“You Should Have Seen the Mess” is included in the 1958 collection The Go-Away Bird with Other Stories by distinguished Edinburgh-born writer Muriel Spark. Since its initial publication, it has become one of Spark’s most anthologized stories, probably because of its faultless blend of irony and pathos, its subtle depiction of character through the use of the unreliable narrator, its linguistic and stylistic mastery, and its scathing criticism of English working-class values and the Protestant ethos.
The title aptly conveys the story’s central theme and irony. The indignant exclamation “You should have seen the mess” evokes the only criterion by which the main character judges—and misjudges—everything that happens to her. The protagonist-narrator Lorna Merrifield (note the ironic symbolism of the name) is a 17-year-old working-class girl who continually congratulates herself on avoiding improper behavior, messy situations, and untidy people. She chooses the secondary modern school over the scholastically superior grammar school because the modern school is more “hygienic”; she quits her first typing job in a wellestablished law fi rm because the teacups are cracked and the facilities are not spotless; she condemns her well-meaning and educated new friends for their improper language and disorderly habits; and finally she drops her suitor, a rich, loving, and generous artist, because he is not properly tidy.
Lorna is an unreliable narrator. She consistently misinterprets the events and situations she witnesses and experiences. The gap between what the heroine fails to perceive and what the reader readily recognizes is the central source of irony in the story. Thus, when she visits old Mrs. Darby’s manor house, she mistakes its antique splendor for decrepit poverty and asks the elderly aristocrat when she is going to be rehoused by the Council. This is a comic instance of Lorna’s naïveté, but Lorna’s principal character flaw is her blind espousal of her parents’ values. These values are subsumed in one term, which Lorna keeps using as her moral yardstick: hygiene.
Spark’s stylistic mastery can be seen in the way she repeats a term until it acquires the inverse of its original meaning. Like Shakespeare’s rhetorical device in Julius Caesar, when Mark Anthony insists that “Brutus is an honorable man” in order to suggest the opposite to his audience, Lorna’s absurd reliance on the notion of cleanliness makes the reader realize that hygiene can be a dirty word. Throughout the story, cleanliness is associated with hypocrisy, pretentiousness, and plain stupidity. The Merrifields dress their children in their best clothes before sending them to play outdoors, they cleanse their speech of all reference to bodily functions or to death, and they consistently give their daughter irrelevant and damaging advice.
In the autobiographic Curriculum Vitae, Spark described the Edinburgh neighborhood of her childhood as “the . . . district where cleanliness and godliness shook hands with each other, honesty was the best policy, all was not gold that glistered and necessity was the mother of invention” (79). This could also serve as an apt description of the Merrifield household, where the sterility of the physical surroundings is extended to language, which becomes fossilized and restricted to a reassuring set of meaningless clichés. A comical instance of this formulaic use of language, symptomatic of the failure to grasp the situation at hand, can be seen in Lorna’s assessment of the elegant fl at in Curzon Street as “a nice place,” which, however, lacked a “Welfare Center . . . where people could go for social intercourse, advice and guidance.”
Lorna eventually emerges as a touching figure, both comic and pathetic. If her social inexperience and simple- mindedness are genuinely funny, her unwitting renunciations have tragic implications, for she gradually gives up her chances for friendship, love, and happiness. Art is messy, and so is sex, as the image of the paint oozing out of Willy’s tubes seems to suggest. By rejecting all aspects of messiness, Lorna seems to have messed up her life.
Spark, Muriel. Curriculum Vitae: Autobiography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1993.
———. The Go-Away Bird with Other Stories. London: Macmillan, 1958.