(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

With Memento Mori, her third novel, Spark abandoned the experimentation of her first two works and began to write with the sureness of one accomplished at her craft. Now, too, her efforts were being rewarded financially; it was this novel that established her as a full-time writer. The popularity of Memento Mori is not surprising. While, like The Comforters, this novel has eccentric characters, complex relationships, and puckish wit, both its subject and the direction of its plot are made clear from the very first chapter.

The subject of Memento Mori is death. Its characters are elderly people, who, in the course of the novel, must deal with their friends’ deaths and with their own. Their attitudes are revealed by a unifying plot device: A number of them receive telephone calls from someone who says simply, “Remember you must die.” What is peculiar is that none of them can agree as to the quality of the caller’s voice. Ironically, at the end of the novel, although the characters who have been receiving the calls have all died, the caller has never been identified.

At the beginning of the book, Dame Lettie Colston receives one of the mysterious calls and discusses it with her brother, Godfrey Colston. Dame Lettie is not unduly bothered by the call; she has reported it to the police, and she regards it as more a nuisance than anything else, something to be put out of one’s mind. As for Godfrey, he is too busy with old age to think about death. He is always irritated with his wife, Charmian Colston, a successful writer, who is intermittently confused. He is also preoccupied with his sexual needs, which are fulfilled when he sits staring at women’s stocking tops...

(The entire section is 708 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Each time Dame Lettie Colston answers the telephone, the anonymous caller announces “Remember, you must die.” Unnerved by the calls, the old woman contacts the police, but they cannot identify the caller. Lettie’s brother, Godfrey, is too preoccupied with his own problems to be sympathetic. He is exasperated by the mental deterioration his wife, Charmian, has suffered after her stroke.

Miss Jean Taylor, a resident in a nursing home, reflects upon the many years of her work as companion for Charmian, the famous novelist. Now she is trapped in a ward where the other women exhibit signs of memory loss, the staff patronizes the residents, and the head nurse brutalizes and demoralizes the residents.

Godfrey and Dame Lettie attend a memorial service for Lisa Brooke, who has died after suffering a stroke. Godfrey had an affair with Lisa many years before. At the service is an old acquaintance, Guy Leet, whom he is surprised to see. Guy is now an old man severely afflicted with arthritis.

Mrs. Pettigrew, Lisa’s housekeeper, has been named beneficiary of Lisa’s estate. No one knows that Mrs. Pettigrew had blackmailed Lisa for many years because of Lisa’s affair with Godfrey.

Alec Warner, a retired sociologist, is fascinated with the problems of old age. When he turns seventy years old, he begins the immense project of compiling records of old people’s physical condition, routines, attitudes, and tastes. Many years earlier he had loved Jean Taylor, but when he was advised to marry someone of his own class, he ended his relationship with her.

Dame Lettie hires Mrs. Pettigrew to help take care of Charmian. Mrs. Pettigrew planned to blackmail Godfrey just as she had blackmailed Lisa. She is frustrated when she finds out that Leet, who had secretly married Lisa many years ago, will inherit Lisa’s estate.

Jean faces a new challenge in the nursing home. Although the malicious head nurse has been released, her successor admits eight severely demented residents to the ward. Their wails and bizarre behaviors upset Jean and the other longtime residents.


(The entire section is 869 words.)