The Death of the Heart describes the experiences and realizations of the young and naïve Portia Quayne in 1930’s London. The novel begins with Anna, the wife of Portia’s half-brother, Thomas, in a discussion with a friend about having read Portia’s diary. It immediately becomes clear that the world in which the characters live is filled with prejudice and inequality. Anna does not like Portia’s observations about her life. More importantly, she is angered by Portia’s father leaving custody of the orphan to Anna and Thomas. Bowen delves into the personal relationships and pasts of her characters in order to examine their positions in society. In doing, so observations are made about qualities unique to certain classes and personalities. The reader is forced to consider: are there some emotions or circumstances in life all people are doomed to encounter, or can lucky people escape the inevitable?
From the start, the author establishes characters’ positions in society and implies that these positions are immovable. Thomas and Anna have money and respect in the community. Portia is the reason Thomas’ father left his mother in disgrace, and this can or will never be forgiven. Although, Anna has lovers, laughs cruelly at gifts Major Brutt sends her, and reads Portia’s diary, no one questions her behavior, because she has inherited her father’s money. Portia shows no fault in character, yet she is shown no kindness due to mistakes her parents made.
Portia falls in love with Anna’s friend Eddie after he begins pursuing her. He leads her to believe he cares for her by taking her for walks, sending her letters, reading her diary, and even visiting her in Seale. The girl always has the best of intentions in mind. She wishes to marry Eddie, a man Anna approves of, and to please her brother. When she’s told by Mr. Miller that Anna has been reading her diary, she realizes that her father’s wishes for her to be part of Thomas’ family can never come true.
The text is organized loosely into three sections that correspond to Portia’s experiences living with her brother and his wife. In the first portion of the girl’s stay with the couple, despite the fact that the large and well decorated house has a sense of coldness, and she knows she is an unwelcome guest, she hopes one day her only remaining family will grow to care for her. Next, Thomas and Anna take a trip abroad, and Portia is sent to the seaside town of Seale to stay with Anna’s old governess Mrs. Heccomb. While Portia stays with Mrs. Heccomb and her adult step-children, Dickie and Daphne, she comes to see the extreme differences between the Quayne and Heccomb households. Although Thomas and Anna are considered well-off, their household is empty, quiet, and much goes unsaid. On the other hand, the Heccombs have less money and have harsh and indecent mannerisms. Still, they are honest and appear much happier than Thomas and Anna. In the third portion of Bowen’s account, entitled, The Devil, Portia realizes Anna has been reading her diary, and that she will never truly be a part of the family.
Bowen organizes her narration so that reflection involving universal human experiences and plights are dispersed throughout the text. Exchanges between and among characters are added to by the author showing learning processes of Portia or mentioning that Anna once felt the same way. When Portia finally sees that Thomas and Anna will never accept her, and she decides she never wants to go back to live with them, her heart truly breaks. Major Brutt explains to her that this happens to everyone in some way. “When people seem to give you a bad deal, you’ve got to ask yourself what sort of deal they may have once got themselves.” Sometimes it is easier to think that others have experienced similar pain.
Much of what occurs among the characters in the story is not completely clarified for the reader. There are elements of the plot purposely left open to interpretation. What exactly is Anna doing with the men she meets? What has she done in the past? How does her husband feel about it? Most importantly, what happens to Portia at the end of the story? Based on the personalities and past actions of her family members, the outlook isn’t good. Still, the reader is free to decide.