Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The Stories of Muriel Spark contains twenty-seven short stories written over a thirty-year period. Six original stories are included in this volume, while the remainder had appeared in earlier collections. The settings are modern times, usually post-World War II, in various locations, such as England, Scotland, and Africa. Although Muriel Spark’s use of point of view is varied, nineteen of the stories are first-person narratives. Her focus is the observation of human behavior, particularly of female characters. The themes of the stories can be divided into four subject groups: supernatural stories, stories about corruption and evil, stories exposing foolishness and hypocrisy, and stories featuring “lost souls.”

The tales containing supernatural elements often feature women protagonists who encounter strange phenomena, as does the title character in “Miss Pinkerton’s Apocalypse” when a flying Spode china saucer sweeps through her antique shop. In “The Executor,” Susan Kyle is troubled by the spirit of her late uncle until she discloses the missing pages of his manuscript and gives up her notion of writing the last chapter of his unfinished novel to publish as her own instead. Spark is at her best in “The Portobello Road,” which is narrated by a ghost named Needle, who has been murdered by her friend George and comes back to pay him a visit.

Spark’s stories of corruption and evil often feature controlling women who seek power. “The Pawnbroker’s Wife” and “The Curtain Blown by the...

(The entire section is 632 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Spark presents an array of female characters in The Stories of Muriel Spark. She is concerned with twentieth century morals and manners without being a heavy-handed moralist. Spark’s stylized satire exposes the eccentricities and hypocrisies of her age. Though Spark is best known for her novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961), her short stories also reflect her interest in exploring human behavior in a world in which one must choose between good and evil.

Spark invites her readers to identify with her characters and also to evaluate them. In some cases, the distance that Spark creates as part of her narrative structure makes it impossible for the reader to be anything but an evaluator of the deeds of her protagonists. She portrays women involved in a search for identity; some willingly embrace malevolence while others search for self-respect. Spark’s feminists do not seek special rights for women, nor do they view themselves as victims oppressed by society. Yet her characters, such as Needle in “The Portobello Road,” do seek to find themselves.

When her women characters become victims, it is usually because they are overcome by outside forces of evil, as is Daphne in “The Go-Away Bird.” Other characters meet with disaster through their own willingness to engage in evil, as does Sonia Van der Merwe in “The Curtain Blown by the Breeze.” Spark’s grasping females, such as Frau Lublonitsch and Mrs. Jan Cloote, are intent on imposing their will on others, regardless of the consequences. Even less sympathy is afforded to hypocritical women, such as Lou Parker in “The Black Madonna” and Gwen in “A Member of the Family,” because Spark implies that a woman unable to face the truth is a traitor to herself.

Spark’s tone is ironic or satiric. Supernatural elements are often used in her plots to bring judgment regarding a character’s vice or sin. She is adept at illustrating the slightly macabre, evil, or hypocritical nature of human beings. While her characters might never be thoroughly explained psychologically, they are believable. She reveals a thorough understanding of the feminine mind—the struggles that women face in a search for identity—and the supernatural forces that shape the unseen elements of contemporary society.

The Stories of Muriel Spark

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

Muriel Spark is better known and more highly regarded as a novelist than as a short-story writer, for it is in her longer works, such as Memento Mori (1959) and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961), that her powers of character delineation and social satire are best displayed. In the short stories, virtually all of which are gathered in this new collection, she shows herself less interested in lampooning people and institutions than in jabbing the reader into an expanded awareness of life’s dimensions and possibilities. This seems to have been her purpose form the beginning, for her first published story, “The Seraph and the Zambesi,” takes the reader to a remote African outpost where preparations for a Christmas pageant are under way. When an angel visits this tacky celebration of God’s presence among men, it is chased away as an intruder rather than welcomed as a manifestation of the divine. Because of Spark’s interest in the supernatural, many commentators emphasize the importance of her conversion to Roman Catholicism, but few readers would sense any sectarian bias in these stories. “The Black Madonna,” the most overtly Catholic of her stories, deals with a smug young couple’s political and social liberalism and the blow that it receives when their child, conceived after repeated prayers to a Madonna carved of bog oak, is born black. Even here, however, the author’s religious concerns are secondary to her interest in the couple’s shallow convictions and elitist attitudes. A story that touches religious feelings more directly and profoundly—and also more ecumenically—is the semiautobiographical “The Gentile Jewesses,” in which three generations of women are shown responding profoundly to religious impulses, but with less regard to the outward form of worship than to a deep sense of the divine in everyday life. Here Spark’s view of the importance of religion is most forcefully and aptly expressed.

In the majority of her stories, however, Spark deals in the impact of the unforeseen and unpredictable. The best story in this vein is “The Portobello Road,” the narrator of which was nicknamed Needle when she actually found a needle in a haystack. Years later, she is found murdered in a haystack, and she narrates her tale as a ghost, looking back with some regret on a life lived too mechanically by herself and her three best friends, one of whom strangled her when she threatened to tell his fiancée that he was already married to an African woman. Needle’s manifestations to George on three successive Saturdays drive the man insane and render his belated confession of murder unintelligible. The narrator’s cool objectivity contrasts sharply with the violence and supernaturalism of the tale, emphasizing the idea that life cannot be taken for granted nor its spiritual dimension ignored. These are characteristic themes for Spark, as is the story’s unexpected violence. “The Curtain Blown by the Breeze,” “Bang-bang You’re Dead,” and “The Go-Away Bird” include sudden—one is tempted to say, gratuitous—murders, except that these killings are calculated to show, along with the manifestations of the supernatural, the unpredictability and fragility of life.

These two themes are explored in another of Spark’s finest stories, “The House of the Famous Poet,” in which the narrator buys from a Neanderthal-looking soldier “the abstract idea of a funeral.” Moments afterward, a poet’s home is destroyed by a V-1 rocket, killing the poet and his housekeeper, both of whom had also bought abstract funerals. Exactly what Spark means by “the abstract idea of a funeral” is left tantalizingly vague, one of the few instances of the open-ended conclusion that reverberates and resonates back through the story and beyond it in the memory. This violent ending is especially unexpected because the story seemed to be exploring the subjective nature of reality—throughout, the narrator comments on how the appearances of people and things change, sometimes instantly. Overall, the story strikes down the complacent view of life and reality as fixed and knowable, and beyond this emphasizes that...

(The entire section is 1702 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Bold, Alan. Muriel Spark. London: Methuen, 1986. Bold is concerned with the relationship between Spark’s personal background and the development of her characters, particularly links between Spark’s religious experience and the religious elements of her fiction. He includes biographical information and then discusses Spark’s works in chronological order, specifically the novels. An extensive bibliography is included, listing criticism, articles, essays, interviews, and books related to Spark and her work.

Hynes, Joseph. Critical Essays on Muriel Spark. New York: G. K. Hall, 1992. Hynes’s extensive collection contains three sections. The first focuses on Spark’s life and art. The second group contains general criticism of Spark’s themes, both positive and negative. The remaining eighteen essays discuss Spark’s individual works, her novels in particular.

Kirkus Reviews. LIII, August 1, 1985, p. 750.

Library Journal. CX, October 1, 1985, p. 115.

The New Republic. CXCIII, October 14, 1985, p. 40.

The New York Times Book Review. XC, October 20, 1985, p. 1.

Newsweek. CVI, September 16, 1985, p. 70.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXVIII, August 16, 1985, p. 60.

Sproxton, Judy. The Women of Muriel Spark. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992. Spark’s female characters are discussed in four chapters under the topics of mature women, women of power, women as victims, and narrative and faith. “Narrative and Faith” is a chapter summation of Spark’s vision of Christianity and her worldview. Each chapter is devoted to a discussion of specific women characters in Spark’s novels. While the work does not contain a bibliography, a biography of Spark is included.

Walker, Dorothea. Muriel Spark. Boston: Twayne, 1988. Walker is interested in the vision underlying Spark’s plots and characters, particularly in her novels. The seven chapters are organized by themes. An important feature in Walker’s volume is an extensive annotated bibliography of primary and secondary sources.

Washington Post Book World. XV, September 29, 1985, p. 5.

Whittaker, Ruth. The Faith and Fiction of Muriel Spark. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1982. Whittaker’s work elaborates on the diversity of Spark’s themes, meanings, and purpose. The chapter divisions are organized according to topics: religion, style, structure, and form. Limited primarily to a discussion of Spark’s novels. Includes a biographical section, as well as an extensive bibliography.