“A Day in the Dark” was first published in the jour Botteghe Oscure in 1955. It appeared in Mademoiselle magazine in 1957 and then became the title story in Bowen’s 1965 collection of short stories. In a review of that collection, F. L. H. Jr. praises Bowen’s detailed descriptions of setting, concluding that “Miss Bowen carries over a novelistic technique to her short stories.” Many other scholars have applauded Bowen’s attention to detail in these stories, including Edwin Morgan who writes in his review of A Day in the Dark that in this “rich selection of her short stories,” “Miss Bowen shows again and again her skill in evoking atmosphere, weather, gardens, houses, brooding human feelings.” He also finds a strong connection between place and the “convincing psychological realism” of her stories. Echoing this conclusion, Laurel Smith, in her article on Bowen in the dictionary of Literary Biography determines that “Bowen unobtrusively steers readers through the geography of motives and interactions on which human identity and human character depend.”
Turning to “A Day in the Dark,” F. L. H. Jr. insists that the story is “a timeless gem about a girl’s recognition of the complexities of love.” In her article on the story, Lis Christensen claims that it “has been hailed as a Bowen classic.” She echoes the positive reviews of the collection when she notes “the dominant role played by rooms and houses and landscapes” in the story. She also praises the story’s narrative voice, commenting that “The handling of the narrator provides a degree of ambivalence and complexity . . . that places it among the most sophisticated of Elizabeth Bowen’s writings.” F. L. H. Jr. illustrates the appeal of this collection and specifically of “A Day in the Dark” with the conclusion that “It’s great to be a reader in the same world in which Elizabeth Bowen writes.” Perkins is a professor of American and English literature and film. In this essay, Perkins examines the theme of innocence and experience in the story.
Laurel Smith, in her article in the Dictionary of Literary Biography , notes that the central concerns in Bowen’s short stories are “the complex truths of human relationships.” In one of her most poignant stories, “A Day in the Dark,” Bowen explores the complex truths in the relationships a fifteen year-old Irish girl has with her uncle and a woman in her town. Barbie’s interactions with these two influential figures in her young life cause her to discover the darker nature of sexuality and so to be initiated into the realities of the adult world.
Angus Wilson, in his introduction to Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen , concludes that Bowen’s best stories focus on the “never changing conflict of youth’s hopeful imagination and the regretful doubts of the ageing.” In “A Day in the Dark,” Bowen alters this conflict a bit to one between “hopeful imagination” and a cynical vision of the adult world. Barbie’s and Miss Banderry’s conflicting visions center on the issue of sexuality. On the afternoon of her visit Barbie admits that she is in love with her uncle, exclaiming, “with him I felt the tender bond of sex.” Since she had not known him when she was a child, she came upon his “manhood” without warning. She had not felt any danger in their relationship, “growing into love . . . like the grass growing into hay on his uncut lawns.” Not at least until she visits Miss Banderry that day.
Barbie makes the trip for her uncle, who needs to return a magazine and borrow a farming implement. She insists that he has evaded meetings with Miss Banderry because although “a winning, versatile and when necessary inventive talker, fundamentally [he] hated to tax his brain,” and Miss Banderry liked to discuss reading material that she often sent him. Barbie is hopeful that she can successfully perform the favor for her uncle and so brings roses as a gift.
She approaches the house with some trepidation, the cause of which is not immediately apparent. Perhaps it is due to her knowledge of Miss Banderry’s hounding of her brother to the point of suicide or perhaps it is due to her understanding that her uncle has a certain relationship with the older woman. Bowen’s subtle and indirect narrative style often forces the reader to follow barely detectable suggestions of plot line and character development. Soon after Barbie arrives, however, she confronts the complex realities of adult relationships, which will fill her with a sense of “dread.” Looking back from adulthood, Barbie admits that when she went to Miss Banderry’s, she was “unread, [her] susceptibilities were virgin.” Her innocence is immediately challenged by Nan, Miss Banderry’s dependent niece, who “bets” that the “overblown” roses have not come from Barbie’s uncle. The widowed Nan is a “regretful, doubting” older woman like the ones to whom Wilson refers. “[R]eady to be handsome,” Nan “wore a cheated ravenous look” as she waits for her inheritance, since she has no other opportunities.
Nan’s response exposes Barbie to the complex games that men and women often play, prompting her to acknowledge that her uncle “ never thought of the roses. He had commissioned me to be gallant for him any way I chose.” He had insisted, “She’ll be mad. . . . Better say it was you.” Her love for him, however, remains unshaken for she “sacrifices a hair ribbon to tie the roses” because “it rejoices [her] to stand between him and trouble.” She again expresses her love when she wonders, “how dared [Nan] speak of my uncle with her bad breath?” Miss Banderry will soon challenge that innocent love with her subtle treacheries and manipulations. Bowen refuses to make the relationship between Barbie’s uncle and Miss Banderry clear since she relates it through the eyes of an inexperienced fifteen-year-old, but the older woman implies that at least from her point of view, there is a sexual tension between the two. She views the young girl as a threat to her relationship with the uncle as she indoctrinates Barbie into the darker side of human desires.
Before the two meet, Barbie observes the portraits of the “vanishing Banderrys” and the stopped clock, which suggest Miss Banderry’s faded youth. Yet when Barbie becomes self-conscious under their gaze and so inspects herself in the mirror, she sees, “A tall girl in a sketchy cotton dress. Arms thin, no sign yet of a figure,” not yet a woman. When Miss Banderry arrives, she continues the inspection, exclaiming “so he sent , did he?” and sits down “the better to look at” her. Aware of her aged “angry” appearance, Miss Banderry, pastes a “racy, indulgent smile” on her face and begins her banter with Barbie concerning their relationship with Barbie’s uncle. Miss Banderry’s obvious regrets over her lost youth prompt her attacks on the girl, whom she recognizes as a challenge to the uncle’s attentions.
Miss Banderry begins “the game” by pretending to believe that the roses come from Barbie’s uncle. She suggests her intimacy with him when she spies his thumbprints on the returned magazine and exclaims, “I’d know those anywhere!” and later, when she admits, “he’s a handsome fellow.” She does her best to make Barbie feel uncomfortable and to undermine the girl’s vision of her own relationship with her uncle. Noting that the thumbprints must have been made while he was dining, Miss Banderry insists to Barbie, “it’s a poor compliment to you” for him to read at the table.
Her remarks sting Barbie, who is not much of a match for the older woman. She feels as if Miss Banderry can see into her heart and recognize that she is in love with him. Until this point, her love for her uncle has been innocent but Miss Banderry’s challenging banter with her, with its obvious sexual undertones, has sounded a note of “danger.” Here Barbie glimpses for a moment the implications for her future as she faces the adult world of competition and deceit.
Miss Banderry implies that Barbie’s uncle has asked many things of her when she cuts off Barbie’s request “My uncle wants” with “What this time?” She tries to suggest the man’s dependence on her when she exclaims, “Looking to me to keep him out of jail?” After calling him “a brute,” however, she backs down and instructs Barbie, “tell my lord . . . I’ll think it over.” She insists that if he wants an answer “let him come himself” and accuses him of hiding behind Barbie’s “skirts.” Barbie tries to defend him but knows that some of what the woman has said about her uncle’s behavior is true.
Mrs. Banderry’s comparison of her brother to Barbie’s uncle fills the girl with “dread,” an emotion she feels even as an adult whenever she sees the woman’s house. Barbie recognizes that Miss Banderry’s “amorous hostility” to her uncle “unsheathed itself when she likened him to the brother she drove to death.” This knowledge apparently affects Barbie so greatly that her memory of the meeting breaks off at this point; she notes, “The other half is missing.” The meeting forces her to reexamine her own relationship with her uncle, yet she appears still to deny certain realities. She insists twice that she felt dread during her meeting with Miss Banderry, “not guilt.” Twice also she “swears” that she and her uncle “did each other no harm.” What she cannot admit is that her encounter with Miss Banderry, arranged by her uncle, did damage her, as does her meeting with him at the end of the afternoon. She acknowledges that she and her uncle had “played house together on the margin of a passion which was impossible” but because of that passion, he had thrown her into the adult world of experience, which she realizes can be dangerous. Nan reads this on Barbie’s face when she exclaims to the departing girl, “Anybody would think you’d had bad news!” When Barbie leaves Miss Banderry’s, she is surprised to see her uncle’s car outside of the hotel since she told him that she would take the bus home. Her uncle’s presence at the hotel suggests an alternate, secretive motive that he never explains. She recognizes that he did not go there to meet her. By the end of this afternoon, Barbie’s world has become irreparably altered. The streets are now “filmed by imponderable white dust” that seems to her “the pallor of suspense.” The bus that should have been there, granting her “independence” from her uncle and his adult world, has gone, denying her an exit to “the scenes of safety,” and “hope of solitude.” Her past, innocent relationship with him is now “out of reach,” and so she determines that he is no longer her “lord.” The end of the story signals Barbie’s entrance into this adult territory as she gets in her uncle’s car, prompted by his touch on her elbow. Bowen ends the story on an ambivalent inconclusive note. Readers do not know what happens to Barbie and her relationship with her uncle. Bowen does show us, however, in her finely crafted narrative that she has left her hopeful innocence behind after her “day in the dark” adult world of experience.
Soon after Barbie arrives, however, she confronts the complex realities of adult relationships, which will fill her with a sense of ‘dread.’”
Wendy Perkins, 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