Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Several motifs that recur in much of Muriel Spark’s fiction appear in this story as well: the indirect reflection of Catholic doctrine, the concern about religion generally and about the afterlife in particular, the representation of love relationships between persons of different races, and the discovery and analysis of confused values.

In this story, however, the focal point of thematic development seems to be that of expectation: the kinds of expectation that persons may reasonably have of their friends and lovers, and the kinds that are unreasonable or otherwise illegitimate and inappropriate. Kathleen is a good-hearted person who cannot see the bad points of anyone she has chosen to befriend, and whose expectations are constantly out of concord with the reality that she is nevertheless quite able to ignore.

George is the epitome of unreasonableness, a childish and immature creature who expects everyone else to conform to his own plans and goals, who finds it necessary and possible to deal harshly with anyone who stands in his way, but who is nevertheless incapable of accepting the responsibilities that such expectations entail. John, although the least developed of the main characters, seems clearly to be a character with very limited expectations of others: His reticence and diffidence, especially in regard to his supposed love for Needle, apparently mask a profound mistrust of those whose relationships and understandings he should value.

Finally, Needle—although she tells the story—reveals herself as a person fundamentally incapable of commitment to a relationship. Unlike Kathleen or George, who can accept the intimacy of closeness, Needle shows that she resists such intimacy by her refusal to make any commitment to John. On the positive side, however, Needle shows that the expectation of principled action is the grounds of her own behavior, and she maintains her standards of action, even though the cost is higher than she might have expected.