Critical Evaluation

Although Muriel Spark’s novel about a stern and unyielding schoolteacher, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961), is her most popular and well-known work, many critics consider Memento Mori to be her greatest achievement. In this novel, Spark creates a diverse cast of characters, almost all of whom are more than seventy years old, and examines the way these individuals face their own mortality. Unlike other novels that treat the experience of aging—among them John Updike’s The Poorhouse Fair (1959), William Trevor’s The Old Boys (1964), and Kingsley Amis’s Ending Up (1974)—Spark’s novel creates a community of older adults who are unified in their response to a particular crisis. Most of the characters have received one or more telephone calls from an anonymous person who says simply, “Remember, you must die.”

Spark uses the conventions of the detective story to generate mystery and suspense. Most of the characters think of themselves as targets of harassment. They become uneasy and fearful, and some turn to the police to solve the mystery. Dame Lettie, for instance, is sure the caller is a threat to her safety, and she is overcome by terror as the calls continue. Her outcry and the concern the others feel lead to a police investigation, but Chief Inspector Mortimer is unable to solve the case. In fact, he believes the caller to be death himself and that the purpose of the calls is to remind people to lead a rich, full life while they are alive.

The detective story mystery is the structural underpinning of the novel, but the identity of the anonymous caller is never revealed. Spark is more interested in the moral and ethical dilemmas that face human beings. In the ways her characters respond to the anonymous message, Spark reveals their attitudes toward aging and life in general; she also reveals such human attributes as vanity, piety, mean-spiritedness, self-absorption, loneliness, hardihood, and rebellion. Dame Lettie and Godfrey fail to reflect on their own mortality and ignore reminders...

(The entire section is 847 words.)