Repetition and narrative time in Muriel Spark’s ‘The Bachelors’, ‘The Ballad of Peckham Rye’ and ‘A Member of the Family’

This essay is not far short of 11,000 words, so I’ve posted the opening section here as a taster, followed by a pdf for download.

‘Story time’ is not the same thing as ‘narrative time’.  The Russian Formalists, active during the early years of the twentieth century, used the terms ‘fabula’ and ‘sjuzhet’ to refer respectively to the ‘chronological sequence of events’ and the ‘order and manner in which [these events] are actually presented in the narrative’ (Jefferson and Robey, 1986: 39). Scenes which occur once in story time, the fabula, can be repeated many times in the narrative, or the sjuzhet, and any such scene will be brought into prominence, or foregrounded, thereby inviting the reader to assign significance to it. Genette’s work on ‘frequency’ in the second half of the twentieth century is built on the foundations established by the Formalists. In his Narrative Discourse, first published in French as Figures III in 1972, Genette distinguishes three possible methods available to the writer for recounting events: the singulative, repetitive and iterative.

More recent work among narratologists has pinpointed the difficulties inherent in the fabula/sjuzhet distinction, briefly summarised as follows. The fabula is essentially a construct, put together by the reader at the time of reading and revised to create a final version once the text has been read. It has no external existence unless the fabula and sjuzhet can be seen to be absolutely identical. A ‘primary’ narrative must be identified to enable the construction of a fabula: this is not always straightforward and disagreements cannot easily be resolved. In his 2012 article ‘Experiencing meanings in Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’, Andrew Caink demonstrates how Teresa Bridgeman’s analysis of the structure of this novel can be questioned, but there is no standard against which to measure the two readings and no reason why one should be considered correct as opposed to the other. Mieke Bal suggests that this is not necessarily a huge obstacle to analysis because it suffices merely to be able ‘to place the various time units in relation to each other’ (1997: 88), but what does present a problem is when the ‘anachronous are embedded in each other, intertwined to such an extent that it becomes just too difficult to analyse them’. Textual events themselves can also be difficult to categorise. Bal notes that false anachronies arise where the event has taken place in the consciousness of one of the characters (1997: 87), and similar anachronies can be found in direct discourse because the ‘moment of speech is simply part of the (chronological) story’. In postmodern texts which lean towards the anti-narrative, it can often be impossible to judge whether an event took place at all. It should not be supposed that it is a simple matter to extract the fabula from the sjuzhet: some texts will lend themselves easily to this task, but others – particularly more modern texts – will prove far more resistant; for example, in Robbe-Grillet’s postmodernist novel Le Voyeur, it is very difficult for the reader to work out what actually happened, or indeed, if any of the events depicted took place at all. Given that the title of Robbe-Grillet’s novel refers to an essentially passive activity, it is possible that the ‘events’ of the novel all take place in Mathias’ consciousness and have no place anywhere else.

Repetition and Narrative Time in Muriel Spark’s ‘The Bachelors’, ‘The Ballad of Peckham Rye’ and ‘A Member of the Family’

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‘Outside,’ said the barmaid: repetition as a temporal location marker


If a word, phrase, or passage is repeated in a literary text, the reader’s natural response will be to assume that that which is repeated must be significant in some way. The very fact that a particular cluster of words has been included in the text more than once invites the reader to assign a degree of importance to it, and from that point on, the reader constructs an interpretation of the text based on his or her understanding of the potential meaning of the repeated words in the context of the novel, short story, or whatever. So we can see that repetition guides the reader towards a ‘reading’ of the text. But repetition can serve a very practical purpose as well as an aesthetic one: as demonstrated below, repetition may alert the reader that a temporal shift in the narrative (a flashback or a flashforward) has occurred and it can also help the reader to locate the end of a time shift. Literary texts very rarely have an absolutely linear timeline, and right from the off, the reader is attempting to reconstruct the beginning-middle-end of the story from what s/he learns while reading the narrative (the way in which the story is told) with all its temporal anomalies. When repetition provides temporal location markers as described above, it aids the reader in his/her construction of a global time frame.

What follows is a brief description of how the repetition of a brief snatch of dialogue guides the reader through the temporal shifts in the first chapter of Muriel Spark’s The Ballad of Peckham Rye. Spark, as usual, manages to wring an enormous amount of meaning out of a very simple device: the repetition here serves both a practical and an aesthetic end, as we shall see.

For those who haven’t read the novel, here’s a quick summary of the first chapter:

Humphrey Place has returned after jilting Dixie Morse at the altar. He tries to visit Dixie, but Mavis, Dixie’s mother, slams the door in his face. Humphrey then goes on a pub crawl where he runs into Trevor Lomas, a local thug, who hits him, and they are both ordered out of the pub. In flashback, we see Humphrey jilting Dixie at the altar. Back in the ‘present’ (such as it is in Spark’s novels!), Humphrey and Trevor fight in the car park until they are eventually parted by onlookers. We ‘cut’ to Dixie’s house, where she is discussing Humphrey with her mother. The doorbell rings, but this time it is Trevor. Dixie enquires after Humphrey while reiterating that she doesn’t want to see him again. The reader is filled in on more of the background by overhearing the gossip of Peckham inhabitants and we learn the names and current situations of many of the characters. The chapter closes with a ballad-like speculation of what became of the bride and groom.


In the first chapter of The Ballad of Peckham Rye, the barmaid of The Harbinger is twice heard to order the two men outside when Trevor punches Humphrey. It is not to be supposed that the barmaid actually utters her words twice*; instead, the reader understands that the narrative has jumped forward in time from the jilting scene and Humphrey’s subsequent departure to the moment when the analepsis (flashback) begins, after Trevor and Humphrey have been ordered out of the pub.

What is notable here is that we are given two pieces of information when we only need one – it would have been enough merely to hear the barmaid say ‘Outside’, and yet we are shown the female bystander’s comment twice as well: ‘ “It wouldn’t have happened if Dougal Douglas hadn’t come here” ’ (The Ballad of Peckham Rye, pp. 7 and 9).

In fact, the bystander’s comment is foregrounded in two ways: firstly, in that it is repeated, and secondly, in that the speech adverbial ‘remarked’ breaks the pattern established prior to this moment. Until this point, every spoken comment is marked simply as ‘said’ (he said, she said). The change calls attention to the woman’s remark, which is an important one because it refers to Dougal Douglas for the first time. The responsibility for the events of the narrative to follow is placed squarely on Dougal’s misshapen shoulders at this early stage. The ‘remark’ is also understood as an observation rather than a conversational turn. We do not know the identity of the woman’s interlocutor, and she receives no reply. The narrative switches to the aborted wedding scene immediately after we hear the remark for the first time, so the woman’s words are left hanging in the air in the moment before the reader sees the scene of the jilting for which Dougal is being blamed. The indefinite article – ‘a woman’ – spotlights the remark itself, not the speaker, as does the positioning of the remark in the sentence, which comes before we know who is speaking and to whom. The woman is not important. Her comment is, because it introduces our hero Dougal as a mischief-maker, and it sets up what is arguably the primary narrative (Dougal’s arrival in Peckham Rye and how much trouble he managed to cause before his departure). In addition, the repetition we see here has an aesthetic purpose in that the repeated dialogue serves as the equivalent of a ballad’s refrain – and The Ballad of Peckham Rye is a novel that is both thematically and structurally influenced by the border ballads of which Muriel Spark was so fond.


* ‘It is not to be supposed that the barmaid actually utters her words twice’ – in the context of the novel, that is. What I mean here is that the utterance is made only once in story time, but twice in narrative time. In real life, of course, the utterance was never made at all…

The Murder of Merle Coverdale



Many of Muriel Spark’s readers have accused her of being ‘cold’ in the treatment of her characters and in the case of Merle Coverdale in The Ballad of Peckham Rye, first published in 1960, Spark’s position of callous indifference would appear to have been taken to an extreme: Merle is not only heartlessly disposed of, but, through being constantly and relentlessly exposed to forewarnings of this event, the reader has arguably been induced to not care about it very much.

Merle is first presented to us as an absence: ‘ “she works at Meadows Meade in poor Miss Coverdale’s pool that was” ’ (12), and ‘Miss Merle Coverdale, lately head of the typing pool, did not hear of it’ (14). The reason Merle doesn’t hear of Humphrey’s return is because she is dead, murdered by her lover Mr Druce. This murder is heavily sign-posted from the very beginning of the novel and a great deal of repetition in the narrative centres around this event. The sign-posting, the repetition, and the flat delivery of the murder scene serve to deaden the reader’s response to Merle’s demise. We have looked for Merle’s death for so long that when it happens we are largely unaffected by it, which is not the case with Dougal’s imagined death scene, discussed below. But sympathy is always conspicuous by its absence in Spark’s work.

It is not only in Ballad that Spark presents a character’s end to us in so bald a fashion. Other examples of flatly-reported deaths in the Spark oeuvre include the casual and apparently motiveless murder of a woman in the final scenes of The Girls of Slender Means; the death by lightning of two bit-part characters in Not to Disturb; and the death of Needle (also heavily sign-posted) in the short story The Portobello Road: “He looked as if he would murder me and he did” (412). Of the latter example, Stephen Schiff wrote in The New Yorker:

‘It’s a nasty piece of work, that sentence…for a moment the blow is difficult to absorb. The first clause is about a glance, the second about a catastrophe, yet both have the same nonchalant tone, and it is this evenness of tone that freezes the spine.’ (1993: 36)

One might well wonder as to the nature of Spark’s intention in disposing of her characters so coolly. A convincing explanation for Spark’s chosen method lies in David Herman’s suggestion that Spark has adopted for her own purposes techniques associated with Bertolt Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt (2008: 477), itself rooted in work done on ‘defamiliarisation’ by the Russian Formalists, Viktor Shlokovksy in particular, at the beginning of the twentieth century. The theory behind the Verfremdungseffekt is that the reader is ‘alienated’ from the characters and ceases to feel any regard for their fate, being encouraged instead to take a more conscious, objective view of proceedings. Any emotional involvement with the characters on the reader’s part is stripped away by a laying-bare of the artificiality of the constructed text, and the reader is forced instead to make judgements on an entirely intellectual level. Alan Massie also suggests that Spark belongs amongst the rank of novelists

‘who have attempted to understand the world by cultivating detachment; so that what they construct has a self-conscious artistry, which depends for its effect on the writer’s oblique stance to his material. There is a clear preference for imposing form rather than interpreting what is immediately presented to the eye; it is the form which will give significance.’ (1979: 94)

In practice, the attempt to create such an emotional distance is not always successful and the results can be unpredictable: notice, for example, Schiff’s reaction to Needle’s death above. What Schiff is responding to, however, is not the death of the character – we already know at this stage in the narrative that Needle is a ghost – but to the ‘evenness of tone’ the I-narrator adopts in relating her own murder. Schiff notes Spark’s own comment on the sentence in question:

“There’s something aggressive about it,” Spark admits. “I’ve put a lot of tension into it, and I’ve left the emotion out. I don’t really like very much writing about emotion. I like for it to be read between the lines.” (1993: 36)

As a self-proclaimed satirist, Spark may have found the technique of the Verfremdungseffekt intriguing. In addressing the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1971, Spark gave a speech entitled ‘The Desegregation of Art’ (often quoted, and reproduced in Hynes, 1992: 33-37), in which she argues in favour of satire and ridicule in place of sentiment:

‘the power and influence of the creative arts is not to be belittled. I only say that the art and literature of sentiment and emotion, however beautiful in itself, however striking in its depiction of actuality, has to go. It cheats us into a sense of involvement with life and society, but in reality it is a segregated activity. In its place I advocate the arts of satire and of ridicule.’ (1992: 35)

Spark’s argument runs along lines similar to those of Brecht: ‘the liberation of our minds from the comfortable cells of lofty sentiment’ will free us from ‘the illusion that we are all essentially aspiring, affectionate, and loving creatures’. Ridicule, as opposed to sentiment, ’can penetrate to the marrow. It can leave a salutary scar. It is unnerving. It can paralyze its object’ (1992: 36). So, in the case of Merle Coverdale’s murder, Spark aims to underscore the horror of the act by deadening our emotional response to the victim. The latter is achieved by numerous forewarnings of the event to follow and by the deadpan way in which the murder itself is related, placed as it is in almost direct juxtaposition with the more sentimental imagined murder of Dougal Douglas.

From the very beginning of the novel, Merle Coverdale is a dead woman walking. Her untimely demise is marked out clearly for the reader in many ways. For example, Merle’s death is sign-posted through the settings in which we see her: in chapter three, Dougal takes Merle for a walk through a cemetery, and on page 126, ‘Miss Frierne [leaves] Miss Coverdale in that hall which was lined with wood like a coffin’. Secondly, Merle’s epithet is an example of one of Spark’s epithets that contain a hint of the plot. References to the attenuated length of Merle’s neck appear every time she is mentioned. Dougal refers to Merle as an Okapi, a giraffe-like animal, and to Merle’s neck itself as ‘a maniac’s delight’ (101). Merle dies when she is stabbed in the neck nine times with a corkscrew. Thirdly, death in some shape or form is always mentioned, without fail, in close proximity to Merle’s name: on page 34, ‘ “That Miss Coverdale in the pool,’ said Mavis, ‘is working Dixie to death…” ’; on page 97, ‘ “Killing herself,” Merle said, “that’s what she is, for money.” ’; on page 100, ‘ “I’ve got a rotten life. Sometimes I think I’ll swallow a bottle of aspirins.” ’; and lastly, on page 102, ‘ “There’s bodies of nuns down there, miss,” the policeman said’. The cumulative effect of these repeated references to death is to point to Merle’s own impending demise in an unequivocal fashion.

To sum up so far: we infer that Merle is marked for an untimely end through the references to death which surround her every appearance, and we have seen her placed in the settings of a cemetery and a coffin. We can guess at the manner of her death from the repeated references to her neck, which are so frequent as to constitute her epithet. The following examples demonstrate that we can also deduce early on who is responsible for Merle’s death. In every scene featuring Merle and Druce, Druce looks at Merle with a sharp, pointed object in his hand, as follows:

p. 51: ‘He turned, with the bottle-opener in his hand, and looked at her.’

p. 53: ‘Mr Druce took a bread-knife from the drawer and looked at her.’

p. 82: ‘Mr Druce lifted his paper-knife, toyed with it in his hand, pointed it at Merle, and put it down.’

p. 134: ‘He turned to look at her with the corkscrew pointing from his fist.’

The four sentences above are constructed largely along the same lines, and it is interesting to note that the ‘looking’ of the first two examples turns into ‘pointing’ in the latter two – an indication that the threat posed by Druce is becoming increasingly serious. Druce touches, tickles or squeezes Merle’s neck every time they are alone together: ‘She put her hand up to her throat and moved it up her long neck. “Mr Druce squeezed it tight the other day,” she said, “for fun, but I got a fright.” ’ (100-101). We see, therefore, that long before the murder scene, the reader has been alerted through various kinds of narrative repetition that Druce will murder Merle by attacking her neck with a pointed object. By the time Druce looks at Merle ‘with the corkscrew pointing from his fist’, we know that that corkscrew will be the murder weapon.

Let us turn now to the murder scene itself, which is placed in juxtaposition with the scene of an imaginary murder. In chapter eight, both Merle and Elaine visit Dougal’s room in scenes that open with an almost identical verbal exchange with Miss Frierne. Merle, Dougal’s first visitor, is upset and tells Dougal ‘ “God, if Mr Druce thought I was working in with you, he’d kill me.” ’(128). Elaine in her turn informs Dougal that there is a gang looking for him and Dougal imagines his murder at the hands of Trevor Lomas. This imagined murder is replaced in the following chapter with a real murder: Merle dies at Druce’s hands, as she predicted.

The contrast between the two murder scenes, placed in such close proximity in the narrative, creates a bathos which contributes in no small measure to the overall alienation effect the reader experiences in relation to Merle’s death. As one would expect from a character who spices up a dull autobiography with saucy tales, Dougal’s description of his own imagined murder (130-131) is far more exciting than the deadpan narration of the killing of Merle. Dougal’s own tale contains visually dramatic verbs (compare, for example, ‘out jumps Trevor’ with ‘He came towards her’), sinister adjectives (‘black concealing’), and melodramatic touches (‘in the gutter’). Told in the present tense to give immediacy to the scene recounted, the reader is made aware of the position of each of the characters involved as an aid to visualisation, and is left to imagine the horror of the mutilated body. The policeman who finds Dougal ‘pukes on the pavement’ and his fingers are ‘trembling’ as he whistles for help. We see nothing like this in the murder of Merle Coverdale. Her death is indeed a gruesome one, but there are no sound effects (‘rip rip rip’), or characters vomiting at the sight of the body: the final bathetic note sounds later in the narrative when Merle’s corpse is discovered only because the neighbours are alerted when Druce’s supper burns.

The actual murder scene is played out, but with a different ending, at an earlier stage in the narrative, when we see Druce and Merle meet for their usual Saturday night assignation in chapter four. It quickly becomes clear to the reader that there is no life left in this affair: the conversation is desultory and they watch a ‘fragment’ of a television play together, just as Mavis and Arthur do in a mirror-image dysfunctional relationship. Gerard Carruthers notes that:

‘We see the pair sharing dull suppers together and Druce very neatly folding his trousers prior to their passionless lovemaking with the implication that they have lost not only a keen sense of goodness, but of badness too.’ (2008: 495)

The scene ends with a paragraph structured in parallel: ‘She went into the scullery and put on the kettle while he put on his trousers and went home to his wife’ (54, my emphasis). The parallelisms inject a blackly humorous note into the proceedings of this tawdry affair, but the reader will once again see Druce don an item of clothing and go ‘home to his wife’, this time leaving Merle’s corpse behind him: ‘He came towards her with the corkscrew and stabbed it into her long neck nine times, and killed her. Then he took his hat and went home to his wife’ (136, my emphasis).

These parallel repetitions are part of a much wider structure of repetition at sentence-level here in these two scenes, and elsewhere in Ballad. A subject-verb-complement sentence structure constitutes the dominant feature of the opening chapter, as is the case in the assignation scene, and the murder scene. In the latter, there are at least 21 subject-verb-complement sentences connected with Druce, sometimes in rapid succession, as here:

‘He handed over her glass of wine. He looked at the label on the bottle. He sat down and took his shoes off. He put on his slippers. He looked at his watch.’ (135)

What is significant is that the sentence describing the murder itself is constructed in exactly the same way, with the addition of one final, horrible, clause: ‘He came towards her with the corkscrew and stabbed it into her long neck nine times, and killed her’ (136). The repetition of an identical sentence structure at this point places the murder on the same level as all the mundane actions described in the succession of subject-verb-complement sentences, and, even though the reader has been expecting Merle’s death for a long time, it is still possible to be shocked at the casual way in which Merle is disposed of, much as the ‘evenness of tone’ used to tell us of Needle’s death produces a chilling effect.

In conclusion, it is clear that there is an element of tension in operation between the narrator’s delivery of the murder scene and the relative weight the murder is given in the text. After such a lengthy build-up, the flat delivery and anti-climax of the murder is startling and confusing, because it is not what the reader was expecting. Dougal’s imagined murder fills that particular gap, and the reader is cheated of the high drama of the fantasised killing when finally called upon to witness Merle’s long-awaited murder. An unresolved tension is generated also in the reader’s response to the murder itself: as previously mentioned, the repetitive foreshadowing of Merle’s death means that the reader is waiting for it and will not be surprised or affected by it when it comes. Humphrey and Dixie may well be the subject of the ballad that circulates in Peckham Rye, but the build-up to Merle’s murder also fills its fair share of text-space. However, in spite of the reader being prepared for, and hardened to, the event to come, the calculated manner in which the murder is casually narrated, in an identical fashion to the description of Druce putting on his slippers, will cause the reader to suffer the same sort of ‘blow’ as that described by Schiff. In retrospect, the overly-dramatic, overly-literary nature of Dougal’s imagined death is shown for what it is in comparison to the very pedestrian, but somehow much more real murder of Merle. We know how to respond to Dougal’s ‘murder’, but our response to Merle’s death is far more complicated, and the Verfremdungseffekt is thus brought into play.


CARRUTHERS, G. 2008. ‘Fully to Savour Her Position’: Muriel Spark and Scottish Identity. Modern Fiction Studies, 54, 487-504.

HERMAN, D. 2008. ‘A Salutary Scar’: Muriel Spark’s Desegregated Art in the Twenty-First Century. Modern Fiction Studies, 54, 473-486.

HYNES, J. (ed.) 1992. Critical Essays on Muriel Spark, New York: Macmillan.

MASSIE, A. 1979. Muriel Spark, Edinburgh, Ramsay Head Press.

SCHIFF, Stephen. 1993. Cultural Pursuits, “Muriel Spark Between the Lines,” The New Yorker, May 24, 36.

SPARK, M. 1999. The Ballad of Peckham Rye, London, Penguin.


Through a glass, darkly: Muriel Spark’s ‘The Dark Glasses’ (1961)


For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. 

1 Corinthians 13:12

The short story The Dark Glasses first appeared in 1961 in Voices at Play, a collection of Spark’s stories and radio plays. The verse from the King James Bible quoted above is not directly referred to in the story, but it’s always at the forefront of my mind when I read it, partly because the story was written at a time when Muriel Spark was still a recent convert to the Catholic faith, but mostly because the two characters in the story who wear coloured glasses – Joan with her dark glasses and Dorothy with her green – are the ones who really do ‘see’ (in the sense of ‘understand’) exactly what is going on. By comparison, Dr Gray, the psychologist who is insistent that Joan should remove her dark glasses, is adept at ignoring the evidence in front of her eyes because it suits her to do so: Joan remarks that ‘[t]hese fishers of the mind have no eye for outward things’ [p. 379]. In fact, the implication is that Dr Gray has trained in psychology in order to enable her to reinterpret events in a manner of her own choosing.

(Incidentally, this is not the only dig at psychological practices to be found in Spark’s writings: perhaps she felt that psychologists were attempting to encroach on an area – the human mind – that should be accessible only to God, or perhaps, as is suggested in this story, it was her view that psychologists state what is obvious and pass it off as science: 

‘ “Didn’t you know that when you married him? I should have thought it would have been obvious.”

She looked at me again. “I had not studied psychology at that time,” she said.

I thought, neither had I.’ [Complete Short Stories, 2001, p. 379].)

Of course, the biblical verse doesn’t quite fit with the story, but what is relevant is the idea of seeing and knowing. This is a story which explores the many different ways of seeing, and as I’ve already suggested, seeing is linked with understanding in the two characters who have problems with their sight: Joan, who needs reading glasses, and Dorothy, who goes blind in first one eye and then the other. The story begins when the I-narrator Joan recognises Dr Gray from the past and puts on her dark glasses to conceal the fact that she has identified the woman with whom she is taking a lunchtime stroll.

Joan is a familiar narrator in Spark: a confident, somewhat abrasive woman, easily bored and more than a little impatient with other people. She is thirteen when she goes to have her eyes tested and Basil Simmonds, the oculist, takes something of an unhealthy interest in her. Joan judges from his reaction when his sister Dorothy enters the dimly-lit examination room that his intentions were not honourable: ‘Mr Simmonds removed his arm from my shoulder with such a jerk that I knew for certain he had not placed it there in innocence’ [p. 368]. Dorothy later accuses Basil of attempting to blind her because ‘she had seen something that he didn’t want her to see, something disreputable’ [p. 378]. By far the strongest implication in the narrative is that the ‘something’ mentioned here is Basil’s attempted forgery of his mother’s will, but it is undeniable that this ‘something’ could also be Basil’s manhandling of Joan, an adolescent. And Joan’s status as an adolescent at the early stages of the story is imbued with some importance later on in Dr Gray’s lecture at the summer school on child-poltergeists: ‘ “Adolescents in a state of sexual arousement,” she said, “may become possessed of almost psychic insight.” ’ [p. 377]. In spite of Spark’s apparent debunking of psychologists in the story, there exists a narrative level at which the claim that adolescents have psychic powers is also true: Joan does, indeed, have a sense of what is really happening and she is able to visualise clearly not only the interior of the Simmonds’ house, but also the enmity between brother and sister, worth quoting in full if only because it’s one of my favourite passages in Spark:

‘I invented for myself a recurrent scene in which brother and sister emerged from their mother’s room and, on the narrow landing, allowed their gaze to meet in unspoken combat over their inheritance. Basil’s flat-coloured eyes did not themselves hold any expression, but by the forward thrust of his red neck he indicated his meaning; Dorothy made herself plain by means of a corkscrew twist of the head – round and up – and the glitter of her one good eye through the green glasses’ [p. 370].

Of course, it would seem that it is Basil, rather than Joan, who is ‘in a state of sexual arousement’, but thirteen-year-old Joan is far from naive and she is seen to be going through a process of sorting ‘right’ behaviour from ‘wrong’ in her head. The narrative voice from Joan as a thirteen- and a fifteen-year-old is peppered with observations about whether or not the characters, including herself, are ‘in the right’, or ‘in the wrong’: ‘Dr Gray swung her legs, she was in the wrong, sexy, like our morning help… Dr Gray swung her legs, and looked professional. She was in the right, she looked like our games mistress’ [pp. 376-377]. It is Joan’s growing awareness of sex and the sexual behaviour of other people rather than any possible attraction to Basil which marks her as sexually aroused. 

However, rather more convincing than Dr Gray’s theories about adolescent second-sight are the alternative explanations that Joan’s insight is derived from her role as detective and her status as a narrator who is also a reader of books. Joan creates a story from what she knows of other stories.

James Naremore points out in his essay on Dashiell Hammett that ‘in a general sense any fictional detective becomes the story’s omniscient narrator and hence a type of God’ [Benstock, 1983, p. 51]. Joan is not, of course, entirely omniscient, but in the general sense implied by Naremore, she certainly attains a degree of omniscience. Joan takes on the role of detective when she becomes intrigued by the brother-sister set-up in Leesden End, and she takes pains to find out as much as she can by encouraging other people to divulge what they know in the form of teatime gossip and, most importantly, in taking every opportunity to spy on the Simmonds’ house. Like Dorothy, Joan sees what she shouldn’t see, and we learn about the antipathy between brother and sister through Joan’s snooping and Joan’s imagined scenarios. The latter builds on the illusion of omniscience surrounding the figure of Joan because the impression created is that Joan can actually see into the minds of the other characters. 

Joan also shares the omniscient narrator’s ability to leap about in time. There are three distinct time periods to the story: Joan at thirteen, Joan at fifteen, and Joan as an adult recognising Dr Gray at the summer school. Spark’s characteristic use of repetition as a time-marker guides the reader through Joan’s narrative, but an additional effect is to create the impression of timelessness: events previously witnessed are seen again as if they hadn’t happened.

The narrator is, of course, present-day Joan, but she takes on the voices of two other Joans who narrate different sections of the story: Joan at thirteen and Joan at fifteen, as previously stated. In the analeptic sections which make up the reminiscences of the two adolescent Joans, the present-day Joan breaks the usual illusion that the analeptic passages are taking place in the present by throwing in phrases which remind the reader that this section is a reminiscence: ‘I can still smell the rain and hear it thundering about me’ [p. 372]; ‘I recall reading the letters… I recall Mr Simmonds squeezing my arm…’ [p. 368]. 

On a narratorial level, then, Joan can see into the minds of others and she can jump about in time as she chooses. She is the omniscient detective who collects the facts and explains them to us. Of course, we are just getting Joan’s view of things, and it is not inconceivable that a great deal of the story may be the product of Joan’s imagination. She is clearly a reader of books with a flair for narrative: ‘I knew he was going to select one sheet of paper from the sheaf, and that this one document would be the exciting, important one. It was like reading a familiar book: one knew what was coming, but couldn’t bear to miss a word’ [p. 372]. Basil does indeed select one sheet of paper and his subsequent actions may well be those of someone attempting to copy someone else’s handwriting. And naturally, Dorothy catches him at it: ‘I was not surprised, but I was thrilled, when the door behind him slowly opened. It was like seeing the film of the book’ [p.372]. The next day, something goes wrong with Dorothy’s eye-drops and her one good eye is damaged almost beyond repair. Joan has her own ideas about what everyone else regards as an unfortunate mishap. She uses what she knows of stories to interpret the events she has witnessed:

‘I said, “The bottle may have been tampered with, have you thought of that?” 

“Joan’s been reading books” ’ [p. 376].

We are not, on the whole, led to question Joan’s reading of events, but it must be borne in mind that, as previously mentioned, one of the themes of the story is seeing and different ways of seeing. Seeing (or not-seeing) in this story is a memory, seeing in the mind’s eye, a glance, watching, looking, testing one’s sight, losing one’s sight, ogling, spying, visualising, something camouflaged, a forgery, seeing as a child or through the eyes of an adult, interpreting, understanding, psychic insight, and of course, recognition – the story begins and ends with an act of recognition.

The story is also awash with doubles: Joan recognises Dr Gray from her reflection in the lake, and the two women stand there at the beginning of the story like two versions of themselves, past and present; Dr Gray’s first husband was also Dr Gray; Joan’s aunt and grandmother parrot each other and finish each other’s sentences. Seeing can be deceptive: Basil turns his attempted caress of Joan into a movement more befitting an oculist; Basil attempts to forge his mother’s handwriting in order to deceive the eye; Joan presses against the tree and wills herself ‘to be the colour of the bark’ [p. 372] as a form of camouflage in order to disguise her presence. Lastly, seeing does not always entail understanding, because it is necessary to be able to read and correctly interpret the signs. On a basic level, as an occulist, Basil has pictures for illiterates who cannot read the letters. On a different level, Dorothy and Joan are both able to read the situation very quickly and interpret what they see accurately. But this is their truth, and everyone else in the story has a different truth. Dr Gray has usefully created two truths for herself – one as Basil’s wife and one as a psychologist, the latter being more conducive to her peace of mind. 

Given all this, it would seem that this is one more Spark narrative in which one of the major themes is the difficulty in getting at the real truth. Joan is not an unreliable narrator, but she is a storyteller nevertheless and the narrative calls attention to its own artfulness at several points and in various ways. By the end of the story, Joan is working as a historian, and the historian’s job is very similar to that of the detective: the facts must be assembled and then interpreted. The resulting narrative is itself a creation and as such cannot be a truthful account of events. 

The picture at the top was taken while on holiday last year in Amsterdam: it’s a selfie and it’s a reflection of us in a metal sculpture. And we’re both wearing dark glasses, of course.


Naremore, J., 1983. Dashiell Hammett and the Poetics of Hard-Boiled Detection. In: B. Benstock, ed. Essays on Detective Fiction. London: Macmillan. 

Spark, M., 2001.The Complete Short Stories. London: Penguin.

Like a hell-broth boil and bubble


This post is about Muriel Spark’s short story The Twins, and the first thing I have to note is that if you search for ‘creepy twins’ in Google Images, you get a whole load of stuff that you really, really don’t want to see: ‘creepy’ in every sense of the word. But I did manage, by peeking through my fingers and scrolling down as quickly as I dared, to find several useful and really quite horrible images with which I shall pepper this post. You’ve been warned…


The Twins is not much of a story, really. An I-narrator recounts the events of a couple of visits to her friend Jennie’s house, once when the twins are five and again when they are twelve. If we are to believe what the narrator tells us – and I’ll explore this in more detail a little later on – the twins are born troublemakers whose angelic appearance belies their true nature. The story consists of six incidents in which it appears that a misunderstanding has occurred, but these ‘misunderstandings’ are in fact deliberately engineered to create disharmony amongst the characters. Eventually the narrator is moved to make an excuse to leave the house, without any intention of returning.

The six incidents are as follows: 1) the loan of a half-crown, in which little Marjie creates discord by not revealing all the necessary details; 2) the business with the tops, in which little Jeff lies outright; 3) Jennie reporting that Simon said the narrator looks ill and haggard, when the reader has overheard the conversation in question and knows he did nothing of the kind; 4) the biscuits and the mice – again, the reader knows that Jennie packed the biscuits and put them in the narrator’s room; 5) the business with the petrol money; 6) the most serious incident of them all: Mollie and Simon’s alleged misbehaviour in the kitchen.


The text world of The Twins is one in which everything can be questioned and even the most innocuous remark can cause great offence. This is a story about truth and about the telling of stories. And, what with it being a story, and being a story written by Muriel Spark, we mustn’t forget that actually none of it is true anyway. The reader believes what s/he is told by the first-person narrator, because that is what readers are inclined to do, but there are instances when the narrator herself is less than honest, if her words are to be taken at face value. For example,

“When I returned, these good children were eating their supper standing up in the kitchen, and without a word of protest, cleared off to bed before the guests arrived [p. 323*].”

Knowing what we do about the twins at this stage, in what sense are they ‘good’ children? There are two possible answers here: 1) they are good children and we can’t believe what the narrator has told us previously; 2) we are to understand that the word ‘good’ is heavily ironic in this sentence. Another example of the narrator’s possible duplicity occurs slightly previous to this episode on page 322:

“I munched [a biscuit] while I looked out of the window at the calm country sky, ruminating upon Jennie’s perennial merits.”

(Note the lovely inversion of the pathetic fallacy: the calm country sky in no way reflects the tension running through the country home.) It is strange to find the narrator pondering Jennie’s good points when she catches Jennie lying earlier that day:

“‘Thin and haggard indeed!’ said Jennie as she poured out the tea, and the twins discreetly passed the sandwiches [p. 322].”

Simon doesn’t say ‘thin and haggard’ at all. What he says is: “‘Why, you haven’t changed a bit… A bit thinner maybe. Nice to see you so flourishing.'” [p. 322] But Simon’s words are also part of what the narrator tells us, so whom can we believe?


For an explanation, we might look to the twins discreetly passing the sandwiches as the parent behaves in the way in which she has been taught to behave by her offspring, for this is a story in which the usual roles are topsy-turvy. “‘You’ll ruin those children,'” says Jennie to Simon, but in fact the reverse happens: the children ruin their parents in a startling role-reversal. The narrator tells us in the closing paragraphs that the twins gaze on their parents ‘with wonder, pride and bewilderment’, as they regard ‘the work of [their] own hands’ [p. 325]. But once again, this is what the narrator tells us, and the behaviour of all concerned is explained away in the narrator’s tenuous comparison of an expression on the twins’ faces with that of a portrait painter she once saw at the Royal Academy. But if these sentences were removed from the story, how could we explain the strange behaviour of Jennie and Simon? We rely on the narrator to tell us the truth, but there is no guarantee that what we are told is not a fabrication on the part of the narrator; the twins might well be the little angels everyone believes them to be and the narrator could be leading the reader by the nose just in order to have a good story to tell. Happy couples do not make narratives because there’s no narrativity in contentment. So there are two ways in which we can read a sentence such as the following:

“In these surroundings she seemed to have endured no change; and she had made no change in her ways in the seven years since my last visit [p. 322].”

We could take the sentence at face value: Jennie has made no change and all is as idyllic as before; or, the narrator is being disingenuous here and Jennie has changed – she has become the same kind of devious mischief-maker as her children. In the context of the rest of the story, the second option seems the most likely, but if we admit this, then we are admitting that the narrator has just lied to us. In addition, the tentative note of ‘seemed’ appears in the first clause, but not, as it should, in the second. If we admit then, that the narrator lies to us occasionally, how much more of this narrative is not quite true?


For the sake of moving the discussion on, let’s assume that the narrator is indeed telling us the truth and that those moments of apparent disingenuousness are to be read and understood ironically. To be fair, the story is constructed so as to convince the reader of the narrator’s veracity. The first incident which occurs to make us suspect the twins of not being quite so lovely is the episode in which Marjie asks for a half-crown. This coin is to provide Jennie with change for the baker’s man, but Marjie does not reveal as much: she simply says that she wants it, which is not enough to induce the narrator to provide her with a coin, thus landing the narrator in some trouble with Jennie. Marjie is only five years old at the time, and we could believe that she has made a mess of this errand owing to youthful inarticulacy, had we not just been told how advanced the twins are for their years. (And in fact, Jennie herself says that she would never allow the children to ask for money when she has moments before instructed Marjie to do exactly that. No wonder the poor narrator is left floundering.)


Marjie’s odd behaviour is still in the reader’s mind when it comes to the fuss about the tops, which is why we accept the narrator’s version of Jeff’s behaviour so readily. The narrator provides us with two pieces of information which put together demonstrate that Jeff is telling an outright lie when he insists that he was playing with the blue top: Jennie points out that the top Simon has taken to pieces is the red one, and the red one belongs to Jeff; later, when the narrator goes outside, she sees ‘the small boy spinning his bright-red top on the hard concrete of the garage floor’ [p. 320]. From this, we can deduce that Simon did manage to piece together Jeff’s top after he’d taken it apart, and that Jeff played with this top before taking it apart again in order to cause trouble between his parents. If it weren’t for these two pieces of information, we could easily believe that Simon had broken Jeff’s top and hadn’t wanted to admit it.


Not that this incident does cause trouble between Jennie and Simon, of course – not on the surface, anyway. Everyone is too polite to make a fuss and this is precisely what allows the twins to get away with their little fibs and fabrications. Repeatedly we hear characters enjoin the narrator not to mention what has happened, or that words have been spoken, because Jennie doesn’t want to upset Simon, and vice versa. When the narrator visits Jennie and Simon for the second time, it is no longer the twins causing trouble: it is Jennie and Simon, both of whom have adopted this behaviour from their creepy kids. And they are creepy: eerily beautiful, spookily well-behaved and exceptionally intelligent: we hear from Jennie when the twins have reached the age of twelve how both Marjie and Jeff have won scholarships. In a world where everything is suspect and every remark subject to scrutiny, Jennie’s comments about Marjie’s geography are potentially explosive: “‘If it hadn’t been for the geography she’d have been near the top. Her English teacher told me.'” In any other story world, this remark would be taken as ordinary parental boasting and perhaps also as a way to introduce the English teacher, Mollie Thomas, but in this world, the reader can easily imagine Jennie’s comments becoming part of yet another fraught and private conversation in which one of the speakers uses the words ‘Please don’t say anything’. Each lie or half-truth opens up for the reader a little text world which may or may not exist: Simon and Mollie’s alleged dalliance in the kitchen, for example – what happened here? The narrator says ‘She’s in the kitchen,’ [p. 324] when Jennie asks where Mollie is, and before you know it, Simon is writing to the narrator berating her for insinuating that he and Mollie were ‘behaving improperly’ [p. 325]. The narrator by this time has quite sensibly cut her losses and left Jennie and Simon’s troubled house, never to return.

Can’t blame her. Stay away from the creepy twins!





*Spark, M., 2002. The Complete Short Stories. London: Penguin.