"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Friday, April 24, 2015

Short Story Analysis: “The Portobello Road” by Muriel Spark, Part 2

In Part 1 of this analysis I showed how the two premises the story is based on is the lucky moment of finding the needle in the haystack and that Needle, as the central character is called, is now dead and is a ghost.  Spark spends an expository vignette to explain the nature of Needle’s current state.  It has been five years since she has died; there is executor’s business to “look over,” attends Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation, and entertains herself on Saturdays by traversing and perusing “the pleasurable spread of objects on the counters’ along Portobello Road.

But most Saturdays I take my delight among the solemn crowds with their aimless purposes, their eternal life not far away, who push past the counters and stalls, who handle, buy, steal, touch, desire and ogle the merchandise.  I hear the tinkling tills, I hear the jangle of loose change and tongues and children wanting to hold and have.

Those two sentences are at the heart of the story’s central theme; the Portobello Road becomes a metaphor.  Life, with death not far away, is composed of an aimlessness encounter with the “merchandise” of our earthly existence, which both forms our growth (as we progress on the road) and the framework of our moral centers: our desires and sins and contacts with humanity and absorption with material things.  And so she is on the Portobello Road when she encounters her old friends, now married.

That is how I came to be in the Portobello Road that Saturday morning when I saw George and Kathleen.  I would not have spoken had I not been inspired.  Indeed it’s one of those things I can’t do now—to speak out, unless inspired.  And most extraordinary, on that morning as I spoke, a degree of visibility set in.  I suppose from poor George’s point of view it was like seeing a ghost when he saw me standing by the fruit barrow repeating in so friendly a manner, ‘Hallo George!’

So Needle as ghost speaks out, and it is interesting that it was in trying to speak out that caused poor Needle to be murdered and her mouth filled with straw silenced.  That is the story’s present time, but much of the story is how we got to this point where Needle is an actual ghost.  And so the vignettes shift back in time.

From the two vignettes that establish the story’s premise, Spark picks up the narrative back at the four friends’ youth and develops their maturation.  She does this by detailing their geographic progression. 

We were bound for the south.  When our education, what we could get of it from the north, was thought to be finished, one by one we were sent or sent for to London.  John skinner, whom we called Skinny, went to study more archaeology, George to join his uncle’s tobacco farm, Kathleen to stay with her rich connections and to protect intermittently in the Mayfair hat shop which one of them owned.  A little later I also went to London to see life, for it was my ambition to write about life, which first I had to see.

There is a narrative movement in the story from the Scottish borderland to London and then to Africa where George is managing the tobacco farm and Skinny is investigating some archaeological sites.  Needle tags along with Skinny, uncertain whether to marry him, yet mooching off him as she drifts through life.  After a few years Skinny and Needle meet up with George, and then Spark provides a number of vignettes which serve as a psychological study of George’s character.  We see George as a needy person, “yearning” to keep the group together, derisively seen as a silly attempt to hold on to a youthful past, perhaps even an unwillingness to mature.  We see George as a failure at the farm, his moodiness and lack of emotional control and insecure.  We see George’s anxiety, and what he is anxious about is his inability to control life, which makes him a complete contrast to Needle who drifts along carefree.  They meet up on George’s farm where George having fathered a child with a “brahn” woman named Matilda and who is pregnant with another—brown is a recurring color pattern in the story, brown skin, brown eyes, brown hay—tells Needle a secret.

‘Well, this is a secret, mind.  Promise not to tell.’


‘I’m married.’ 

‘Married, George!  Oh, who to?’ 


‘How dreadful!’  I spoke before I could think, but he agreed with me. 

‘Yes, it’s awful, but what could I do?’ 

‘You might have asked my advice,’ I said pompously. 

‘I’m two years older than you are.  I don’t ask advice from you, Needle, little beast.’ 

‘Don’t ask for sympathy then.’ 

‘A nice friend you are,’ he said, ‘I must say after all these years.’ 

‘Poor George!’ I said. 

‘There are three white men to one white woman in this country,’ said George.  ‘An isolated planter doesn’t see a white woman and if he sees one she doesn’t see him.  What could I do?  I needed the woman.’ 

I was nearly sick.  One, because of my Scottish upbringing.  Two, because of my horror of corny phrases like ‘I needed the woman,’ which George repeated twice again. 

‘And Matilda got tough,’ said George, ‘after you and Skinny came to visit us.  She had some friends at the Mission, and she packed up and went to them.’ 

‘You should have let her go,’ I said. 

‘I went after her,’ George said.  ‘She insisted on being married, so I married her.’ 

‘That’s not a proper secret, then,’ I said.  ‘The news of a mixed marriage soon gets about.’ 

‘I took care of that,’ George said.  ‘Crazy as I was, I took her to the Congo and married her there.  She promised to keep quiet about it.’ 

‘Well, you can’t clear off and leave her now, surely,’ I said. 

‘I’m going to get out of this place.  I can’t stand the woman and I can’t stand the country.  I didn’t realise what it would be like.  Two years of the country and three months of my wife has been enough.’ 

‘Will you get a divorce?’ 

‘No, Matilda’s Catholic.  She won’t divorce.’ 

I assume the racism in that dialogue is inherent to the two characters and not Spark the author (though one can’t always tell when a writer writes in an era of pre-racial sensitivity), and if so then you can see the fallen state of all humanity that I think Spark is suggesting.  That secret is critical to the plot because ten years later when George returns to England and the two meet at a farm in Kent George tells Needle of another secret, that he is going to marry Kathleen.  Needle is shocked and reminds him that it would be bigamy since he’s married to Matilda. 

‘I’m not sure that Congo marriage was valid,’ he continued.  ‘Anyway, as far as I’m concerned, it isn’t.’ 

‘You can’t do a thing like that,’ I said. 

‘I need Kathleen.  She’s been decent to me.  I think we were always meant for each other, me and Kathleen.’ 

‘I’ll have to be going,’ I said. 

But he put his knee over my ankles, so that I couldn’t move.  I sat still and gazed into space. 

He tickled my face with a wisp of hay. 

‘Smile up, Needle,’ he said; ‘let’s talk like old times.’ 


‘No one knows about my marriage to Matilda except you and me.’ 

‘And Matilda,’ I said. 

‘She’ll hold her tongue so long as she gets her payments.  My uncle left her an annuity for the purpose, his lawyers see to it.’ 

‘Let me go, George.’ 

‘You promised to keep it a secret,’ he said, ‘you promised.’ 

‘Yes, I promised.’ 

‘And now that you’re going to marry Skinny, we’ll all be properly coupled off as we should have been years ago.  We should have been but youth!—our youth got in the way, didn’t it?’ 

‘Life got in the way,’ I said. 

‘But everything is going to be alright now.  You’ll keep my secret, won’t you?  You promised.’  He had released my feet.  I edged a little further from him. 

I said, ‘If Kathleen intends to marry you, I shall tell her that you’re already married.’ 

‘You wouldn’t do a dirty trick like that, Needle?  You’re going to be happy with Skinny, you wouldn’t stand in the way of my—‘ 

‘I must, Kathleen’s my best friend,’ I said swiftly. 

He looked as if he would murder me and he did.  He stuffed hay into my mouth until it could hold no more, kneeling on my body to keep it still, holding both my wrists tight to his huge hand.  I saw the red full lines of his mouth and the white slit of his teeth last thing on earth.  Not another soul passed by as he pressed my body into the stack, as he made a deep nest for me, tearing up the hay to make a groove the length of my corpse, and finally pulling the warm dry stuff in a mound over this concealment, so natural-looking in a broken haystack.  Then George climbed down, took up his bottle of milk and went his way.  I suppose that was why he looked so unwell when I stood, nearly five years later, by the barrow in the Portobello Road and said in easy tones, ‘Hallo George.’

One can appreciate this story in many ways.  “He looked as if he would murder me and he did” is just a great deadpan sentence.  One could marvel at the resonances: “Not another soul passed by” contrasts wonderfully with the souls that pass along the Portobello Road.  In death she becomes the buried needle in a haystack that gave her very identity many years earlier.  Needle’s murder is the climax of the story, and from here Spark brings the story back to the present and we see George’s emotional breakdown, which completes the character study.

But it is on this point of Catholicism, that marriage is in dissolvable and divorce is not possible, that the story rests.  It was much more part of Catholic identity in the 1950’s when the story was written than it is now, where divorce has become commonplace even among Catholics. It was a charged subject and a point of contention in culture. 

So is Catholicism strictly a structural element to the story? I started this analysis in Part 1 by stating there was a missing element I couldn’t put my finger on that completed my understanding, and I think it’s wrapped in the Catholicism motif that runs throughout.  Kathleen is a devout cradle Catholic, and Needle like Spark is a Catholic convert. 

I was fortunate, I was lucky…so everybody kept telling me on different occasions.  Although it annoyed me to hear, I knew they were right, but in a way that was different from what they meant.  It took me very small effort to make a living: book reviews, odd jobs for Kathleen, a few months with the publicity man again, still getting up speeches about literature, art and life for individual tycoons.  I was waiting to write about life and it seemed to me that the good fortune lay in this, whenever it should be.  And until then I was assured of my charmed life, the necessities of existence always coming my way and I with far more leisure than anyone else.  I thought of my type of luck after I became a Catholic and was being confirmed.  The Bishop touches the candidate on the cheek, a symbolic reminder of the sufferings a Christian is supposed to undertake.  I thought, how lucky, what a feathery symbol to stand for the hellish violence of its true meaning.

That feather symbol foreshadows the piece of hay that George tickles her face with just before kills her.   In her charmed life, Needle lives as the birds in that great quote from Christ:

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat (or drink), or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?  Look at the birds in the sky; they do not sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are not you more important than they?  Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span? (Matthew 6:25-27)

That comes from the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus gives His beatitudes which define what it means to be blessed.  Needle is blessed, meaning blissfully happy.  She has no malice toward anyone, not even George.  She is a happy ghost, no animus, no bitterness.  She is not there to haunt, though George’s conscience gets the better of him.  There is a continuum for Catholics between life of the flesh and blood and life of the hereafter that is much more accentuated than in Protestantism.  Catholics speak with the dead; we commune with saints.  They are with us.  Death doesn’t end life.  This is a wonderful story.