§ion=&combo2=&text1=&text2=&SocNetUsername=&SocNetPassword=&authCode=& 7th Decade Thoughts: The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen

7th Decade Thoughts

Thoughts about books, politics and history (personal and otherwise), pictures I've taken and pictures I've edited.

Friday, July 06, 2007

The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen

Two children meet in a house in Paris. Both families have some connection with the Fishers, mother and daughter, which stretches into the past. Henrietta, 11, is met by Naomi Fisher, spends the day in the house, and is to be taken to meet an escort who will take her to her grandmother’s in Mentone. Leopold, 9, has come from Italy where he lives with foster parents; he expects to meet his “real mother”, a friend of the Fishers, for the first time on this visit. He wants not to return to Italy and imagines a glorious reunion in which his mother whisks him off to a wonderful life.

The novel is structured into three parts, with the first focusing primarily on the present day where the two children meet. The last part returns to that day and the two children. The middle part focuses on “the past”, the backstory that relates the two women in the house to the two children. I think Bowen's point was to take a morally ambiguous situation, one which couldn't help but have an effect on the children involved, and explore it in some detail.

I don't think this book cries out for a moral interpretation. What the author is looking for is an exploration of complex human interactions, within individuals, between and among adults and between and among children. (It's important that there are two children, by the way, to see how they interact and how complex are their inner lives already.) And in order to explore that complexity, one has to look at the past as well as the present. The book does not ask us to sort out the morality of the characters, but to recognize the complexity and how it leads and misleads to behavior, how it ruins lives and screws up the next generation. It asks us to recognize good and bad in most of the characters, positive and negative traits and behaviors.

It asks us to consider the complexity of human interaction. If one's reaction is that these characters are whining, whinging people who fail to take responsibilities seriously, it implies that these are bad people and that the author is condemning them. I don't think that's the case. I think the author is exploring human complexity and suggesting that no one is free of that complexity and hence totally moral or immoral. Furthermore it suggests a series of disconnects between behavior and morality. The most immoral characters (i.e. Mme Fisher and maybe Henrietta's grandmother), for example, set themselves up to be the "best sort" and perhaps even believe it.


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