The House in Paris Study Guide

The House in Paris

The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen

Time

The past and present are constantly intertwined in The House in Paris , and the middle section, "The Past," is an imagined history. Characters in the past already have in mind future characters and events. For example, hours after conceiving Leopold, Karen thinks about her son as if he already exists: "the idea of you, Leopold, began to be present with her." This thought of Karen's is, in the end, Leopold's, since he imagines these events; the reader learns Leopold's past while he does, "simultaneously gaining information from disconnected fragments derived from a combination of hints and opinions filtered through all he experiences in the house in Paris." Bowen herself discussed the "bendability" of time in an essay published in 1951, in which she discusses "factitious memory": "one route to the past (or the idea of the past) is factitious memory. That is to say, by art we are made to seem to remember that which we have not actually known."

Stasis

Throughout The House in Paris , characters do not successfully go anywhere, either geographically or emotionally. Marian Kelly sees Bowen's narrative structure deliberately slowing down her plot: "the middle section moves backward and so produces a stasis that interrupts the forward momentum of the text". In the past, Karen for years maintained an unrequited, hopeless love for Max, but when they finally became involved, she could not enjoy a fulfilling relationship with him. Instead, she remained tethered to her caste: "she had been born and was making her marriage inside the class that in England changes least of all....This was the world she sometimes wished to escape from but, through her marriage, meant to inhabit still". In the more recent present, Mme Fisher has been putting off the sale of her Parisian house until her death, although she acknowledges that she has been waiting to die for nearly a decade. Also, the reader learns that Leopold's development and maturity have been continuously stunted by his adoptive family, who have kept him in a state of perpetual dependency. Both he and the text's other child, Henrietta, remain in transit throughout the entire novel, never arriving at their destinations. Finally, Karen prolongs her reunions with Leopold and Naomi, both of whom have been waiting for years to see her; on a lesser scale, Henrietta's grandmother, in her letter to "Kingfisher" (that is, Naomi Fisher), claims that she has been waiting for a visit from her.

Betrayal and secrecy

The novel is concerned throughout with betrayal and secrecy. Karen betrayed her mother by not revealing Aunt Violet's terminal illness during her remaining weeks of life; in fact, the narrator reports that "Karen did not even ask herself why she had said nothing." Mme Fisher betrayed Naomi by encouraging Max to choose Karen, enabling Max and Karen to begin their affair and betray their respective fiancés, while Karen betrayed Naomi as well: when Karen admonishes Max, "you cannot do that to Naomi," Max responds, "Did you always think so much of her?" Maud Ellmann even asserts that Karen only loves Max "precisely because he is another woman's". Later, after Karen has conceived her illegitimate child, Mrs. Michaelis betrays her husband by sending Karen on a year of supposed European travel and study, just as Karen further betrays Ray by secretly giving birth to and then giving away an illegitimate son. In the present, Karen still betrays her father, who is desperate for grandchildren, by hiding his grandson's existence. Ultimately, Karen betrays Leopold at the eleventh hour when she refuses to meet him in Paris, a betrayal underscored by the repeated message to Leopold, "Your mother is not coming; she cannot come." Because of Karen's betrayal of Leopold, Bennett and Royle qualified The House in Paris as "Bowen's most rigorous and unremittingly clairvoyant elaboration of the structure and effects of psychic trauma. The House in Paris is what we propose to call a traumaturgy, both a work and theory of wounds." Finally, Ray betrays the Grant Moody foster family by stealing Leopold at the novel's close. There is so much secrecy throughout the text that, according to Marian Kelly, "Bowen forces readers into the position of detective by making constant deduction at the level of both conversational references and character psychology a central element of reading her novel".

Motherhood

Elizabeth Bowen classifies motherhood as a central problem in The House in Paris . The machinations of Mme Fisher, of course, are the worst of all of the novel's mothers. In the past Max recalled of Mme Fisher, "she acted on me like acid on a plate," while Karen thought, "She is a woman who sells girls; she is a witch." After Mme Fisher contributed to Max's suicide, even her daughter Naomi "saw then, that evil dominated our house." In fact, Neil Corcoran sees Mme Fisher as "quasi-vampiric," since she "does indeed draw blood from Max, when he slits his wrist in the house in front of her." Additionally, Mrs. Michaelis presented some apathy and detachment to her daughter, although Karen went so far as to classify her mother as "ruthless." At one point, Karen was aware that her mother's passive-aggressive parenting caused a key power shift between them: "She has made me lie for a week. She will hold me inside the lie till she makes me lose the power I felt I had." Aware of these troubling examples, in the present Karen longs to correct her abandonment and be a "natural mother" to Leopold, but her son realises that "she would not lend herself to him." Neil Corcoran calls Leopold's reaction to his mother's failure "the novel's most concentrated expression of the psychological and emotional wounding that is parentlessness." Bowen's attention to motherhood continues throughout her oeuvre , attending to difficult maternal figures like Mrs. Kelway in The Heat of the Day and Lady Naylor in The Last September , for example.

Houses

Houses loom large in Bowen's work (as is evident in Bowen Court , her 1946 book memorialising her ancestral house, Bowen Court, one of the Irish great houses, which she was forced to sell and which was subsequently demolished) and in The House in Paris the main setting is the house where Naomi and Mme Fisher live, which is characterised as full, stuffy, and oppressive: "The inside of this house—with its shallow door-panels, lozenge door-knobs, polished brass ball on the end of the banisters, stuffy red matt paper with stripes so artfully shadowed as to appear bars—was more than simply novel to Henrietta, it was antagonistic, as though it had been invented to put her out. She felt thehouse was acting, nothing seemed to be natural; objects did not wait to be seen but came crowding in on her, each with what amounted to its aggressive cry." Naomi's deceased aunt's home in Twickenham is similarly described, though there is a suggestion of future redemption: "the aunt's house was hollow, completely dead. But someone else would move in almost at once, and be here next spring, no doubt, to enjoy the cherry." A third house is the home of Colonel and Violet Bent lived in Rushbrook, the house in Ireland that Karen briefly visited before returning to the Michaelis home in Chester Terrace, Regent's Park, London. But that Irish home is itself a replacement of an earlier great house, the ancestral home of Colonel Bent, which was burned during the Irish War of Independence.

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