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Space and Time in the Bombed City: Graham Greene’s The Ministry of Fear and Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day

Beryl Pong

In 1951, P. H. Newby wrote, ‘It is debatable… whether so overwhelming and universal a catastrophe as the late war can be reckoned the sort of experience out of which an artist can create’ (Newby 13). This essay examines two works which were indeed written during the ‘overwhelming and universal… catastrophe’ of World War II, and which concern specifically the London Blitz: Graham Greene’s The Ministry of Fear (1943) and Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day (1948).[1] Both novels depict protagonists who become inadvertently entangled in spy plots and national intrigue, and both highlight themes of betrayal, self-discovery, and dispossession. Such themes, I argue, are inextricably tied to their representations of the Blitzed cityscape as one of spatial and temporal dislocation.

Space and time, of course, are key issues for modernist literature. Contemporary developments in philosophy questioned the validity of space and time as fundamental coordinates for describing individual experience.[2] These concerns inflect the structure of many canonical modernist texts, from Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) to Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925). The relationship between high modernism and violence, however, shaped around the Great War, finds new impetus and manifestation in the late modernism of the Second World War. My essay analyzes Greene and Bowen’s writing in the context of the historical period that they record. In The Ministry of Fear and The Heat of the Day, the representation of space and time in the Blitzed city converges with issues of space and time in literary narrative to reflect on the psychological apprehension of urban space during the powerful events of the air and V-bombing raids. These novels depict the Blitzed cityscape as a disorienting and ‘unhomely’ home, and they investigate the events’ jarring effects on the individual psyche and memory through contorted narrative structures and a distorted chronology. Ultimately, their characters engage in a compulsive but indeterminable act of rereading past events –- a movement which, while revisiting the past, also emphasizes a fundamental inability to fully clarify or comprehend its mysteries and so suture the events of the Blitz into a coherent and meaningful whole.

Bombed spaces, unhomely homes
In The Ministry of Fear, Arthur Rowe unknowingly comes into possession of a missing microfilm, hidden inside a cake, when he has his fortune told at a fête. After a stranger tries to kill him, he consults a private detective and enlists the help of Anna and Willi Hilfe, two Austrian refugees who work for a charitable organization that actually serves as a cover-up for a group of fifth columnists. The story is further complicated by Rowe’s guilt over the mercy-killing of his terminally ill wife years earlier; this history casts a dark shadow over his new love for Anna. The impact of the Blitz conditions play a prominent role in shaping this convoluted plot: Rowe ironically escapes death when German bombs injure his would-be assassin. Eventually framed for a murder he did not commit, Rowe hides underground in subway stations and bomb shelters, both from the authorities and from the blitzkrieg above. He then ends up in a fake asylum, controlled by the conspirators, after losing all memory of his adult life through shellshock. The shellshock is caused by a detonating suitcase, but it is blamed on a Blitz bomb. Throughout the novel, Rowe must simultaneously negotiate his way through London’s changing ruins as well as through this spy plot in which he becomes entangled.

Blitz conditions similarly frame The Heat of the Day, although they do not drive the plot and narrative to the same extent as Greene’s novel. Stella Rodney begins a relationship with Dunkirk evacuee Robert Kelway when they meet in 1940 during the air raids. Two years later, she encounters a man named Harrison who tells her that Robert works as a spy for Nazi Germany. He offers not to denounce her lover if she is willing to have an affair with him instead. Unnerved by Harrison’s claim and proposition, Stella begins to observe Robert to uncover the truth, taking on a spy-like role herself. Unlike Greene’s novel, the action in The Heat of the Day does not occur entirely during the Blitz. Bowen’s novel spans almost exactly two years from September 1942 to 1944, evoking Blitz London in an extended flashback and in the characters’ reminiscences throughout the text. Stella’s early acquaintance with Robert is associated with her experience of the air raids, and the imagery of Blitz London resurfaces in her memory as her relationship with him progresses. The last chapter of Bowen’s novel begins with the Little Blitz of February 1944, and ends when Britain receives news of the Normandy landings, with the outcome still uncertain.

In The Ministry of Fear, London’s changing topography has a direct impact on the way the plot unravels; Rowe, for example, is forced on several occasions to take roundabout routes because of road or Tube closures. The Blitzed city as a site of flux is most apparent after the supposed murder of Mr Cost, for which Rowe has been framed. He calls the private detective Rennit for advice, and although there is no answer on the other side, he is comforted by the sound of the telephone bell: ‘It was always in these days questionable whether a telephone bell would ring at all, because overnight a building might have ceased to exist. He knew now that part of the world was the same: Orthotex still stood’ (Ministry 70-1). This is one of several instances in which Rowe makes phone calls to help discover whether a particular part of the city has survived the bombings overnight.[3] Aware of the impermanence of London’s architecture at this time, Rowe notes that telephone directories are practically meaningless since they inevitably become outdated in the bombed city: ‘the blitz was newer than the edition’ (80). By using the ringing of the telephone bell to update his knowledge of London’s geography, Rowe attempts to create an alternative method with which to map a physically dismantling city. Because of the rapidity and unpredictability of the changes produced by the Blitz, however, the bombed city defies being mapped. ‘That part of the world’ may ‘stay the same’ at time of the phone call, but there is no guarantee that this remains the case afterwards.

In The Heat of the Day, the transitory nature of the Blitzed environment comes through in Bowen’s experimental and peculiar writing style. Often, she draws attention to structures which are newly absent through telling adjectives and descriptions, such as Stella’s ‘glassless’ bedroom window, which ‘ran up with a phantom absence of weight’ (Heat 93). ‘The non-existence of her window’ is an integral image in her recollections of the Blitz (ibid). Bowen’s writing also uses contortions in syntax to emphasize the way these absences exert their own kind of presence upon the extant. In Chapter Five, Blitz London is literally haunted by the ghosts of the deceased:

[The dead] made their anonymous presence –- not as today’s dead but as yesterday’s living –- felt through London … not knowing who the dead were you could not know which might be the staircase somebody for the first time was not mounting this morning, or at which street corner the newsvendor missed a face, or which trains and buses in the homegoing rush were this evening lighter by at least one passenger. (Heat 92)

The city is described through, and defined, by the absence of the living. Material structures such as staircases and trains are marked –- even textually marked –- by the dead through a repeated reversal in syntax. For example, in the clause ‘the staircase somebody for the first time was not mounting this morning,’ the normal subject would be ‘somebody’ and the object would be ‘staircase,’ as with: ‘Somebody was not mounting the staircase for the first time this morning.’ Bowen, however, reverses the subject and the object by making ‘staircase’ the subject and ‘somebody’ the object. Furthermore, the object precedes the verb ‘mounting’, when the usual grammatical sequence would be subject/verb/object. The emphasis here is thus on the inanimate staircase, the description of a newly emptied home. Bowen’s emphatic use of negatives further accentuates the presence of absence –- the persistent way in which the city is haunted, not only by the literal ghosts of its dead inhabitants, but by the infrastructure it used to have, the image of what it was before.

Evoking the Blitzed city as a site of flux, a city which becomes unfamiliar to its own inhabitants, Greene and Bowen create an uncanny landscape. Not only do the dead mingle with the living in a preternatural way –- ‘No planetary round was to bring again that particular conjunction of life and death; that particular psychic London’ (Heat 92) –- their descriptions of London can be called uncanny in the Freudian sense of the term. In his 1919 essay ‘The Uncanny,’ Freud emphasizes that unheimlich, the German word for the uncanny, literally means ‘unhomely’. Through a close reading of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s short story, ‘The Sandman’, Freud connects the concept of uncanniness and ‘unhomeliness’ to the tale of a student who fears the eye-stealing Sandman. He attributes the feeling of uncanniness in part to ‘intellectual uncertainty,’ to ‘a fundamental insecurity brought about by a “lack of orientation,” a sense of something new, foreign, and hostile invading an old, familiar, customary world’ (Freud 125, Vidler 23). The Blitz creates that ‘sense of something new, foreign, and hostile’ invading a previously familiar environment; London becomes uncanny precisely because its inhabitants no longer recognize, nor feel comfortable within, their own city, their own home. The uncanny is, among other things, not simply an experience of alienation, but a particular ‘commingling of the familiar and unfamiliar’ (Royle 1). As Greene writes, London’s streets were ‘a novel sight to Rowe and yet an old sight’; his protagonist is familiar with his city, but he is also estranged by its devastating transformations (Ministry 211). At a time when buildings and streets disappeared overnight; when only one in ten houses escaped damage or destruction (Calder 257); when an average of one in six Londoners were rendered homeless at some point (Mudford 186); the wartime city is homeliness uprooted, a recognizable yet unfamiliar environment, an ‘unhomely home.’

In The Ministry of Fear, the nostalgia for a proper and stable home takes the form of Rowe’s time at Arcady, the fake asylum and nursing home run by Dr Forester on the outskirts of the city. The establishment is described as a kind of Edenic oasis, a mock-pastoral setting surrounded by beautiful flower gardens and an animal farm. Literally referred to as ‘The Home’ (Ministry 119), the mental hospital serves as an insular space in which Rowe relives his idyllic childhood under the identity of Richard Digby. Underlying the idealized Arcady, however, is the harsh reality of the fifth columnists’ treachery. When Dr Forester imprisons Major Stone in the ‘sick bay’, Rowe realizes that ‘the nursing home was something artificial, hidden in a garden’ (139). Spurred on by his reading of Charlotte Yonge’s The Little Duke, he adopts a heroic ethos and decides to enter the bay, uncovering an unsettling and sinister environment. There, ‘Everything spoke of neglect’ and ‘The place was as comfortless as a transit camp’ (137-8). The walls are padded, the windows shut and barred, and within this space, he finds Stone sobbing behind a locked door. Even more disturbing for Rowe, however, is the fact that the sick bay actually used to be a proper home. Large bells in the kitchen still mark where the study, the drawing-room, and the bedrooms were, but these spaces are now infested, with the curtains shabby, the beds unmade, and the clothing abandoned and soiled (138-9). ‘It was like the underside of a stone’, Rowe thinks, ‘you turned up the bright polished nursing home and found beneath it this’ (138). Dr Forester’s nursing home literally epitomizes the way wartime conditions create unhomely spaces. Under the guise of a pastoral utopia, it is the ultimate unhomely home.

In The Heat of the Day, Bowen also describes at length the unhomeliness of one specific home: Holme Dene, the Kelways’ family house. In Bowen’s novel, however, there is no disguised utopia or Eden; Holme Dene’s unhomeliness is stark and immediately unmistakable. Robert’s childhood room is a space built on pretenses: full of old photographs and token trinkets which are ‘fictions of boyishness’, the place does not actually represent Robert, only what his family wanted him to be (Heat 116). In fact, Robert feels that his own identity is effaced within the room: ‘Each time I come back again into it I’m hit in the face by the feeling that I don’t exist -– that I not only am not but never have been,’ he says (ibid). In addition to the unhomeliness of Robert’s room, Holme Dene has a tangled layout which creates an atmosphere of paranoia and claustrophobia. The ‘stresses of its architecture and the unsureness’ of its ‘corridors, archways, recesses, half-landings, ledges, niches, and balustrades’ represent ‘repressions, doubts, fears, subterfuges, and fibs. Or so he [Robert] felt’ (256). A place where ‘everyone knew where everyone else was and… what everyone else was up to,’ Holme Dene is a site of surveillance where family members are not themselves, but actors who rehearse ‘the required expression of having nothing to hide’ (ibid). Its labyrinthine setting becomes a spatial metaphor for Mrs Kelway’s oppressive and convoluted domestic dictatorship. In the same way that Robert’s family lacks the warmth of familial bonds, Holme Dene is completely deprived of the comfort and security traditionally associated with ‘home.’

Both Greene’s Arcady and Bowen’s Holme Dene are places which are in fact outside of London –- the former on the outskirts of the city, the latter in the countryside. Neither place is physically affected by the bombings, but the novels nevertheless depict them as unhomely spaces, pointing to unhomeliness as a larger and more psychological, wartime condition. Most importantly, beyond geographical location, Arcady and Holme Dene portray another kind of unhomeliness that ramifies in the political sphere: that of ideological unhomeliness. These places are ultimately sites of espionage and betrayal which affect the nation. Incarcerating those like Rowe who ‘know too much’ and sheltering Nazis and fifth columnists, Arcady is the foreign enemy’s home right inside of Britain. Meanwhile, Holme Dene is the literal breeding ground for a war veteran who turns into a Fascist spy. In Harrison’s words, Robert’s family home is where his erosion of ‘Englishness’ began, ‘the first place where rot could start’ (Heat 131). As the espionage plot in both novels progresses, the spatial unhomeliness of Arcady and Holme Dene –- their twisted and claustrophobic corridors, their hidden rooms –- become symbols of the convolution of a ‘homely’ nationalism and ideology. Ultimately, they are spatial metaphors for domestic perfidy and treachery. The two most ‘unhomely homes’ in The Ministry of Fear and The Heat of the Day are places where national security is unsuspectingly challenged, even unmoored, in the heart of wartime Britain. /font>

‘Re-read me backwards’: Narrating war time
Both The Ministry of Fear and The Heat of the Day depict a deep nostalgia for a pre-war time. Rowe lives in what he perceives to be a tainted present, and wishes to return to the innocence of his childhood, to ‘the world of homes and children and quiet love’ (Ministry 178). For Stella, the period between the two World Wars constitute an irredeemable trajectory of violence, a ‘fateful course of [a] fatalistic century,’ ‘a clear-sightedly helpless progress towards disaster’ (Heat 133-4). Greene and Bowen’s novels speak to this desire for, but impossibility of, returning to a past untouched by the effects of war through a distinctly fragmented narrative structure. Eschewing the teleological structure of traditional narratives, The Ministry of Fear and The Heat of the Day are novels with distorted chronologies in which we, the readers, enter the psychological space of Rowe and Stella as they negotiate through the recalcitrance of their wartime experiences.

The narrative of The Heat of the Day is marked by two major reversals in chronology. At the start of the novel, Bowen begins in September 1942, with Harrison’s encounter with Louie, before moving backwards to Cousin Francis’s funeral in May 1942 (when Stella first meets Harrison), and then to the height of the Blitz in 1940 (when she first meets Robert). The chronology is reversed again near the end of the novel, when Bowen outlines her characters’ activities in the months after Robert’s death, and then returns to the immediate aftermath of the event with his inquest. This strategy of reversing then re-continuing the narrative chronology mirrors the way Stella’s memory returns to the past to help her understand her present situation. As she considers the possibility of Robert’s treachery, she revisits her early memories of him, which brings Blitz London to her mind. Since she associates their initial acquaintance ‘with the icelike tinkle of broken glass … with the charred freshness of every morning’ during the Blitz, her thoughts about Robert lead to an extended flashback of September 1940, in Chapter Five (93). Similarly, the second chronological reversal reflects how Stella re-analyzes her relationship with Robert after his death. During their final meeting, he tells her, ‘You’ll have to re-read me backwards, figure me out –- you will have years to do that in, if you want to’ (270). We follow Stella’s movements through several years, from 1942 to 1944, before we revisit her memories of the inquest. We ‘re-read backwards’ as Stella thinks backwards.

Rowe in The Ministry of Fear also has an enigma to sort out that necessitates a return to the past: the fifth columnists’ plot. His process of remembering is similar to Stella’s, since he goes back to the episodes with the fête and the cake, and the séance, to try to understand why he is being framed for murder. Halfway through the novel, however, Greene’s narrative involves a reversal in chronology in an almost literal sense: Rowe helps a stranger carry a suitcase of books, which explodes, giving him shellshock and amnesia. Like ‘a Rip Van Winkle returning after a quarter of a century’s sleep’ (Ministry 143), Rowe cannot remember anything past the age of eighteen and ‘[loses] all his mature experience’ (136). He takes on the identity of Richard Digby and reverts back to his adolescent dreams, ambitions, and desires, acting according to the heroic aspirations of his youth as symbolized through The Little Duke. Although Rowe-Digby still lives in the Blitzed present, he adopts a heroic ethos and a ‘mood of high adventure’ (136) which causes him to behave like ‘a truant child’ (115). Shellshock, in a sense, reverses Rowe’s personal chronology since he goes back to a state of mind and mode of behaviour from the past. In the same way that we ‘re-read backwards’ alongside Stella through The Heat of the Day, we ‘re-read backwards’ with Rowe in The Ministry of Fear through his re-experiencing of his adolescent self.

As Rowe continues to examine his inadvertent involvement in the spy-plot, the novel self-reflexively refers to the very act of rereading itself. After Rowe escapes from Arcady, he turns himself in to the police and explains everything he knows. Rowe retells –- and hence, we literally reread, in an abbreviated form –- the events that have transpired over the first three-quarters of the novel. ‘I’ve been in a nursing home,’ he says, ‘It was kept by a Dr Forester … Apparently there was a raid … I lost my memory’ (Ministry 153). As he recounts his story, the police transcribe what he says, and ‘[every] time he spoke the pencil squeaked on the paper, making a stiff consecutive narrative out of his haphazard sentences’ (ibid). Greene self-consciously refers to the way that Rowe’s rereading, and our rereading, constitutes the book’s own narrative.[4] Similarly, at the end of The Heat of the Day, Stella retells the story of her life with Robert in a public courtroom during his inquest. Her testimony, like Rowe’s, is transcribed and it becomes an abbreviated summary of Bowen’s novel, of the story that we have just read: ‘He was determined to leave by the roof… For two years. –- Two years and two months: we met in September 1940 … yes, we saw one another frequently …’ (Heat 302). As with Greene’s novel, The Heat of the Day forces upon the reader an act of rereading that retells the text’s larger narrative, but within the story’s own narrative of intrigue. Everyone, characters and readers alike, is rereading backwards.

The fact that both Rowe and Stella retell their narratives in non-chronological order, even after they have reread the past, indicates their fundamental inability to fully order and resolve the disorder of their stories. Certain narrative gaps remain which continue to obscure the text. The nature of Rowe’s amnesia, for example, is never completely clarified. At the beginning of the novel, he desires to ‘mislay the events of twenty years’ -– a desire which is granted, of course, with the shellshock blast (Ministry 13). The absurd convenience with which this plot twist happens, and the ‘inexplicable happiness’ that Rowe feels, ‘as if he had been relieved suddenly of some terrible responsibility’ (111), gives the reader room for pause. Can Rowe’s amnesia be partly intentional? Would even Rowe know the truth of the matter? The mysteries surrounding Robert’s death in Bowen’s novel similarly exacerbate the enigma of who he is, and the nature of his espionage work. Before jumping from Stella’s roof, Robert says cryptically, ‘now I must go … or try to go. I do want to make it … I’m watched and they know I’m wise’ (Heat 288). Because Stella does not see his fall, the circumstances remain unclear. His death is officially recorded as ‘misadventure, outcome of a crazy midnight escapade on a roof,’ but the truth remains unknowable (301). Was it an accident? Was it murder? Was it suicide? Who are ‘they’? Do ‘they’ even exist, or is Robert imagining the scenario? Was Harrison there and if so, what role did he play?

Examples of such narrative perplexities -– the origin of Rowe’s memory loss, the equivocal identity of Robert and his obscure death -– create multiple interpretations and readings in Greene and Bowen’s novels. The very plots of The Ministry of Fear and The Heat of the Day are concerned with these blanks and the need to understand them. Rereading these narratives will not make them any clearer, however, since they merely revolve around these gaps without filling them in. Reading and rereading do not entirely clarify the muddles, and the remaining mysteries incite even more rereadings. The characters are thus compelled to read and reread past events, because each reading adds to their understanding of a scenario, but it does not fully enlighten it. They are engaged in a continual and unsatisfiable process of analysis and decipherment. To use Stella’s own words, they go on ‘piecing and repiecing’ the events ‘together to try and make out something they had not had time to say -– possibly even had not had time to know’ (Heat 317). The perverted chronology of these narratives, and the characters’ compulsion to reread and revisit the past, creates a particular temporal conundrum from which they cannot be free. Rereading backwards is itself an interminable, inexhaustible exercise that emphasizes the impossibility of returning to, and fully elucidating, that past. Because this activity has no end, it is also what propels them into the future.

This convoluted structure speaks to the characters’ ongoing but unrealizable attempts to reconcile their wartime narratives; more specifically, it evokes a certain kind of anxiety precipitated by living in ‘Blitz time’. Bombed for almost fifty-seven consecutive nights, Blitz London saw the routinization of the state of emergency. Despite the immediacy and unpredictability of the events themselves, Londoners braced for the air and V-bombing raids which they believed had to take place at some point every night. They lived through a traumatic anticipation: both the anticipation of trauma (the bombings), as well as an anticipation which was itself psychologically traumatic. Characters who live through the raids, like Rowe and Stella, occupy a particular space of “Blitz anxiety” –- they are suspended between the memory of a previous night’s devastation and an anticipatory dread which comes from the perplexing, perceived eventuality of a future bombardment. The state of emergency in Blitz London is both recurrent yet constantly deferred; the bombings, as both actual events and sustained threats, rend the psychological apprehension of linear chronology itself.

Ultimately, “Blitz anxiety” gives way to a problematic experience of temporality which is rendered most strongly through the use of a particular grammatical tense: the future anterior. The Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar defines the future anterior as the ‘future in the past’: it is ‘a tense that from a time in the past looks towards its own future’ (Chalker and Weiner 166). Mark Currie, who analyzes this grammatical tense in relation to narratological studies, states that the tense is critically related to Peter Brooks’ notion of the ‘anticipation of retrospection’.[5] The anticipation of retrospection ‘is a curious present that we know to be past in relation to a future we know to be already in place, already in wait for us to reach it’ (Brooks 23). Since it describes a future time from a past perspective, it renders retrospection itself a necessary and unavoidable imperative (Currie 29). The future anterior is a past tense that expresses a future that must come, as it is seen from a past perspective. As such, it describes a kind of proleptic symptom of trauma in which the narrative uses the lexicon of the past to point to an inevitable, foregone futurity. It is, as Sarah Dillon argues, ‘the grammatical tense paradigmatic of the anticipation of retrospection’ (Dillon 99). The future anterior is usually indicated by ‘a certain type of verb phrase containing the word would,’ and alternative structures include, ‘We were bitterly to regret our decision’ and ‘I was going to tell you (when you interrupted me)’ (Chalker and Weiner 166).

From the beginning of The Ministry of Fear, the future anterior informs the way Greene’s narrative unravels. The fête which attracts Rowe, for example, ‘would have to close early because of the blackout -– there would be some energetic work with trowels’ (Ministry 11, my emphases). When the only item Rowe buys is the second-hand copy of The Little Duke, ‘he felt no disappointment: he carried with him … the sense of glory, of a future that would be braver than today’ (13, my emphases). Expecting something exciting to happen, ‘he couldn’t believe that when he had passed the gate and reached the grass under the plane trees nothing would happen’ (ibid, my emphases). The future anterior inflects the narrative of The Heat of the Day as well, especially during the extended flashback of the Blitz in Chapter Five. ‘What the inheritance came to be for Roderick, Robert was for Stella –- a habitat’ (90, my emphases). ‘That autumn of 1940 was to appear, by two autumns later, apocryphal, more far away than peace. No planetary round was to bring again that particular conjunction of life and death; that particular psychic London was to be gone for ever; more bombs would fall, but not on the same city’ (92, my emphases).[6]

Through the use of the future anterior, both Greene and Bowen create narratives where past and future come together to mutually inform one another, anticipating retrospection. It combines different time tenses to form a disjointed whole. On one level, the future anterior accentuates the ‘pastness’ of the events being narrated because it emphasizes the ultimate unchangeability of the events, adding an air of inexorability. Whatever happens must happen: a narrative that employs the future anterior includes, in the presentation of the story itself, a sense of the event’s conclusion, because it is retrospective. On another level, the future anterior also offers a way through which these narratives, while remaining impenetrable to the protagonists, can offer more meaning to the reader. Anticipating retrospection, the future anterior points to a final outcome, even if the temporal trajectory in the narrative is itself convoluted and distorted.

Hence, the only person who is ultimately capable of restructuring time, of escaping the temporal quandary of ‘Blitz anxiety’, is the narrator who exists outside of the story he tells. As Dillon notes,

The speaker of the future anterior has to live, or at least have lived, in the future, in order to have knowledge of that future, and yet she or he must speak from a position prior to that future. The future anterior tense is possible, therefore, only in a narrative -– be it fictional or actual –- in which the present becomes strangely elided by a tense that must necessarily speak from the past while having knowledge of the future. (Dillon 100)

In addition to conveying a contorted and distorted temporality, the future anterior manages to tell the future from a past perspective –- something that a character inside of a narrative is unable to do. Since the stories are seen from Rowe and Stella’s points of view, the narrative chronology remains non-linear and befuddled; nevertheless, the narrator can offer a more coherent picture because of his special temporal position. In the case of The Ministry of Fear and The Heat of the Day, the future anterior is not intended to illuminate all of the narrative mysteries, but to clarify the problematic representation of time by referring to a proper chronology. Thus, Greene and Bowen’s novels act out, at once symptomatically and instructively, the recalcitrance of wartime experience. They offer the reader a certain mastery over “Blitz anxiety” while refusing to concoct a fictive escape from the Blitz’s inexorable and psychologically distorting logic. The reader is in a privileged position in comparison to Greene and Bowen’s characters, who can only engage in ‘the reiteration of unanswerable questions’ (Heat 275). For them, their stories remain a mere ‘perpetual possible illumination’ (ibid).

‘Blitz writing’: Rereading space and time
The Blitz on London created unprecedented anxieties concerning the nature of space and time: space, because inhabitants did not know which buildings and streets would be destroyed; time, due to the immediacy and unpredictability of this devastation. The event, however, also became strangely familiar for those who endured it: routinely bombed for several months, Londoners knew that the air and V-bombing raids had to take place at some point overnight. They were haunted by the anticipation of this destruction –- by the anticipation of retrospection.

Some critics have downplayed the significance of British fiction in the 1940s, suggesting that the historical circumstances of the war hindered literary production and experiment. What this essay has argued, however, is that Greene and Bowen’s writing in fact rendered the Blitz experience in creative ways with regards to space and time in literary narrative. The Ministry of Fear and The Heat of the Day depict the anxieties of the Blitz, not only by evoking the disjunctive impact that physical destruction wrought on the individual subjectivity, but by commenting on the ways that London became an ‘unhomely home’ because of the violence’s intrusion into private, domestic spaces. For their protagonists, a desire for a more lucid perception of the events incites a continuous mode of rereading which, while attempting to elucidate the past, becomes a constitutive part of the narrative process itself, driving it forward.

By considering and rereading Greene and Bowen’s writing in the context of this disruptive moment in British history, I suggest that they have conceived of space and time in the Blitzed city in ways which have reread and redeveloped these modernist literary conventions themselves. Through their distinctive narratives, The Ministry of Fear and The Heat of the Day reflect upon the psychological apprehension of the city’s mass devastation. ‘This did not look like home; but it looked like something – possibly a story,’ Roderick says (Heat 47). London during the Blitz may not look like ‘home’ anymore, but its destruction and eventual reconstruction created a unique image in the post-war imagination of its inhabitants and writers –- one which translates into a particular kind of literary narrative characterized by spatial and temporal distortion. Ultimately, Greene and Bowen’s novels challenge the aftermyth of the forties as a thoroughly anti-modernist decade, showing how space and time, two key high modernist concerns, were manifested, reread, and revised in the shadow of this violent and troubled historical event.


[1] While Bowen’s novel was published in 1948, she began writing the novel in 1943. In addition to The Heat of the Day, she published a volume of short stories, Look at All Those Roses (1941), and several stories collected in The Demon Lover (1945) throughout the war years.

[2] Albert Einstein’s theories, for example, questioned the assumptions about the interrelation of space and time, and Henri Bergson’s notion of la durée advocated for the understanding of time and consciousness as a continuous flux, artificially ordered by clock or calendar. For a general summary of key philosophical developments related to space and time during the modern period, see the introduction to Randall Stevenson’s The British Novel since the Thirties.

[3] For an analysis of the role of telephones and voices in Greene’s novel, see Victoria Stewart’s essay, ‘The auditory uncanny in wartime London: Graham Greene’s The Ministry of Fear’.

[4] Brian Diemert analyzes the novel as commentary on reading and writing the thriller genre: ‘The Ministry of Fear, while participating in the investigation of reading that all detective novels partake in, becomes a novel not only about reading texts but about reading this text, “this cardboard adventure”’ (Diemert 163).

[5] Mark Currie also states that this expression derives from Derrida’s Of Grammatology, in which he speaks of ‘a future which will come before as well as a past which will exist in the future’ (Currie 50, n.2).

[6] The Ministry of Fear and The Heat of the Day are not the only novels written during the war about the Blitz that prominently feature the use of the future anterior. The most notable example is Henry Green’s Caught (1943). For example, at the beginning of the novel, Richard Roe thinks back to a memory with his son Christopher, but he cannot do so without remembering the latter’s eventual abduction: ‘Yet he had to admit that he could, at the time, feel nothing stronger than irritation when, some months earlier, as will appear, Christopher had really been lost in London’ (Green 7, my emphases).

Works Cited

Bowen, Elizabeth. Collected Impressions. London: Longmans, Green & Co, 1950.

—. The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen. Ed. Angus Wilson. London: Cape, 1980.

—. The Heat of the Day. [1948]. London: Vintage, 1998.

Brooks, Peter. Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative. [1984]. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992.

Calder, Angus. The People’s War. St Albans: Granada, 1969.

Chalker, Sylvia and Edmund Weiner, eds. The Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994.

Currie, Mark. About Time: Narrative, fiction and the philosophy of time. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press, 2007.

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To Cite This Article:

Beryl Pong, ‘Space and Time in the Bombed City: Graham Greene’s The Ministry of Fear and Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 7 Number 1 (March 2009). Online at Accessed on [date of access]