Dominance and submission as a central theme in Muriel Spark's short stories

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2001

23 Pages, Grade: 2+

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1 Introduction

2 Dominance and submission in interpersonal relationships
2.1 Unbalanced partnerships
2.2 Unbalanced relationships within families
2.3 Unbalanced friendships
2.4 Unbalanced relationships between various people
2.5 Short conclusion

3 Dominance and submission concerning groups of people
3.1 Unbalanced relationships between society and individuals
3.2 Unbalanced relationships with regard to social classes
3.3 Unbalanced relationships between Blacks and Whites
3.4 Short conclusion

4 Objects dominating people

5 Dominance and submission in the fields of spirituality and the supernatural

6 Conclusion

7 Works cited

1 Introduction

The present term paper is concerned with dominance and submission as a central theme in Muriel Spark’s short stories. It points out in how far various people or groups of people are intertwined in dependent relationships in which having control and power over or a strong influence on another person plays a role. This domineering attitude as well as the submissive behaviour of the counterpart, yielding to the authority of the dominant subject, will be analysed in detail in order to prove that the theme of dominance and submission constantly reoccurs in different stories although the issue is not always apparent to the reader at first sight.

In order to limit the huge range of stories that is presented in The Collected Stories[1], a choice has been made according to the following aspects: Firstly, it has to be figured out whether the stories provide information on relationships of any kind. Secondly, it has to be proved if there exist dominant interaction partners or groups. As a third step one has to find out if there is an inferior counterpart to the latter.

The first chapter of this term paper is dedicated to the analysis of interpersonal relationships (chapter 2). It takes into account partnerships in which exercising power and, on the contrary, accepting one’s defeat can be figured out. The same applies to relationships within families, friendships and relationships between various people, the latter including those who do not fall into the formerly mentioned categories. In this context it has to be found out who dominates whom or submits to whom. Then, the question to be raised is, under which circumstances and in which way this happens. It has to be questioned whether the relationship is of an interdependent nature or rather resembles to a hierarchy in which exploitation and force on the domineering side, fear and obedience on the submissive side exist. A short abstract concludes these paragraphs.

Chapter 3 focuses on dominance and submission concerning various groups of people. In contrast to the last chapter, characters will not be figured out explicitly, but groups of people as a whole interact. This concerns the society having a domineering influence on singular persons, higher social classes being apparently above the lower ones and Whites dominating Blacks. Again, a short conclusion summarises the main aspects mentioned in these paragraphs.

Some of the stories provide information on the dominance of objects on individuals. This issue is considered in chapter 4.

The following chapter concentrates on the fields of spirituality and the supernatural (chapter 5). Although some of these relationships have already been pointed out when it came to the intertwining of individuals, groups and objects, it will become clear that this field offers a huge variety of further relationships to be examined. Moreover, as the title already suggests, this paragraph goes beyond human relationships since it takes into account the supernatural as well. As the latter has not been taken into consideration so far, it makes sense to provide a separate chapter on this issue.

The conclusion in chapter 6 offers a summary of the most important findings of this term paper.

2 Dominance and submission in interpersonal relationships

This chapter focuses on unbalanced relationships taking into account various forms of them. Regarding a scale ranging from intimate to less private relationships, the analysis starts with the formerly mentioned, namely partnerships (chapter 2.1.). They include married as well as unmarried couples.

When it comes to unbalanced relationships within families, it is evident that partnerships will be left out from the investigation. One’s concern is rather on parental relationships (chapter 2.2.).

Friendships too can be regarded on the same scale as partnerships. In the present analysis one has to do with close friends as well as with rather loose friendships (chapter 2.3.).

The fourth aspect subsumed under the headline ‘Dominance and submission in interpersonal relationships’ takes into consideration relationships between various people (chapter 2.4.). The range of various people includes, generally spoken, all those who are not part of the categories presented above. This concerns people who do not know each other well for instance.

2.1 Unbalanced partnerships

In both of the stories The Black Madonna and The Ormolu Clock, women dominate men. In the first mentioned story, Raymond submits to his wife Lou. Although, on the first sight, it seems as if the couple leads a partnership based on equality (since they both share the same ideas and attitudes towards life; comp. Spark, 1985: 36), an unbalanced relation can be figured out.

Raymond habitually gives in when it comes to quarrels in order not to endanger and to destroy his partnership: “He let her have her way, as a rule [...]” (ibid.: 37). Although he sometimes tries to insist (for example on page 39: “«I can’t allow,» Raymond would say, «that the Catholic Faith is superstition. I can’t allow that.»”; ibid.: 39), he usually ends up admitting to Lou her being right. As he sees that he’s only rarely successful in objecting, he tends to keep quiet about any issue, as the following quotations show: “Raymond did not like being called Ray, but he made no objection [...]” (ibid.: 40); “He decided to say nothing to Lou about this” (ibid.: 41). On one occasion, when did not suppress his thoughts, he was even “sorry he had mentioned the subject [ i.e. having found contraceptives in Elizabeth’s house ]” (ibid.: 46) because Lou upsets herself and Raymond fears that the harmony might be disrupted by this incident. Avoiding conflicts, hence, means for Raymond to submit to Lou. The latter’s dominance has increased over the years. Raymond’s influence, his right to a say, had once been much stronger as the following passage from the story demonstrates: Raymond succeeded in convincing Lou to take oak furniture instead of white-painted furniture as Lou desires (comp. ibid.: 40). But, a couple of years later, when it comes to the far more important issue of having a baby, it is Lou who takes the decision. Raymond says “«if you don’t want a child, I don’t»” (Spark, 1985: 44), which means that he rejects a decision of his own and portrays it on his wife. This implies her deciding on her own life as well as on Raymond’s future. The choice of the baby’s name is also up to Lou: “«Just as you please, dear.»” (ibid.: 47) Raymond says as he doesn’t want to further upset Lou with his remark that Dawn is not a Christian name. Again, Raymond does not succeed in stepping out of his role as a yes-man which can also be seen at the end of the story when he cannot convince his wife to care for the baby: “«You’ll have to [...]»” (ibid.: 49) is the only objection he can make. This final defeat points to their future which will remain the same as the present, which means that Lou will keep her domineering attitude towards her husband, whereas Raymond will stick to her authority in order not to lose her as a partner.

The same applies to Mrs. and Mr Lublonitsch in The Ormolu Clock. However, there is only one passage which indicates the latter’s being submitted: “There was a Herr Lublonitsch, but he was of no account [...]” (ibid.: 159). This is true for the whole story as there exists only this single passage about the two of them. The paragraph ends with the sentence “But she was undoubtedly the boss.” (ibid.: 159) which marks Mrs. Lublonitsch’s superior position in the relationship of the couple.

In various other stories men dominate women. Dominance in these cases must not be understood as physical punishment but rather as a psychological maltreatment and suppression. In The Curtain Blown By The Breeze, however, Sonia has to suffer from her husband as he beats and finally shoots her. In the other stories, yielding to the authority of a male does not end up in beating and lastly eliminating the opposite in order to increase one’s own power.

In The Fathers’ Daughters the theme of ‘dominance and submission’ is not apparent at first sight. Ben admires Carmelita’s father for being a famous writer. This admiration overshadows their relationship as it gives the impression that Ben is only interested in his own job aspirations as a writer and not too much in Carmelita. This is why she sometimes perceives “a stab of anger” (Spark, 1985: 209) and “despair” (Spark, 1985: 209) and she always “felt a stab of dissatisfaction when Ben talked about her father.” (Spark, 1985: 205). Carmelita considers herself inferior to Ben’s book writing business as well as to Ben himself. Hence, she judges him as an “intellectual” (Spark, 1985: 205), of a “cultivated type” (Spark, 1985: 205) in which she gradually distinguishes from him. Ben confirms her view indirectly remarking in an ironic tone “«You’ve got a lovely mind. Full of pleasant laziness. No guile.»” (Spark, 1985: 205). From his superior position he decides on his life (“«I’ve been reading all my life, and you won’t stop me, Carmelita.»”; Spark, 1985: 207) and on Carmelita’s life (“He said it would be nice, perhaps, to practise restraint until they were married in the summer, [...]”; Spark, 1985: 207). Finally, she is not able to step out of her role as a passive person but in the end, it was Ben himself who had freed her namely by breaking up the partnership.

Ending up a relationship and thereby freeing oneself applies to Donald’s and Sybil’s relationship in Bang-bang You’re Dead too. After Donald’s death, Sybil realises that she hadn’t let a life of her own but under Donald’s guidance since “She felt like a desert which had not realised its own aridity till the rain began to fall upon it.” (Spark, 1985: 59). The rain here signifying life with all its pleasures which is now falling on Sybil who had suffered from this lack of the water of life during her marriage. She states that they were too different from each other, “she had less and less to say to him” (Spark, 1985: 59). Donald suppressed Sybil’s thoughts imposing his organisation of life and his rational thinking pattern on her. The following quotation shows that Sybil’s free-mindedness is not understood by Donald: “«In this place, one is never far from the jungle,» Sybil said «What are you talking about? We are eight hundred miles from the jungle.»” (Spark, 1985: 59). Through these differences they have moved away from each other.

In The Portobello Road, at least George has realised that there exists a similar gap between himself and his wife Matilda. He states that his marriage was awful and he could not even stand the woman (compare Spark, 1985: 10). Matilda, on the contrary, accepts George as her husband although “George treated her a s a servant.” (Spark, 1985: 7). On the whole, she does not comment on their partnership nor does the narrator describe it. George expresses that Matilda must have got used to his domineering attitude what the following citation proves: “And Matilda got tough [...]” (Spark, 1985: 10). The unbalanced relationship also becomes apparent with regard to Georg blackmailing his wife. The latter must not speak about their marriage otherwise she won’t get as much money as George had promised her: “«If she claimed as my wife she’d get far less.»” (Spark, 1985: 11). She submissively obeys to his proposals as she considers her own fortune which depends largely on finances. Matilda’s behaviour may not only be due to George’s superior status as a man (who certainly had a position above women during the colonial days in which the story is set) but also to his status as a White. This issue will be picked up at a later point, namely when it comes to unbalanced relationships between Whites and Blacks.

2.2 Unbalanced relationships within families

Since there can be discovered a wide range of family affairs in the present stories and some of them touch other aspects such as the relationship between different social classes which will be investigated later on, the analysis will be reduced to three examples concerning relationships between parents and their children. Additionally, the relation between a brother and his sister will be analysed.

In You Should Have Seen The Mess one can find a domineering influence of Lorna’s parents on the latter. It is evident that they project their attitude to order and hygiene on Lorna. This can be seen at the example of the mother replacing Lorna’s cracked tea cup although Lorna could have done it herself as she is already an adult person (compare Spark, 1985: 142). For Lorna’s parents owning and using a proper and unbroken tea cup equals having one’s life in one’s own hands and living in an ordered and organised world. One should note that it was not Lorna herself who was concerned about the cup but her mother. Lorna’s own decision is suppressed once again when it comes to her new job: “I told Mum and Dad about the facilities, and we decided I should not go back to that job.” (Spark, 1985: 142; italicising by me). Being apart from her parents, Lorna develops friendships to various people since “Mum and Dad were pleased that I had made nice friends.” (Spark, 1985: 143) and she learns about other lifestyles. But in the end when she decides not to meet Willie again, she slips back into her role as a person who is not able to act upon her own as she always relies on the model of cleanliness her parents conveyed to her. This forces her to stay in an inferior position right underneath her parents.

The Fathers’ Daughters is another story in which parents and their child are concerned. But this time the relation is subverted since it is Dora who dominates her father. She constantly incapacitates the elderly man ignoring his remarks on a more luxury hotel he wishes to stay at. As this is not possible because of the limited financial budget, Dora lies to him without letting him remark the situation they are in: “[...] and so we’ll go, I suggest, to a little place I’ve found on the Boulevard Gambetta, and if we don’t like that there’s a very good place on the Boulevard Victor Hugo. Within our means, Father, modest and... What’s that you say? I said it wasn’t a vulgar place, Father. Ah. No. [...] Spare no expense, Dora. Oh, of course not, Father.” (Spark, 1985: 201). Instead of protesting Dora’s father trusts his daughter: “Well, I leave it to you, Dora.” (Spark, 1985: 201). Hence, he accepts her authority and control over the situation, he just obeys to his daughter. She could well take advantage of the situation by letting her father who, as an elderly man, depends on her guidance alone in order to be an independent women who is not bound to care for her father.


[1] Spark, Muriel. 1985. The Collected Stories. London: The Bodley Head.

22 of 23 pages


Dominance and submission as a central theme in Muriel Spark's short stories
University of Frankfurt (Main)  (Institut für England- und Amerikastudien)
The Short Stories of Muriel Spark, 20th Postwar British Narrative Prose
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ISBN (eBook)
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Dominance, Muriel, Spark, Short, Stories, Muriel, Spark, Postwar, British, Narrative, Prose
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Martina Sobel (Author), 2001, Dominance and submission as a central theme in Muriel Spark's short stories, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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