(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Muriel Spark employs a quotation from Plato’s Symposium (388-366 b.c.e.) as one of the epigraphs to her own Symposium, her nineteenth novel. “The genius of comedy,” Plato suggests, is “the same with that of tragedy.” This is precisely what Spark demonstrates in her tightly plotted and witty novel. She does not, however, merely blur the comic and the tragic together into a kind of black comedy. What is tragic from one perspective does not suddenly become comic from another. Rather, Spark weaves together the threads of tragedy and those of comedy, allowing them to exist side by side, each retaining its own integrity as either comedy or tragedy.

The novel is composed of several separate story lines spanning a period of time anywhere from a few weeks to a few years. In the final pages of the novel, these various story lines arrive at the same point in time—the evening during which Hilda Damien is murdered. Furthermore, the narrator jumps from one story to another, back and forth in time, giving the fairly simple plot a complex, even erratic, structure. In the principal story line, concerning the mysterious Margaret Damien, the narrator seems almost not to know where to begin. We meet Margaret at the beginning of the novel on the night of Hilda’s murder. In chapter 3, we find her on her honeymoon with William Damien, two weeks before. In order to develop some of the suspicious circumstances surrounding this recent marriage, the narrator takes us back a few weeks more in chapter 5 to the meeting between Hilda, William’s mother, and Margaret’s parents, Dan and Greta Murchie. This is apparently not far enough back in time, for immediately we are taken back another month to Hilda’s first meeting with Margaret, during which Hilda immediately begins to suspect that Margaret is hiding something. Hilda is dead before she learns anything that might confirm her suspicions; the reader, however, privy to the narrator’s backward reach into time, is allowed to learn precisely what is so suspicious about Margaret. This attempt by the narrator to establish a line of causality through a constant movement back in time ends in irony. Though we learn that indeed Margaret wishes to murder Hilda, a desire which Hilda intuitively knows, the actual cause of Hilda’s murder comes from an entirely different direction—from one of the other story lines which the narrator has been developing alongside the one concerning Margaret.

Nevertheless, although Margaret has no hand in the murder, her story provides the central focus of the novel. For reasons apparent only to her eccentric uncle, Magnus Murchie, she has a proclivity for being near the scene of accidental and suspicious deaths. Uncle Magnus, who lives in an insane asylum, is a caricature of the Scottish highlander: deeply superstitious, a constant singer of ancient Scots ballads—especially the ones concerning murder and enmity—and a loud dresser. He feels a deep affinity for Lady Macbeth. Judged wise by Margaret and her family, he presides over all family decisions, pushing the Murchies to act in the most unethical, though practical, ways imaginable. His principal concern is Margaret. He sees untapped potentials in her—the makings of a great and noble woman. Unfortunately, her immediate family, though not exactly poor, does not have the kind of fabulous wealth necessary as a backdrop to the kind of woman he would like to see Margaret become. Thus, he sets about making her rich. First, he gets Margaret to convince his ailing mother to rewrite her will, leaving the bulk of her money to his brother Dan Murchie, Margaret’s father, cutting out himself and his sisters. Within a week, the mother is murdered, strangled by a maniac who escaped from the same asylum in which Uncle Magnus lives. Though the police finally conclude that there is no evidence of wrongdoing, a scandal erupts; but Uncle Magnus performs damage control with expertly staged press interviews and soon has the situation in hand.

This is not the first time that Margaret has been linked with a suspicious death. As a girl, a playmate had drowned at the edge of a lake while Margaret ran for help. Several years later, while Margaret was having tea in a restaurant with a favorite teacher, the teacher disappeared, having gone to use the restroom, and was never seen again. Margaret, understandably distraught at having been apparently connected with a third such death—her...

(The entire section is 1801 words.)