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’

Copyright reminder: all written material is copyright © Gaenor Burchett-Vass. All rights reserved. If you should wish to quote from any of the posts, please do get in touch by completing the form on the Contact tab, and I will help you with the citation by providing as much information as possible. Thank you!

Muriel Spark’s ‘A Member of the Family’: observations on the opening scene

Spoiler plot summary for those who haven’t read the story:

Trudy meets Richard Seeton while holidaying in Southern Austria with Gwen, and she embarks on a love affair with him. Trudy is very keen to meet Richard’s mother, because for her, this will signify that Richard’s intentions are serious. The invitation is not forthcoming, however, and Trudy becomes steadily more obsessed with the idea. It seems as if Richard is losing interest in the relationship, but finally, Trudy is invited to meet Lucy Seeton. The meeting does not go as Trudy had envisaged: Richard doesn’t stay, but leaves Trudy to dine with Lucy and Gwen. The following Sunday, Trudy has dinner with Lucy again, and this time there are two other women present as well as Gwen. The five of them spend the whole evening discussing Richard. Trudy finally realises that all these women – there are at least another three she has yet to meet – are Richard’s ex-girlfriends, as, indeed, is she. Trudy, as one of Richard’s exes who dines with his mother every Sunday, has become a ‘member of the family’.

 The opening scene:

‘You must,’ said Richard, suddenly, one day in November, ‘come and meet my mother.’

Trudy, who had been waiting for a long time for this invitation, after all was amazed.

‘I should like you,’ said Richard, ‘to meet my mother. She’s looking forward to it.’

‘Oh, does she know about me?’

‘Rather,’ Richard said.


‘No need to be nervous,’ Richard said. ‘She’s awfully sweet.’

‘Oh, I’m sure she is. Yes, of course, I’d love – ‘

‘Come to tea on Sunday,’ he said.


Spark’s short story opens in media res, at the defining moment when Richard invites Trudy to meet his mother – a moment which signals the end of the relationship, rather than its beginning, as Trudy is to discover later. All the usual love-affair scenarios – meeting the mother and becoming one of the family – take on a very different meaning in this story. Meeting the mother signifies the end of the relationship. Becoming a member of the family means that Trudy won’t see Richard any more, but will be condemned instead to discuss him every Sunday night with his mother and ex-girlfriends. The phrase ‘a member of the family’, which crops up on a regular basis, becomes more and more sinister as the story wears on and in fact, the story closes with these words, by which time both Trudy and the reader are aware of their true meaning.

The opening scene (reproduced above) is repeated almost in its entirety about half-way through the story: partial or full repetition of scenes and snippets of dialogue is one of Spark’s more distinctive narrative tricks. The trick works particularly well in this instance, because when we see the opening scene for the second time, we already have the feeling that something is wrong.

Richard’s invitation itself is heard twice in the opening scene, but the wording is slightly different each time: ‘You must…come and meet my mother’/’I should like you…to meet my mother’. The difference between the two versions of the invitation is one of modality, and it is an important difference. In relating the conversation to Gwen, Trudy may prefer the second version to the first, for example, depending on how she wishes to depict her relationship with Richard. The first invitation – ‘You must…come and meet my mother’ – has a casual, throwaway air about it, whereas the second, ‘I should like you…to meet my mother’, is more formal and considered, and it expresses a direct wish on Richard’s part, which the first invitation does not – compare, for example, ‘You must read my blog,’ to ‘I should like you to read my blog’. The second of these two statements is expressive of a desire on the speaker’s part to gain the addressee’s approval of either Richard’s mother, or my blog. In fact, when she does relate the conversation to Gwen, Trudy opts for a modified version of her own: ‘He said, “I want you to meet Mother. I’ve told her all about you’, a version which places an even greater emphasis on Richard’s imagined commitment to the relationship: ‘should like’ has become ‘want’ and ‘I’ve told her all about you’ is a more fanciful rendition of Richard’s ‘Rather,’ in response to Trudy’s question, ‘Oh, does she know about me?’ Trudy clearly wishes Gwen to believe – and is also perhaps trying to convince herself – that Richard has spent many hours regaling his mother with tales of Trudy and her delightful ‘young way’.

So, we see three different versions of Richard’s invitation. One is clearly Trudy’s voice because it is rendered in direct speech and addressed to Gwen. That is Trudy’s version of events. But we see two versions of the invitation in the opening scene, both in direct speech, and both uttered by Richard. If this were not a recognisable ‘Sparkian’ technique, it would be tempting to imagine that Richard simply repeated his invitation in the belief that Trudy had not heard or understood him the first time: one could argue that she is too ‘amazed’ to respond initially. But Spark does this sort of thing all the time. The narrator will repeat a character’s words either verbatim, or in a slightly revised version, within the space of one paragraph, but it is not to be supposed that the character has actually made the utterance in question twice. It is a narratorial trick, altering the tale slightly in the telling. The character’s words are heard by the reader again after a brief interlude in which the reader is supplied with a little more information, so that on hearing the words a second time, the reader’s reaction to the utterance is modified in response to the narratorial intervention. There is something else going on here too, something perhaps even more interesting. When telling stories, as we all do all the time, we don’t necessarily remember verbatim what someone said, and will give instead a modified version of the original utterance which simply captures the gist. The narrator’s trick here is to mimic that process, but in a written form – a form that usually purports to record events exactly as they occurred. What is truly fascinating about this technique is that it calls into question the omniscience of the narrator: the narrator is supposed to know exactly what was said and to record it faithfully. The two versions of the invitation seen here give a sense of the vague woolliness one would expect from a story told verbally.

There are just two more points I’d like to make, this time around at least – I’ll more than likely come back to this story again in a later blog, because it is one of my favourites.  

Lucy shows Trudy around once Richard has departed, and Lucy’s room, with its mirrors and reflected photographs of Richard and his father remind me of Cold Comfort Farm and Judith’s disturbing obsession with her son Seth. On Trudy’s second visit, Lucy shows Trudy a photograph album and tells her about how she met Richard’s father and what she was wearing at the time. This last detail is a killer touch – Trudy herself, and Richard’s other ‘friends’ – will be spending a succession of Sunday evenings re-living details such as what they were wearing when they first met Richard. We know, because the narrator told us, although it didn’t seem important at the time, that Trudy was wearing a ‘puffy sunsuit’ when she and Richard met in Austria.

As is the case with many of Spark’s victims, we do not sympathise with Trudy. Trudy is ridiculed for our amusement. In fact, we have warmer feelings toward the sadistic Gwen, because, along with the narrator, she is the source of much of the story’s humour. The narrator’s character is very similar to that of Gwen’s, and in fact, the same could be said of the implied reader because we laugh too. There is an undoubted element of satisfaction in seeing Trudy get her comeuppance at the end, because she has been a constant source of annoyance with her silly fibs, her calculatedly stylised behaviour and her dull conversation.

If you want to read the story – and it’s a corker – Penguin have published an edition of the complete short stories of Muriel Spark. The cover’s horrible, but so it goes.