Analysis of Muriel Spark’s Stories

Muriel Spark (1 February 1918 – 13 April 2006) was an adept storyteller with a narrative voice that was often distant or aloof. Her tales are psychologically interesting because Spark was reluctant to reveal all that her characters think and feel; in consequence, readers are forced to evaluate the stories, think about issues from a different perspective, and try to fill in the gaps. Critics regard Spark’s novels as her strongest genre, but her short stories are also well constructed and intriguing. Her volumes of short stories, published over four decades, contain many of the same stories reprinted, with new stories added to each new edition.

Spark’s tales are often set in England, British colonies in Africa, or European locations. Her works reflect a sense of moral truth, which some critics view as the influence of her conversion to Catholicism in 1954. Her narrative is rarely wordy. The story line relies on the impressions and dialogue of the characters or narrator to convey the plot. She made frequent use of first-person narrative, but none of her voices “tells all.” One of the distinguishing elements in Spark’s style was her penchant for leaving gaps that her readers must fill for themselves.


The Seraph and the Zambesi

Spark’s first short story, “The Seraph and the Zambesi,” won an award in a Christmas contest sponsored by The Observer in 1951. In characteristic Spark style, this story does not mince words but focuses on action and sparse dialogue. Set in Africa at Christmastime, the story portrays the events surrounding preparations for a Christmas pageant. Besides sweltering temperatures, curious natives, and preoccupied performers, the presentation is “hindered” by the presence of a heavenly Seraph, complete with six wings and a heat-producing glow. The writer of the nativity play is incensed when a real angel appears. He expresses rage rather than awe and destroys the stage in his attempts to banish the Seraph. Though Spark refuses to offer a moral at the close of “The Seraph and the Zambesi,” the story resembles a parable, illustrating the egocentrism of human beings, especially “artists.” The narrative also serves as a metaphor for the definition of genuine “art.”

A related story dealing with art and creativity is entitled “The Playhouse Called Remarkable.” This story, published several years after “The Seraph and the Zambesi,” features a character named Moon Biglow. Moon confesses to the narrator that he is really a native of the moon who migrated to Earth on the “Downfall of [the] Uprise” some time in the distant past. His primary mission was to save earth’s residents from suffocating aesthetic boredom. It seems human beings had no form of recreation other than that of gathering in groups to chant “Tum tum ya” each evening. The moon migrants organize the “playhouse called Remarkable” to offer alternative entertainment and also to give earthlings a creative outlet for their imaginations.

The Pawnbroker’s Wife

Often Spark’s short fiction depicts varied types of female personalities. These stories, narrated in first person and set in Africa, tell little about the narrators themselves but focus on the manipulative power of the central female characters. In “The Pawnbroker’s Wife,” the narrator tells the story of Mrs. Jan Cloote, who is never identified by her first name. Her pawnbroker husband has disappeared, and Mrs. Cloote carries on the business herself but denies the slightly sordid reputation of her vocation by claiming that she is only the pawnbroker’s wife. Thus, in her name and her speech, she tries the separate her actions from her image. Such “distancing” allows Mrs. Cloote freedom in refusing to accept responsibility for her conduct, no matter how cruel or petty, as she performs the duties of a pawnbroker (and ironically she is far more successful in business than her husband had been). She uses a show of politeness to remain corrupt without having to admit fault or make concessions. She breaks her promises to customers and sells the pawned items of her friends at the first opportunity. Mrs. Cloote’s poor taste, grasping manipulation, and innocent pretense give her character an insidious cast. Yet the narrator who reveals these facts refuses to pass judgment regarding Mrs. Cloote’smorality. That matter is left to the reader.

The Curtain Blown by the Breeze

In a similar story, Sonia Van der Merwe, the female protagonist in “The Curtain Blown by the Breeze,” gains power over her domain in the absence of her husband. Mr. Van der Merwe, who lives in the remote territory of Fort Beit, is imprisoned for fatally shooting a young native boy who was a Peeping Tom. Although her husband’s conviction and imprisonment might have prompted a feeling of tragedy, the opposite occurs. Sonia finds that she has considerable financial resources at her disposal with her husband gone. Like Mrs. Cloote, Sonia takes charge, encouraged on by the British medical women serving in the colony. She soon learns to use her feminine wiles to access power and control in Fort Beit. The male British medical workers seek her attention, captivated by her “eccentric grandeur.” Much to the chagrin of the British women who helped to create the “new Sonia,” Sonia gains influence even over government officials. Just as the English nurse, however, who narrates the story can never truly decide what she wants, the same applies to Sonia. At the close of the story, Mr. Van der Merwe returns from prison unexpectedly. When he discovers his wife, Sonia, in the company of another man, he shoots them both. Thus, Sonia and her image are quickly eliminated. In her stories, Spark explores the roles of greedily ambitious women, the irony of their plight, and their cloaks of politeness.

Often Spark deals with themes of childhood or adolescent memories in her short fiction. She may contrast the innocent but terrifyingly real fears of children with the more serious cruelty of adults or reverse the irony and explore the cruelty of “devilish” children, who are shielded by a guise of adult politeness. For example, “The Twins” is a story about two seemingly polite children who exercise some invisible but insidious control over their parents and other adults who enter their household.

The Portobello Road and Bang-Bang You’re Dead

“The Portobello Road” and “Bang-Bang You’re Dead” juxtapose the childhood memories of two young girls with their lives as “grown-ups.” These stories explore the serious ramifications of situations in which childish conceptions or antagonisms are transferred into adulthood. Both stories are examples of Muriel Spark’s ability to create unique narrative forms. “The Portobello Road” is narrated by Needle, a young girl whose childhood nickname was given to her because she found a needle in a haystack. When the story opens, Needle is dead and her ghostly voice chronicles the events that led to her murder— when she becomes the “Needle” who is murdered and buried in a haystack by a childhood friend.

“Bang-Bang You’re Dead” connects the present and the past in a complex narrative using a series of flashbacks. In the present, represented in the story’s opening scene, a group of Sybil’s friends gather to view four reels of eighteen-year-old films from Sybil’s past years spent in Africa. As the group views the “silent movies,” the third-person narrative reveals Sybil’s memories—not those seen by the spectators of the film but as Sybil remembers them. As each reel ends, Sybil’s mental narrative is interrupted by the surface chatter of her friends, who are impressed by the appearance of the people and exotic scenes revealed in the film. When the final reel ends, the reader finds, through Sybil’s mental recollections, that two murders were committed shortly after the scenes were recorded on film. As the acquaintances agree to view the last reel again because it is their “favorite,” Sybil remains stoically unmoved by the memories of the tragedy. Her indifference and objectivity regarding the memories of her deceased friends reveal a chilling aspect of her personality. Coldly intellectual and detached, Sybil remains indifferent and unmoved by the recorded memories even though she was largely responsible for the murders.

The Go-Away Bird and The First Year of My Life

“The Go-Away Bird” is one of the longest of Spark’s stories. It is also about a woman and murder. Daphne, the central female figure, is reared in a British colony in Africa. Caught between two cultures, that of the Dutch Afrikaners and the English colonists, Daphne searches for her identity—for a world in which she can not only belong but also find safety. Set in Africa and England during World War II, “The Go-Away Bird” presents characters who reflect diverse backgrounds, personalities, motivations, and societies. Daphne’s struggles and her relationship with the African Go-Away Bird illustrate an individual’s difficulty in trying to fulfill one’s need for love and identity within diverse cultural and social structures.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, “The First Year of My Life” does not struggle with maturing in society but presents the first-person commentary of an infant, born during World War I. The adults who care for the baby treat the child as an “innocent infant,” unaware of the newborn’s ability to grasp the tragedy of war. Such diversity in narrative voice, subject, and style is a trademark of Muriel Spark. As a writer, she avoided classification and was unafraid of experimentation.

Open to the Public: New and Collected Stories

Spark’s collection Open to the Public contains ten stories not included in the previous volume, The Stories of Muriel Spark (1985). The title story “Open to the Public” is a sequel to “The Fathers’ Daughters.” “The Fathers’ Daughters” centers on a thirty-year-old intellectual, Ben, who pursues the daughters of famous writers in order to meet the authors themselves. When the young, beautiful Carmelita is unable to gain an audience for Ben with her father, a successful novelist, Ben abandons her to marry Dora, the forty-six-year-old daughter of an aged author whose popularity has faded. Spark creates an ironic situation in which the characters use one another for their own purposes. Ben wants to write essays based on another author’s work; Dora’s father craves an audience for his forgotten books; and Dora needs someone to provide income for their impoverished household.

The sequel “Open to the Public” presents Ben and Dora five years later. Dora’s father dies, but Ben’s promotion of his works restores the family’s fortune. However, the dead man’s memory is not enough to sustain the relationship; the couple separate. Their plans to open the writer’s house and personal documents to the public are abandoned when both Ben and Dora realize that museums “have no heart.” In a humorous turn, they burn the father’s archives instead. The story demonstrates the hopelessness of trying to maintain perpetual fame, and the futility of attempting to build one’s future on another’s achievements.

In a story with similar elements, “The Executor,” the protagonist Susan, who is a middle-aged spinster like Dora, must dispose of her uncle’s literary estate. She sells his papers to a university foundation but retains an unfinished manuscript which she hopes to complete and publish as her own. However, her plans are thwarted when her uncle’s ghost returns to write warning messages to her. Thus Susan, like the women in “The Father’s Daughters,” must abandon her schemes to find success vicariously and learn to build her own future.

The remaining additions in the Open to the Public collection are stylized and brief. Some plots turn on a single ironic twist as in “The Girl I Left Behind Me” when the narrator finds her own body “lying strangled on the floor.” Other stories feature the troubling imposition of the supernatural into the natural world. For example, in “The Pearly Shadow” a shady specter haunts the staff and patients in a medical clinic. The specter finally disappears when doctors begin dispensing sedatives to his “stressed-out” victims. “Going Up and Coming Down” is a poetic vignette about a man and woman who ride to work in the same elevator every day. Once the couple actually meet, their speculations about each other disappear in the face of “plain real facts.”

The stories included in Open to the Public demonstrate Spark’s mastery of the short-story form. Her plots expose human foibles with an ironic, mysterious, or sarcastic tone. She was adept at illustrating the slightly macabre or deceitful nature of human actions. Her characters may be subtly malevolent or sinisterly civilized, but evil is punished and hypocrisy exposed in Spark’s comic tales.

Other major works
Children’s literature: The Very Fine Clock, 1968; The Small Telephone, 1993.
Play: Doctors of Philosophy, pr. 1962.
Anthologies: Tribute to Wordsworth, 1950 (with Derek Stanford); My Best Mary: The Selected Letters of Mary Shelley, 1953 (with Stanford); The Brontë Letters, 1954 (pb. in U.S. as The Letters of the Brontës: A Selection, 1954); Letters of John Henry Newman, 1957 (with Stanford).
Novels: The Comforters, 1957; Robinson, 1958; Memento Mori, 1959; The Bachelors, 1960; The Ballad of Peckham Rye, 1960; The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, 1961; A Muriel Spark Trio, 1962 (contains The Comforters, Memento Mori, and The Ballad of Peckham Rye); The Girls of Slender Means, 1963; The Mandelbaum Gate, 1965; The Public Image, 1968; The Driver’s Seat, 1970; Not to Disturb, 1971; The Hothouse by the East River, 1973; The Abbess of Crewe: A Modern Morality Tale, 1974; The Takeover, 1976; Territorial Rights, 1979; Loitering with Intent, 1981; The Only Problem, 1984; A Far Cry from Kensington, 1988; Symposium, 1990; The Novels of Muriel Spark, 1995; Reality and Dreams, 1996; Aiding and Abetting, 2000; The Finishing School, 2004.
Nonfiction: Child of Light: A Reassessment of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, 1951 (revised as Mary Shelley, 1987); Emily Brontë: Her Life and Work, 1953 (with Derek Stanford); John Masefield, 1953; Curriculum Vitae, 1992 (autobiography); The Essence of the Brontës: A Compilation with Essays, 1993.
Poetry: The Fanfarlo, and Other Verse, 1952; Collected Poems I, 1967; Going Up to Sotheby’s, and Other Poems, 1982; All of the Poems of Muriel Spark, 2004.

Bold, Alan, ed. Muriel Spark: An Odd Capacity for Vision. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble Books, 1984.
Edgecombe, Rodney Stenning. Vocation and Identity in the Fiction of Muriel Spark. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1990.
Hague, Angela, and Isabel Bonnyman Stanley. “Muriel Spark.” In Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Revised Edition, edited by Carl Rollyson. Vol. 6. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2000.
Hynes, Joseph, ed. Critical Essays on Muriel Spark. New York: G. K. Hall, 1992.
May, Charles E., ed. Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition. 8 vols. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2004.
Randisi, Jennifer Lynn. On Her Way Rejoicing: The Fiction of Muriel Spark. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1991.
Richmond, Velma B. Muriel Spark. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1984.
Spark, Muriel. Curriculum Vitae: Autobiography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993.
Walker, Dorothea. Muriel Spark. Boston: Twayne, 1988.
Whittaker, Ruth. The Faith and Fiction of Muriel Spark. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1982.

Categories: Literature, Psychological Novels, Short Story

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