‘The Girl I Left Behind Me’ by Muriel Spark: Short Story Analysis
‘The Girl I Left Behind Me’ is a short story by British writer Muriel Spark who passed away in 2006. She was a novelist, short story writer, poet, and essayist. She worked in the intelligence department in World War Two and pursued her writing career after that. ‘The Girl I Left Behind Me’ is one of her most famous short stories, which tells the paranormal tale of an unnamed twenty-two-year-old working young woman who forgets that she has been strangled to death. Even though the woman is strangled, in her troubled state or spirit, she thinks that all is well and boards a bus to go home. Yet, a nagging incomplete feeling within her makes her feel that she has forgotten something at her office. Only towards the end of the otherwise modernist paranormal short story do we realize that the narrator, the young woman in this tale, was deluding us; she had forgotten her dead body in the office.
Because of its unreliable narrator and ambiguities, even though this short story is a modernist one, it falls partially in the category of a rather basic form of post-modernist fiction. The story begins on a note of regularity setting the tone of a 9 to 5 working-class young girl’s life in the twentieth century. The narration is crisp and dotted with vague unnerving descriptions of the narrator’s eccentric boss. The boss, whose name is Mark Letter, is pale of complexion, has filthy brown teeth and sandy hair, and has a habit of whistling tunes during office hours. He usually sounds three musical score tunes while at the office. The themes are: ‘Teedle-um-tum-tum’, ‘Softly-Softly Turn the Key’, and ‘The Girl I Left Behind Me’, the title of this story.
- Although in probability an old Irish tune, ‘The Girl I Left Behind Me’ became a famous British marching song under the title Brighton Camp. In the years before the American Revolution, it was often played when a British naval vessel set sail or an army unit left for service abroad.
- Ruby Murray was one of the most popular singers in the United Kingdom and Ireland in the 1950s. In 1955 alone, she secured seven Top 10 UK hit singles. She sang the famous song ‘Softly-Softly Turn the Key’.
- ‘Teedle-um-tum-tum’ is just a general marching tune.
Her boss profoundly influences the narrator. She is so influenced by him and besotted with his undecipherable personality that she too hums the three main tunes that he whistles. Indeed, in one part of the story, she even mentions that at times she feels that she is carrying the boss or Mark Letter home with her.
The narrator does not like her boss. We are not told the exact reason other than the fact that he was eccentric, a bit of a loner, and loved his place of work. He was a moody personality who often shut himself in his box-like office for long hours at a stretch. It was during these times that, for some reason, he would stare at the tie dangling from his neck. It is evident to us that he did kill the narrator by strangling her with his tie. While leaving the office with the feeling she had forgotten something, she mentions that Mark had come towards her as she was having tea with his necktie in his hand. He chats with her, but the narrator immediately switches our attention from her boss’s dealings at that time. She does so by telling us more about his personal life.
That Mark Letter is the killer of the narrator is certain. She gives several hints during the story to show that everybody was ignoring her. It is evident that she was dead and roaming about as a ghost or a spirit. The people waiting at the bus stop do not notice her. Neither do the travelers on her bus. The bus conductor also does not take change from her, and her landlady does not see her when she arrives back home. For us who are used to this basic form of modernist literature of the twentieth century, we can easily deduce that the narrator is a ghost. However, when the story first appeared in 1957, it was lapped up with excitement as it was a novel way of telling a ghost story. It is narrated with the poise of a British middle-class look. The narrator is killed by her boss Mark Letter but because she is so caught up in her world, with her work, and with Mark Letter as a person, she forgets that she has been murdered. When she returns to the office, she, with relief, realizes that she had forgotten her dead body on the floor of the office. She embraces it like a passionate lover. The embrace indicates that she has been under tremendous stress because of her boss’s weird behavior and moodiness. She feels he is neurotic, and her married sister is unstable when the fact of the matter was that she was neurotic herself. By the mention of her married sister, who suffers from paranoia and obsessive-compulsive disorder, the narrator is throwing light on her personality and obsession.
The narrator embraces her corpse with the relief of someone who has at last found salvation and peace. This relief is often seen in people suffering from severe amnesia and other personality-related mental ailments. The narrator has become an ailing person because of her boss. She jokes about his frenzied behavior when he makes her work double the usual amount, but in reality, she was scared of him. There is a mention in the story of her calling him ‘Mark Letter Urgent’ when he was in one of his frenzied moods. The joke signifies that when he used to tell her to ‘mark a certain official letter as urgent’, it sounded like he was asking himself to be called ‘Mark Letter Urgent’.
Why did Mark Letter, a bachelor of forty-six, living alone, without a family, strangle the narrator is left to conjecture. It cannot possibly be that his eccentricities were reason enough to kill his good office worker. This part of the ghost story is vague and ambiguous. It calls us to reflect on the matter. But there is absolutely nothing indicative in the story, and no backup information is provided other than the fact of eccentricity and moodiness. The narrator has never left the office in body and spirit; only her apparition has. That is why the title of this short story ‘The Girl I Left Behind Me’ is very apt. She also did not pick up and put back her office keys before leaving. They were still were pegged in place to show she had not left the office, making her one with the song ‘Softly-Softly Turn the Key’. The narrator has only to turn the key to realize the climax of the story, and when she does, she finds her body lying on the floor of the office dead as the grave.
I enjoyed analyzing this short story by Muriel Spark, but I caught on to what was happening quite early in the story. There are several such modernist paranormal short stories that I have reviewed similar to ‘The Girl I Left Behind Me’. Do check them out for reference. These stories highlight the treachery of the unreliable narrator in modernist and post-modernist literature. But this style of storytelling has passed its novelty. We now need to read short stories that are differently penned and uniquely constructed.
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