The Decline of the Big Houses
At the end of the story, Bowen uses setting details to further illuminate Barbie’s transition. She becomes as powerless as the paper boat the river carries away, “traveling at uncertain speed on the current, list[ing] as it vanished under the bridge.” She does not have “the heart to wonder how the boat would fare.” But readers may well wonder how Barbie will fare. When she sees her uncle at the hotel, her impulse is to escape. Here the bus becomes the symbol of her freedom from this adult world. She longs to take the bus back to “scenes of safety . . . and solitude.” But the innocence of that world is past; a means of escape is “out of reach.” After civil war broke out in Ireland in 1921, ancestral homes known as Big Houses went into decline. They were owned by the Anglo-Irish, British Protestants who made up the occupation governing class in Ireland and who had taken the land away from the Irish Catholics. During the war, many of these homes, like Bowen’s Court, Elizabeth Bowen’s family estate, were either taken over by soldiers or destroyed by anti-British mobs who regarded them as symbols of social and economic oppression.
Richard Tillinghast, in his article on Bowen, writes that she “was born into a Protestant ascendancy that rose to power and distinction in the eighteenth century and went into decline by the late nineteenth.” Tillinghast reveals the influence this movement had on her when he concludes, “The alienation of the Anglo-Irish landowner, set above and isolated from the ‘native’ population, is a vantage point to which Bowen refers often when writing of Ireland.” In 1903 the Wyndham Act was passed in Ireland, which helped displaced Catholics buy back their lands from the Anglo-Irish. By the second decade of the twentieth century, landlords who had sold off their farms were left with not much more than their big houses. The wealth they had accumulated from the sale of their lands left them with little to occupy their time in a place where they felt a growing sense of isolation.
Girls and Sexuality in Ireland
A celebrated 2003 film The Magdalene Sisters depicts the harrowing consequences for Irish girls who experimented with sex during the first half of the twentieth century. Girls who became pregnant or engaged in sexual activities were often handed over to the Catholic Church by their families. Some of them ended up in convents that turned them literally into slaves, working in laundries or other money-making operations. The film paints a bleak picture of convent life, in which it claims the girls were brutalized.
Sexuality in the 1950s
Traditional attitudes about sex began to change during this era. Still heavily influenced by the church, the Irish tried to encourage the young to refrain from sexual experimentation. But new attitudes in America began to filter into the Irish culture. Alfred Kinsey’s reports on the sexual behavior of men and women (1948, 1953) helped bring discussions of this subject out in the open in the United States and overseas. Although many Irish clung to oppressive Catholic ideas about sexuality, they could not suppress questions that began to be raised about what constituted normal or abnormal sexual behavior.
Movie stars such as Marilyn Monroe and Brigitte Bardot, who openly flaunted their sexuality, intrigued the public on both sides of the Atlantic and magazines like Playboy , begun in 1953, gained a wide audience. In the 1960s relaxed moral standards resulted in an age of sexual freedom in Europe and the United States. Yet, most Irish in the 1950s retained conservative attitudes toward sexuality: they did not openly discuss sexual behavior, and promiscuity, especially for women, was not tolerated.
Ira Mark Milne – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 22, Elizabeth Bowen, Published by Gale Group, 2010