Academic journal article Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature

"The Latter End of Job": The Gift of Narrative in Muriel Spark's the Only Problem and the Comforters

Academic journal article Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature

"The Latter End of Job": The Gift of Narrative in Muriel Spark's the Only Problem and the Comforters

Article excerpt

THE number of commentaries on the Old Testament Book of Job runs into the thousands--and with good reason. As a work of great power and scope, this ancient Hebrew poem raises the profoundest questions about the nature of human suffering. But among the numerous exegetes and scholars who have wrestled with this daunting masterpiece, few have done so with greater insight or understanding than Muriel Spark in two penetrating novels The Only Problem (1984) and The Comforters (1957). Taken together, these two modern works of fiction open an entirely new perspective on Job, a perspective within which the art of narrative offers a remarkably profound resolution to the problems posed by the ancient text.

No reader could miss the centrality of Job in Spark's The Only Problem. For it is this ancient text which dominates the life of the novel's central character, Harvey Gotham, a wealthy recluse intent upon solving "the only problem" worthy of serious contemplation: namely, the problem of understanding how "a benevolent Creator, one whose charming and delicious light descended and spread over the world, and being powerful everywhere, could condone the unspeakable suffering of the world" (22). Tormented by this seemingly insoluble problem, Harvey sets to work, isolated from family and friend, writing a monograph on the Book of Job, hopeful that doing so will help finally dispel his perplexities.

Because Job is far less visible in The Comforters than in The Only Problem, some readers may not perceive its thematic importance in the earlier novel. The only explicit mention of the biblical text in the novel seems incidental, occurring as it does when the central character, Caroline Rose, recalls "the line from the Book of Job ... `Behold now Behemoth which I made with thee'" upon entering the huge Brompton Oratory (100). But alert readers will, with critic Peter Kemp, recognize the title of Spark's first novel as "a reference to the Book of Job" (17), a work in which the central character is surrounded by comforters, albeit very bad ones. This titular allusion demands particular attention since, as Kemp points out, the biblical book of Job "seems to have held Spark's attention for some time before she began writing her novels" (17). Further underscoring the thematic importance of this allusion are Spark's own revealing comments on the seminal importance of a title in her writing technique: "I always start with a title ... and then work around different meanings. A novel is, for me, always an elaboration of a title" (qtd. in Kemp 72).

In the case of The Comforters, the elaboration of the meaning of the title takes the form of a narrative about the problematic relationship between Caroline Rose and the friends and associates--the Comforters--who offer her advice for dealing with her problems. Problems Caroline does not lack. For as a convert to Catholicism, she is bedeviled by difficulties understanding and loving those who profess to share her new faith; and as a young writer at work on a critical work on "Form in the Modern Novel," she is deeply disturbed by the ghostly voices of a narrative chorus revealing to her (and no one else) that she and her Comforters are all characters in an unfolding modern novel. In assessing Caroline's troubled relationship with her Comforters, we can profitably follow Kemp's lead in taking as a gloss upon the novel an article about Job that Spark wrote for the Church of England Newspaper in 1955. In this article, Spark identifies the biblical Job as a figure "surrounded by a conspiracy of mediocrity, obsessed with a raging need to shock them [the Comforters] and at the same time to communicate his feelings." Oppressed by "the complacent sentiments by which the Comforters take their several stands," Job derives no benefit from talking with them. "The dialogue makes no rational progress ... the characters cannot understand each other" (qtd. …

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