By Maria Katsianou and Eirini Papadimitriou[presented at a student workshop in the context of the module “Modernist Fiction” taught at the English Department of the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens]
In the 1929 short story “Shoes: An international episode”, Elizabeth Bowen uses the hotel premises as a means to reveal the contradictions of the era, a period of intense industrialization but also of fear and skepticism resulting in fragmented and shifting identities. The hotel in which Dillie and Edward Aherne are vacationing is a place of significant change. Their stay is stigmatized by the loss of Dillie’s good brogues, which made her feet look “a shade powerful”, resulting in an unprecedented upheaval to both her emotional state and the relationship with her husband. The hotel setting forces upon its guests an existence that is alien to the conventional domestic setting, confining them in an artificial world.
In Bowen’s hotel, the characters undergo transformation, and intriguing events are ignited by trivial matters. The hotel’s transience acts as a boundary in which the remarkable events that occur alter characters’ social perceptions (Short, 2009, 63). The hotel’s atmosphere is dominated by transience and instability, turning the hotel into a liminal place with no moral conventions and codes, in which visitors are able to act on impulse (Pready, 2009, 7; Short, 2019, 62). Behavior is scrutinized as guests are removed from their familiar habitats and the hotel world is a bubble, a “pocket of life” in Pready’s words, where societal conventions are both felt and dismissed as arbitrary (Pready, 2009, 9).
Guests coming, French people speaking loudly, all contribute to this loose environment. The first scene depicts this freedom, “Their room was in morning disorder” (1), the image of a room away from home, challenging a predictable reality in which conformity is the norm. “She had stripped the beds – one could never be certain hotel femmes-de-chambre did this thoroughly (n.p.). The guests lack privacy, and as Pready claims, “the privacy of the individual hotel room is a transient negotiation” (80). The hotel’s ephemarality provides characters with a much needed isolation, a form of displacement.
Contradictions are the foundation of “hotel-world” existence; they foster sensations of both familiarity and strangeness, rootlessness and stasis, and freedom and restraint. People congregate and create groups, yet they also feel out of place (Pready, 7). The disappearance of Dillie’s shoes destabilizes the element of togetherness in the couple’s relationship, as the shoes signify the couple’s marital status: “These two pairs of shoes, waiting outside for him every morning, still seemed a formal advertisement to the world of their married state”. Bowen also ascribes an ontological status to the shoes: “The female shoes, uncertainly balanced because of their high heels, listed towards the strong shoes of Edward timidly and lackadaisically”. This excerpt indicates uncertainty and precariousness along with a notion of timidness and apathy that characterize the female pair of shoes compared to Edward’s “strong” shoes. It seems that there is a double destabilization for Dillie: her sturdy shoes are lost and the high-heeled shoes she is given suggest further instability.
Throughout the story, objects and hotel surroundings not only play the role of entities to which humans attach their hopes and concerns but also occupy a different level of existence and have an esoteric kind of dignity and energy (Inglesby, 312-13): “The passage outside was stuffy and panelled with doors”. In this excerpt Bowen indicates the element of privacy and safety that emerges from the hotel space but also the feeling of isolation and restraint, as opposed to the feeling of freedom attached to the walking identity of the lost pair of Dillie’s shoes. Hence, through the depiction of a claustrophobic atmosphere, Bowen points to the impact that the hotel space has on the characters who are obliged to live in a confined, artificial environment that differs from their conventional household setting. This differentiation from the usual domestic environment marks the hotel space as a place of estrangement, where guests experience a break from the daily life, a break evoking feelings of uneasiness (Pready, 8-9).
Bowen also personifies the hotel, attributing to it a threatening and malevolent nature: “And I always did think this hotel was sinister. I told you so at the time, Edward”. Perhaps for this reason she wants to keep the window open in her room: “To keep the french window open at its widest an armchair smothered in clothes had been pushed up, a curtain tied back with one of Mrs Aherne’s stockings”. Even though the window indicates the segmentation of space and division between inside and outside, its openness underlines Dillie’s need to escape the malicious hotel.
Nevertheless, the hotel through its decoration, uniformity of rooms and furniture, enables Dillie and Edward to act freely and reconstruct themselves (Short, 2012, 91; Despotopoulou et al, 2). Experiencing the feeling of freedom as they are removed from everyday reality, their habitual identities’ transform and their characters evolve. They act as one, freed of conventions, adopting new identities (Short, 2012, 82).
They had coffee brought out, and liqueurs, and remained talking after the last of the other guests had stared and gone. They both felt they analysed better in France; and of course wine did intensify the personality. They discussed Edward and Dillie, Dillie in relation to Edward, Edward to Dillie, Edward and Dillie to Dillie’s shoes, and Dillie’s shoes to the Latin attitude. They discussed sex … .
Their new identities experiment, discuss and try to free themselves from the chains of conformity and stereotypes.
However, the distancing from the hotel premises also results in the distancing of the couple from each other, enhancing the feeling of isolation in contradiction to that of togetherness that was prevalent at the beginning of the story: “As they turned down the Rue des Deux Croix towards the cathedral bold in sunshine (…) She did not speak; he said nothing”. “Lost to one other, they went silently into the pointed, chilly darkness”. “He laid a hand for a moment on the hand of his wife and companion, but she, relentlessly intelligent, slipped hers away”.
Notably, Dillie reveals a new self, often neurotic ‘You damned!’ said Dillie. “You absolutely damned damned! Then she picked them up (she could never explain what came to her) and threw them one by one out of the window…”. She strives to depict a self-assured personality but through these outbursts, she expresses an identity full of neurosis and self-doubt. Dillie, being defined by her shoes, after their loss feels stripped of identity. Dillie said,
“There!” in triumph, got up and went out carefully between the tables. She had a pleasant feeling of extension, as though she were everywhere, on the table-tops, in the wine-bottles, in the waiter; wise with all of them. Every experience meant something; each had its place. She groped down the corridor, blind in the sudden darkness, singing.
Her various identities are scattered everywhere, and when her shoes are found she reassembles herself and feels whole again. The feelings of togetherness and freedom are restored after the discovery of Dillie’s shoes, when they return to the hotel: “Mr and Mrs Aherne, free, frank on terms of perfect equality, clattered down the corridor, disturbing some dozen siestas. Talking loudly together about the Latin mentality, they passed with a blink and a gasp into the reeling glare of the afternoon” (13). The couple unites, acting as one, freed of conventions, temporarily adopting alternative identities before they return to reality (Short, 2012, 82). Notably, Bowen’s short story is a reminder of the disturbance and constant movement of the period, highlighting the contradictions between the domestic environment and the liberating atmosphere of the hotel.
Bowen, Elizabeth (1980). Collected Short Stories. Vintage. Epub.
Despotopoulou, Anna, Athanasios Dimakis, Chryssa Marinou. (2021) “Hotels in Literature.” In The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Urban Literary Studies, ed. J. Tambling, 1-11, Palgrave Macmillan.
Inglesby, Elizabeth C. (2007) “”Expressive Objects”: Elizabeth Bowen’s Narrative Materializes.” MFS Modern Fiction Studies, vol. 53 no. 2, 2007, p. 306-333.
Pready, Joanna Elaine (2009). The Power of Place: Re-negotiating Identity in Hotel Fiction. PhD thesis, University of Nottingham.
Short, E. (2012). No place like home: the hotel in modernist women’s writing. PhD Thesis
Short, Emma. (2019). Mobility and the Hotel in Modern Literature. Passing Through. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Maira Katsianou is a final-year undergraduate student of English Literature and Language, at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens (NKUA). She holds a BSc in Chemistry (NKUA), an MSc in Molecular Medicine (Brunel University, London), an MRes in Translational and Clinical Science (UCL, London) and a PhD in Biological Chemistry (Medical School of Athens, NKUA). Her academic interests focus on brain and skull development, neurodegenerative diseases, neurolinguistics, and neurolinguistic programming. She loves teaching and has a keen interest in English and American literature and poetry.
Eirini Papadimitriou is a final-year undergraduate student of English Literature and Language, at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens (NKUA). She holds a Diploma in Translation (British Council), a BSc in Early Childhood Education (University of Ioannina), an MA in Educational Sciences (Open University of Cyprus) and is currently attending an M.Ed in Teaching of English as a Foreign/ International Language (Hellenic Open University). She works as a Kindergarten teacher and her academic interests are related to the teaching of English in pre-school education. She is a keen reader of classic and contemporary English literature.