Books Magazine

Character Development In The Death Of The Heart

By Robert Bruce @robertbruce76

I don’t know what to do with The Death of the Heart.

It’s a novel that lulls me to sleep, then quickly pulls me back in. It’s a novel with little action and large amounts of character development. I’m still not sure how I’ll rank The Death of the Heart when I review it next week.

If you’re looking for a glowing review of the novel, check out Charlotte Freeman’s take at The Rumpus. She calls The Death of the Heart “the last book she loved,” and has this to say about it.

For one academic year I taught in an MFA program in California, and I was astonished by the way my students read stories. As though the characters were real people, and as though the point of a story was to present and then solve a psychological problem. As though the point was to save the characters, to heal them, to fix their nonexistent lives. I shudder to think what they would have made of Bowen; I think they would have been equally put off by Bowen’s refusal to condemn her characters as they would have been by her refusal to save them. If there’s no villain, then who is the hero? If there’s no hero, then where is the story?

For me, this is the genius of the novel. There is neither hero nor villain.  Anna is cold, and manipulative, but she’s not the enemy who must be banished in order for Portia to prevail. She simply is what she is, a person with her own limitations and quirks, who has come up against another person whose limitations and quirks are incompatible. Could she be better? Of course, but who among us could not?

This is what I love about Bowen, her refusal to punish her characters for behaving badly. Everyone just is as they are–there’s no sense that the “adults” are going to change or grow in any fundamental way.  Portia, yes, because she’s a child, and children must change in order to become adults. But the adults, they’re fixed now. They are what they are. That Portia breaks her heart against this is considered perhaps a tragedy; but like all tragedies, it’s inevitable.

Great take. You can read the rest of Freeman’s review here.

It’s spot on about the ambiguity of these characters. The only true “good character” is Portia, the young teenager. The rest of these guys and girls are a combination of annoying and charismatic.

In general, what do you think about ambiguous novels? And does Freeman’s praise of The Death of the Heart make you want to read it?

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