- Modes of Dislocation:Jewishness and Deafness in Elizabeth Bowen
Late in her life, Anglo-Irish novelist and short story writer Elizabeth Bowen (1899–1973) wondered why critics did not focus more on place in her writing: “Am I not manifestly a writer for whom places loom large?” (Pictures and Conversations 34). Bowen’s powerful concern with location was animated by the instability of her personal life and the life of her century. She felt dislocated by her father’s mental illness and his voluntary incarceration; by her flight to England with her mother at the age of seven; by their peripatetic life in multiple houses and towns; and, most of all, by her mother’s death when Bowen was thirteen years old (Glendinning 25–32). Acutely aware of her Anglo-Irish heritage, she also felt alienated from nationality. Sean O’Faolain described her as “heart-cloven and split-minded” (15), divided between her Irish and English identities. She felt “most at home in mid-Irish sea. The transit from Ireland to England and back again dominates her work as it did her life” (Foster 107). And, as her fiction makes clear, Bowen responded intensely to the two world wars that shattered normalcy and continuity during her youth and adulthood.
Bowen’s concern with displacement influenced her representation of characters for whom home is no-place, an imagined Eden of belonging. Her oeuvre contains an array of drifting or lost characters, orphans, and displaced children. In her 1935 novel, The House in Paris, she represented her characters’ homelessness and exile by invoking Jewishness. Through its association with wandering and national nonbelonging, Jewishness serves not only to help characterize the Jewish Max Ebhart as one of Bowen’s unplaced outsiders, but [End Page 259] also to reflect the emotional displacement of the novel’s ostensibly grounded English characters.
In her final novel, Eva Trout (1968), Bowen turned to deafness to represent states of estrangement beyond exile. In this novel the principal characters—the eponymous Eva Trout and her deaf son, Jeremy—are estranged not only from home, place, and nation, but from language, and in many ways from their own lives. In this essay I demonstrate that in The House in Paris and Eva Trout Jewishness and deafness pose analogous threats to personal identity and emplacement. While Bowen was fascinated by modes of displacement and drawn to their cosmopolitan possibilities, she expresses more strongly in these two novels her awareness of their dangers.
Bowen’s representations of Jewishness and deafness have literary histories. Her use of Jewishness to signify the metaphoric exile of a non-Jewish character fits squarely with several of the more sympathetic uses of Jewish characters in modernist literature. James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) is the best-known example. There, Leopold Bloom’s status as a Jewish outsider reflects Stephen Dedalus’s alienation from home, fatherland, and church. But Bowen’s use of Jewishness interacts also with more negative representations of Jewishness as inauthenticity, such as the painter Loerke in D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love (1920), Jay Gatsby in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), and Robert Cohn in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1925). Her use of deafness is more innovative, and I discuss it from a disability studies perspective elsewhere (see Linett, “Seeing”). But it does bear comparison to other modernist representations of deafness as estrangement from language, and indeed from subjectivity itself.1
In The House in Paris, nationality becomes a question of authenticity: to be in exile, to lack appropriate “background,” is to be seen as, and to see oneself as, inauthentic, without a coherent identity. Borrowing from Pierre Nora’s exploration of memory sites in France, I suggest that Max Ebhart’s problem is that he lacks a genuine “environment of memory” and so must attempt (futilely) to create one. The sense of inauthenticity that surrounds Max in the “Past” section of the novel makes its way into the “Present” sections through repeated references to a late nineteenth-century Parisian palace, the Trocadero.
In Eva Trout, Bowen uses the “deaf-mute” Jeremy to raise questions about identity and interiority. Eva is estranged not only from place...