The Only Problem

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

Muriel Spark’s interest in the religious and philosophical issues present in the biblical Book of Job began with her first novel, appropriately entitled The Comforters (1957), and forms the central concern of The Only Problem. In this work, Spark explores “the only problem” of suffering, of why the enormous amount of human suffering so far exceeds any rational cause or explanation. In typically Spark fashion, however, she treats her profound subject matter in an elliptical and whimsical manner which initially appears to contradict the importance of the novel’s major theme.

The novel’s central character, Harvey Gotham, is a Canadian millionaire who has abandoned his beautiful young English wife Effie because she stole two bars of chocolate during a vacation trip in Germany. Harvey has retired to a cottage in the French countryside where he is engaged in writing a commentary on the meaning of the Book of Job, focusing in particular on how the question of human suffering is treated. Harvey, a quiet, studious man almost obsessed with his project, desires only the peace and solitude in which to complete it. Instead, like Job in the Bible, his serenity and fortunate circumstances are torn apart by external events over which he has absolutely no control.

In the meantime, Ruth Jansen, Effie’s sister and the wife of Harvey’s close friend Edward Jansen, has moved in with Harvey along with Effie’s baby, Clara, who has been fathered by a friend of Effie. Effie has become a member of an anticapitalist terrorist group called the Front de la Libération de l’Europe (FLE), which begins by robbing supermarkets and progresses to Effie’s murder of a Parisian policeman. With Effie being sought by the French authorities, Harvey himself falls under suspicion and surveillance and must undergo hours of intimidating, repetitive questioning by the police. Finally, Effie is shot and killed by the Parisian police in a raid on the FLE’s apartment, and Harvey manages at last to finish his work on the Book of Job.

Harvey’s initial situation in The Only Problem is that of a man who, although interested in the question of human suffering, has not actually undergone severe trials himself. His treatise on the Book of Job is a means to explore this question in the abstract, but events force him to experience in concrete fashion the issues he has long grappled with in his mind. Harvey believes that “the only problem” in terms of philosophy and religion is the difficulty of facing “a benevolent creator” who can “condone the unspeakable sufferings of the world.” Although Harvey attempts to rationalize this problem by saying that man has perhaps “contracted” for suffering before he is born and that full human development involves suffering, he never discovers a satisfactory solution to this philosophical dilemma. Unlike Ruth Jansen, who argues that Job only truly suffered when he developed boils and was touched personally by pain and as a result deserved what he got, Harvey sympathizes with Job’s belief that he did not deserve the pain inflicted on him, that suffering is never in proportion to what the sufferer deserves.

During the press conference in which reporters ask Harvey questions about his wife’s terrorist activities and whereabouts, he begins to opine that Job’s main problem was his lack of knowledge. Job, says Harvey, was without any system of study which could enlighten him about the reason for his afflictions; although everyone wanted to talk to him, no one could enlighten him about his plight. Harvey tells the reporters, who simply want information as salacious as possible about his wife and are angered and bored by his philosophical reflections, that “our limitations of knowledge make us puzzle over the cause of suffering, maybe it is the cause of suffering itself.As I say, we are plonked here in the world and nobody but our own kind can tell us anything. It isn’t enough.”...

(The entire section is 1624 words.)

The Only Problem Bibliography

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 11)

The Atlantic. CCLIV, August, 1984, p. 113.

Kirkus Reviews. LII, May 1, 1984, p. 427.

Library Journal. CIX, June 15, 1984, p. 1252.

Ms. XII, June, 1984, p. 34.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXIX, July 15, 1984, p. 1.

The New Yorker. LX, July 23, 1984, p. 104.

Newsweek. CIV, July 2, 1984, p. 77.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXV, May 11, 1984, p. 261.

Time. CXXIV, July 16, 1984, p. 68.

The Wall Street Journal. CCIV, July 13, 1984, p. 17.