “historicity” seems to me to signify particularly, and perhaps even primarily, the relationship between past and present (i.e., not intrinsically the future), and to connote more specifically historical events and/or cultural moments (such as, for example, the horrors of the Middle Passage and of slavery in the American South that are the focus of Nicholls’ analyses of two Toni Morrison novels).  In this sense, the language related to his adaptation of nachträglichkeit for postmodern and historical/historiographic literary-critical purposes (for which he sets a critical precedent) would be especially suited to an analysis of the relationships among subjectivity, temporality, and the more historical aspects of Bowen’s fiction.  For my purposes here, however, I prefer the more fluid and multivalent connotations of trans- in “transtemporal subjectivity” to the bifurcation evoked in Nicholls’ description of a “self-divided” subjectivity, as well as to the potential for limiting periodization/categorization (intentional or not) of the term “postmodern.”  “Transtemporality,” because less specific as regards its referent(s), also perhaps better encompasses those memories and experiences—as well as expectations and desires—that exist on an individual psychological level that may conceivably be distanced from particular historical moments (I’m allowing for this last in my provisionally humanist mode).

Semantics aside, Nicholls celebrates in nachträglichkeit, as I do in Bowen’s vision of transtemporal subjectivity, the potential inherent in Freud’s theory to “gain access to a new level of meaning and . . . rework earlier experiences” (Laplanche and Pontalis 112)—and, I would add, the potential to negotiate more therapeutically with the Realities/realities of past, present, and future.  In short, the potential to shift from an uncertain “I” to an “I,” in Abraham and Torok’s words, more “confident in one’s power and becoming.”  While Bowen doesn’t offer a series of narratives that depict characters realizing this potential, she does explore consistently what not to do: namely, to try in any way to ignore, escape, or cling to past, present, or future at the expense of a more productive and fluid transtemporal subjectivity.  Bowen is no moral realist, and the implications of her fiction for human subjectivity in the context I’ve just proposed are oblique rather than laid out in a tidy fashion—à la, for example, the close of Dickens’ quintessential social/moral realist novel Hard Times: “Dear reader! It rests with you and me whether, in our two fields of action, similar things shall be or not” (398).  If the positive implications of her often poignant fiction seem too hard won, so they should be.  Life is hard.  As Tim Dean memorably put it in the context of Freud’s work, “[t]here is something fundamentally incurable in being human” (qtd. in Lane 5).  But reading Bowen’s stories in light of the “I”-saving implications of transtemporal subjectivity does suggest, more positively, the ultimate possibility of being freed from determination by the past, which is “loosed from fixity” and “can contain the promise of a future which will be . . . an open question” (Nicholls 67).12  This, for example, is the opportunity available to Clara, when she at last understands the impact of the clock in the context of her suspended life; to Gavin, when he revisits experiences in Southstone that he does not have to allow to define him; and to Mary, when she has her vision of two sisters who died in their attempts to exist apart from time.  Though none of these characters takes advantage of the possibilities for newly imagined human agency, this does not erase the fact that the possibilities are there.  “Get real,” Bowen’s stories say.  “Find yourself”—seek and retrieve your “I”—though this means locating subjectivity not in a stable present, but instead perceiving it as diffuse with the possibilities of an “I” that has no permanent present/presence.

Granted, accepting and acting on the possibilities of transtemporal subjectivity is not an easy task, as evidenced by the characters in “The Inherited Clock,” “Ivy Gripped the Steps,” and “The Happy Autumn Fields” who all fail at it.  Like those subjects of Abraham and Torok’s analysis, their narratives are those “symbolically telling the tale of what and why they could not be” (Raskin 50).  A great deal of contemporary theory tells additional tales of what and why we cannot be—the socially constructed nature of subjectivity and the inescapable nature of ideology being two recurring obstacles in such tales.  As a card-carrying constructionist, I’ve told a number of them myself, both professionally and personally.  But recently, just as many academics have been reevaluating the impact of postmodern theory on possibilities for individual or collective political action, I’ve wanted to believe that people (not merely “subjects,” but “people”) in fact can have agency, and don’t just delude themselves into thinking they do—or worse, as in Bowen’s stories, thinking they don’t.  We are situated in a tension between our own desires to retrieve, to save our uncertain “I”s and the impact of those social, and historical forces we have increasingly been told serve to shape us.  Perhaps one step to take toward human agency, one thing shared by “real” people and those characters in Bowen’s fiction, is the chance to recognize how implicated the personal is in losing or limiting the “I,” to take advantage of the liberatory potential of transtemporal subjectivity, and to strive for agency in the present as we free ourselves from denied, deterministic, or illusory pasts and write the narratives of more open and self-determined futures.  That Bowen’s complex fictional realism can help reveal the urgency of such a step is just one of many reasons for her continuing relevance within contemporary literary study, as well as to what—dropping the ironic punctuation—I’ll unabashedly call the real world.


1. See, for example, Heath, Jordan, Bloom, and those critics mentioned by Lassner in EB 141.

2. Bennett and Royle posit that to pigeonhole Bowen as a “novelist of manners or sensibility” within the broader category of realism leads to both misreading and misjudgment of her novels “according to the protocols of such fiction,” which perforce relegate Bowen to the status of minor novelist (xvi).

3. Even in the heyday of criticism reading Bowen as a social realist, Harriet Blodgett refers to Bowen as a “psychological realist” (8).  N.b. I use quasi here not in the sense of quasi-/faux, but in the sense of seemingly or apparently to indicate a fictional realism that involves Bowen’s own style, to be related to rather than seen as merely derivative of these more established canonical figures.

4. See especially Trevor and (to some extent) Hildebidle.  Blodgett criticized this tack in early Bowen criticism and reviews (with the exception of Austin) more than three decades ago; see Blodgett 8n3-4. 

5. See Laplanche and Pontalis 111.

6. These definitions from the OED are usefully accompanied by a list of Latin and Latinate words that also indicate the kind of movement I want to suggest, especially translimitanus, “beyond the boundary or frontier.”

7. They capitalize Reality to indicate its status as a metapsychological concept which “all other forms of reality presuppose and derive from” (“Topography” 68n2); see also “The Ploy of Capitalization” in Abraham 18.

8. Abraham and Torok’s discussion of Reality is closely related to their concept of the “crypt,” on which Royle draws, in a precursory presentation to his work with Bennett, for his analysis of “impossible mourning” in Bowen’s novels, and the haunting of characters by lost love objects entombed unconsciously in such crypts (Royle doesn’t mention the related metapsychological concept of Reality).  Though differently inflected than my arguments here, Royle’s analysis (along with its reworking in the later book) also addresses Bowen’s complex vision of temporality: memories of lost love objects (his example is Guy, the absent/dead but still central character in Bowen’s A World of Love) are in fact linked to expectation in what he terms a logic of “remembering the future” (144).  In Elizabeth Bowen and the Dissolution of the Novel, this paradoxical characterization of temporality is even more closely associated with the “memory” or “dread” of death (see, for example, 26-27 and 70), which is not my interest here (with the slight exception of the final part of my reading of “The Happy Autumn Fields”).  But Bennett and Royle’s attention to the intricacy of the interrelationships among past, present, and future in Bowen’s novels further suggests the importance of temporality to an understanding of Bowen’s fictional realism.

9. Abraham and Torok typically characterize Reality as entombing a denied “crime” (including “unacceptable” unfulfilled wishes and desires) or trauma that might well be violent and/or sexual in nature, as in the case of the Man of Milk (see “Lost Object” 226-9), but their conception of trauma allows for a more inclusive definition of the term that might prove more broadly useful in literary-critical applications.  Here is Rashkin summarizing Abraham and Torok: “The manner in which an event is ‘lived’ or experienced psychically by an individual renders it a trauma.  This perspective removes trauma from external moral or ethical taxonomies to situate it as a function of the specific mental configuration and psychic history of an individual” (49). 

10. See, for example, Wilson, Church, Allen and Quinn.

11. I’m thinking of the letter in which Sarah and Henrietta’s brother writes that “he will always wonder what made [Eugene’s] horse shy in those empty fields” (685).  Perhaps due to Henrietta’s bracelet, which we’ve earlier seen her cause to flash in the sun?

12. Nicholls derives this last idea from John Forrester’s discussion of nachträglichkeit in which he states, “the past dissolves in the present, so that the future becomes (once again) an open question, instead of being specified by the fixity of the past.”  See Forrester 206; qtd. in Nicholls 65 (Forrester’s italics).

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To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Doryjane A. Birrer "Time, Memory, and the “Uncertain I”: Transtemporal Subjectivity in Elizabeth Bowen’s Short Fiction". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available http://psyartjournal.com/article/show/a_birrer-time_memory_and_the_uncertain_i_transtem. June 18, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: March 13, 2008, Published: September 22, 2008. Copyright © 2008 Doryjane A. Birrer