Critical Evaluation

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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 of their finiteness. They prefer to continue their own comfortable existence without inconvenience or interruption. Mrs. Pettigrew is so self-centered and so intent on manipulating others that she succeeds in denying she ever received one of the calls. Percy Mannering responds to his call with intellectual detachment, viewing the message as an opportunity for poetic inspiration and writing a sonnet on mortality. These responses reveal the extent to which some people are unable to face the implications of their mortality.

An important stylistic device in the novel is Spark’s use of satire in describing the pompous self-absorption of those characters who take their lives and their old age far too seriously. Alec Warner is an amateur gerontologist, obsessed with recording details of temperature, pulse, and behaviors in old age. Dame Lettie devotes her time to revising her will to punish her relatives for lapses of affection. The two old poets, Guy Leet and Mannering, harbor grudges against each other. The housekeeper, Mrs. Pettigrew, is determined to make her fortune—by whatever means necessary—before she retires. Godfrey pursues sexual fantasies. Spark deflates these characters’ egos by poking fun at their idiosyncracies, foibles, failings, pettiness, fears, insecurities, and manipulative ways.

Religion plays an important role in the novel, too, though most of the characters in Memento Mori lack a specific connection to religious faith. Most of them are officially members of the Anglican faith, but their lives are dominated by secular priorities—making money, finding fame, getting even, seeking comfort and security, and enjoying their leisure. Religious and spiritual concerns are not a part of their daily lives. Two of the characters,...

(This entire section contains 847 words.)

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Charmian Piper and Jean Taylor, are Roman Catholic—in fact, Jean had converted to Catholicism during the time she was a lady’s companion to Charmian—and, unlike the other characters, these two women derive comfort and security from their faith. When Charmian receives her telephone call, she admits to the caller that she thinks often of death and is unafraid. Taylor never receives one of the anonymous calls, probably because she is depicted as a woman who does not need a reminder of her mortality. Although she suffers from arthritis and often experiences loneliness as a resident of a nursing home, she does not despair. She tolerates her difficult situation and views the senile old woman in the nursing home as her personal “memento mori.”

Charmian and Taylor, along with Chief Inspector Mortimer, are the moral centers of the novel. When Charmian gradually recovers her mental powers and decides to move to a nursing home rather than remain with her husband, she expresses both her acceptance of the limitations of old age and her freedom to make decisions about her own welfare. Taylor, too, accepts her fate. She even feels a contentment and appreciation for her life in the nursing home, where she feels a part of a community. Her understanding of the anonymous caller is similar to Mortimer’s understanding: He believes that the message is an exhortation to self-enrichment and equanimity in the face of impending mortality.