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

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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.

Bibliography

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

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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…

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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.

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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?

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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.)

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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.

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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!

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