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…

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.