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The Satire of Gerontophobic Ableism in Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori: A “Salutary Scar”

La satire du validisme gérontophobe dans le roman Memento Mori de Muriel Spark : une « cicatrice salutaire »
Gabrielle Fath


Ces dernières années, la pandémie du COVID‑19 a mis en lumière la réalité largement répandue du validisme et de la gérontophobie dans de nombreuses sociétés où les personnes âgées et handicapées furent confrontées à la violence institutionnelle. Par l’étude d’un roman écossais du xxe siècle, Memento Mori (1959) de Muriel Spark, cet article explore comment Spark dénonce la violence institutionnelle par la satire, appelée satire du « validisme gérontophobe » ici. Décrite par Spark comme une « cicatrice salutaire », la satire dénonce les inégalités des rapports de soin en milieu médical dans le roman. Cet article porte sur la marginalisation sociale progressive des personnages vieillissants, à mesure que leurs corps et esprits non normatifs sont jugés improductifs par la société capitaliste, et examine comment l’étude de leurs expériences marginalisées peut révéler des problèmes de société centraux.

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1In our post-COVID‑19 societies, the question of older people’s bodily autonomy and institutional violence has become increasingly pressing, as pointed out by Margaret O’Neill and Michaela Schrage-Früh in relation to the Irish context:

[…] in Ireland, at the start of the pandemic, the older population was directed to “cocoon”, separated from everyone else and perceived as society’s most fragile bodies. However, growing older does not justify a loss of bodily autonomy or the dignity of taking responsibility for one’s own choice to protect oneself and others. (2020, p. 445)

  • 1 The cultural imaginary of the “fourth age”, as examined by Gilleard and Higgs (2010) also reflects (...)
  • 2 For more detailed definitions of “ableism” and different perspectives in studying disability and ab (...)

2Given the widespread reality of institutionalisation for disabled and aged people in our capitalist societies, I would argue that the challenging of this attitude of “cocooning” is indeed extremely relevant. In an effort to contribute to this discussion, this article investigates the intersections between age and disability, but also gender and class in literary space. Considering Scottish writer Muriel Spark’s 1959 novel Memento Mori, I will explore the intersection between ableism and ageism, which has been little researched, despite notable studies by Yoshizaki-Gibbons (2016, 2023) and Gilleard and Higgs (2010).1 Broadly defined, ageism can be understood as discrimination against people on the basis of their age, as ageist prejudice associates ageing with decline and inferiority. It is tied to ableism, which concerns discrimination against disabled people, establishing ablebodiedness as a desired norm.2

3In Memento Mori, Muriel Spark denounces institutional violence through satire, engaging with the workings of ableism as well as ageism. Much of her fiction is infused with satire, whether in her mocking of the power relations amongst schoolgirls and teachers in the Marcia Blaine School for Girls in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961), or in her surreal Watergate satire in The Abbess of Crewe (1974). But if her political satire is often pointed out, her satire of ableism—which has political implications—has however been little studied.

4Nicholas Royle identifies Memento Mori as “an inaugural text in a genre one might call gerontophobic satire” (2002, p. 201), reminding us of the history of gerontophobia. The word first appears in the second half of the twentieth century, coinciding with the post‑war economic expansion, but had already been used in Freudian psychoanalysis, as pointed out by Kathleen Woodward in Ageing and Its Discontents (1991).

5In a time of capitalist economic expansion, Memento Mori exemplifies how the aged become increasingly socially marginalised, precisely as their non-normative bodies and minds are deemed unproductive to capitalist society in post‑war Britain. As such, Spark’s novel is less “gerontophobic satire” than satire of gerontophobia. It is inaugural of anti-gerontophobic and anti-ableist satire, a satire of what I will term “gerontophobic ableism”. In her speech “The Desegregation of Art”, Spark presented satire as the ultimate contemporary art form: she writes, “I advocate the arts of satire and of ridicule. And I see no other living art form for the future. Ridicule is the only honourable weapon we have left” (1992, p. 35). In post-modern times, satire can leave a “salutary scar”, as ridicule reveals the failings of society, and helps us uncover reality, to “penetrate to the marrow” (ibid., p. 36). For Spark, “the art of ridicule can leave a salutary scar. It is unnerving. It can paralyze its object” (ibid.).

6Like in her theorizing of satire, scars can be “salutary” in her fiction, quite literally, as her characters’ non‑conforming bodyminds offer resistance to hegemonic narratives. Developed by Margaret Price, the concept of “bodymind” is more than just a combination of “body” and “mind”, but the “imbrication […] of the entities usually called ‘body’ and ‘mind’” which she defines as “a materialist feminist disability studies concept” (p. 270). Indeed, in its unnerving potential, satire can be a particularly useful tool to expose injustices in society, including ableist, gerontophobic, as well as gender, or class biases.

7Spark powerfully explores the themes of disability and ableism in her novels, notably as she dramatizes resistance towards institutional violence, and criticises narratives of capitalist progress in the post-war era. This is precisely what Arianna Introna investigated in her analysis of Spark’s The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1963) focusing on the “refusals of care and work” in Autonomist Narratives of Disability in Modern Scottish Writing (2022).

8Inspired by this approach, I will argue in this paper that Spark denounces institutional violence in another novel, Memento Mori, with an added focus on how this denunciation operates through satire. As Spark portrays institutions of care for older people, ableism—intersecting with ageism—is acutely satirised in the novel, thus exposing the often hidden violence of ableism in society.

9Firstly, I will describe how Spark satirises ableist discourse, notably medical, through a series of narrative devices and characters. Memento Mori mocks medical discourse and the controlling logics of care in institutional settings. I will then focus on how the novel satirises ableism in all its forms, especially as it reveals class inequalities. Finally, I will discuss the effects of Spark’s satire of ableism, proposing that the novel exposes the violence of ableism on a societal scale.

Satirising ableist discourse in medical institutions

10In describing institutional settings in Memento Mori, Spark dissects the absurdity of ableist medical discourse from within. In many of her novels, she deals with closed environments (from nursing homes to convents and girls’ schools) with “elaborate systems of surveillance and control” (2002, p. 70) as Patricia Duncker notes about The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Indeed, Spark is concerned with “the mechanisms of power and rebellion inside closed systems” (ibid.). In Memento Mori, both the care home and the confined social circle of the older characters are propitious spaces to explore these mechanisms, to satirical effect.

11In the environment of the Maud Long Medical Ward, ableist discourse is manifested as medical staff dismiss the patients’ individualities. Reducing the residents to their identities as old women, they are all dubbed “Granny” in the ward:

These twelve old women were known variously as Granny Roberts, Granny Duncan, Granny Taylor, Grannies Barnacle, Trotsky, Green, Valvona and so on. Sometimes, on first being received into her bed, the patient would be shocked and feel rather let down by being called Granny. (p. 7)

12As reflected by the enumeration of names ending on “and so on”, their identities are rendered indistinguishable by medical discourse. The policing of individuality is an integral lever of institutional violence, as Foucault later described in Surveiller et punir (1975):

De là, la formation de toute une série de codes de l’individualité disciplinaire qui permettent de transcrire en les homogénéisant les traits individuels établis par l’examen : code physique du signalement, code médical des symptômes, code scolaire ou militaire des conduites et des performances. (Chapter II “Les moyens du bon dressement”)

13Spark’s fiction already dramatizes these logics in her 1959 novel, showing how institutional violence erases old women’s identities. The apparently trivial act of (re‑)naming, reflective of institutional violence, makes Jean Taylor desire her own death: “[…] she had suffered misery when being addressed as Granny Taylor, and she thought she would rather die in a ditch than be kept alive under such conditions” (p. 9). It might seem ridiculous that simply being called “granny” should trigger suicidal thoughts but, as is often the case in satire, a serious reality—that of gerontophobic ableism—is intimated here.

  • 3 See Cruikshank (2013).

14Gerontophobia also intersects with sexism as the homogeneisation of names under the label “Granny” not only signals the old women’s lack of identity in the institution, but highlights sexist logics. Even though many of them are unmarried and have no children, the women are reduced to a family role in their old age, as eldest in a line. Later in the novel, after another patient suffers mistreatment from the tyrannical nurse Sister Burstead, Jean Taylor thinks to herself: “If only, thought Miss Taylor, we could try to be sweet old ladies, she would be all right. It’s because we aren’t sweet old things…” (p. 41). As they do not embody the cultural ideal of ageing womanhood (“the cultural preference for “sweet old things”, write England and Ganzer, 1994, p. 349), they face discrimination within the care system. Here, Spark mocks the ageist stereotype of the “little old lady”,3 forcing attention to the underlying realities behind the trope.

15In many ways, the social and health system has failed the old women of Memento Mori. In ways that expose the inadequacy of medical discourse, at the start of chapter 2 the ward sister mistakenly calls the twelve “grannies” the “Baker’s dozen not knowing that this is thirteen, but having only heard the phrase” (p. 7). The phrase has biblical undertones, as they become disciples, among which Judas remains unidentified at first sight. The fear of betrayal preoccupies most of the “grannies”, as they keep crossing people out of their wills with strong comedic effect.

16Yet, the humour hides sombre facts. The ward sister who cares for the “grannies” in their old age is far from their saviour, as she turns into a Judas, betraying them from within the institution. In anxiety-filled scenarios, the “grannies” worry over such a betrayal: “Granny” Barnacle remarks “Do? It’s what she won’t do. You wait to the winter, you’ll be lyin’ there and nothin’ done for you. Specially if you got no relations or that to raise enquiries” (p. 37). If anxiety for the “grannies” verges on paranoia in Spark’s satirical prose, as it is referred to as “hysteria” (p. 42)—a charged, misogynistic psychiatric term, the anxiety around being left to die in indifference is justified. As they lack the “relations” who could defend them against the institution, medical mistreatment is both a likely possibility, and a lived reality.

No country for old women? Ableism in practice

17As such, it is not simply ableist medical discourse which is the object of Spark’s satire, but also ableism in practice. Ableism and gerontophobia have concrete consequences, as characters are spatially excluded in the Maud Long medical ward. The characters’ age-related health issues are the reason for their exclusion, but this is exacerbated by class inequalities.

  • 4 In a 1959 interview to mark the publication of the book, Spark said: “The prospect of death is what (...)

18If one cannot stop the course of time, nor resist death—a central theme in a novel aptly titled Memento Mori—this does not mean that physical ailments, nor even death, constitute the older characters’ worst fears. In Spark’s Catholic view, death is not a catastrophe to be simply lamented, and neither are the impairments caused by ageing in the narration, as they can be an opportunity for reflection.4 One must be wary of categorising the novel as a purely pessimistic post-modern tale, and overlooking its transformative dimension. Allan Hepburn writes that “narratives about old people present an anti-novelistic proposition; time being against them, dottering characters learn nothing from experience, then they die. They have no growth and no Bildung” (p. 1495).

  • 5 One must also note that breaking with the Bildungsroman tradition does not necessarily mean focusin (...)

19While this might hold some truth, as Spark’s more post-modern narrative indeed clearly breaks with optimistic narratives of the Bildungsroman genre, Hepburn’s contention fails to capture the spiritual and political nature of the Memento Mori.5 In fact, for some of the older women death is far from a scary reality, as expressed by Jean Taylor:

I would be glad to be let die in peace. But the doctors would be horrified to hear me say it. They are so proud of their new drugs and new methods of treatment—there is always something new. I sometimes fear, at the present rate of discovery, I shall never die. (p. 171)

20Even if she states right after that “of course the principle of keeping people alive is always a good one” (p. 171), Jean Taylor’s words point out the inadequacy of medical care and discourse. If doctors find ways to keep the older population physically alive, they do not consider the diverse dimensions of human life. As Jean Taylor lives in an institution, deprived of much freedom, it is no wonder that she might be unenthusiastic about the prospect of a purely physical life, deprived of its social, artistic, or spiritual aspects. If doctors want to prolong the “principle” of life forever, further disconnecting individuals from their concrete, timely existences, they too, remain helpless in the face of time.

21It is not disability, nearness to death or even physical impairment that one must fear, but the subsequent marginalization that comes with it. This is aptly phrased by Spark in Memento Mori when Jean Taylor has to bear the multiple pains of institutional life: “The lacerating familiarity of the nurses’ treatment merged in with her arthritis, and she bore them both as long as she could without complaint” (p. 9). As conveyed by the hypallage here, it is not simply the arthritis pains that are “lacerating” but the harshness of imbalanced care relations.

22The novel points out the failure of the care system to address people’s needs, in an era marked by the development of the capitalist welfare state. Introna writes that narratives such as Spark’s The Ballad of Peckham Rye, “challenge the statist myths that were bound up with the development of welfare capitalism. In so doing, they point to the persistence of non-normative bodyminds as the other of capitalist and national progress” (p. 120). In Memento Mori, welfare capitalism’s “statist myths” are very much unsettled by the protagonists’ non‑normative ageing bodyminds.

23Among these myths of “capitalist and national progress” (Introna, 2022, p. 120), the myth of medical and technological progress is strongly undermined by Spark. The anonymous calls that remind the ageing characters that they “must die” materialise the inadequacy of telecommunications to effectively connect human beings with each other. From a capitalist myth to a spiritual one, the voice of technology takes on spiritually mythical proportions, paradoxically forcing the protagonists to consider their physicality, expressed by their mortal condition. This takes on a dark turn when Lettie Colston dies, as no one worries about not hearing from her. Exemplifying how in person-contact is thoroughly replaced by the telephone, Godfrey notes that “now that her telephone was disconnected he seldom heard from her” (p. 180).

24Another “statist myth” debunked by Memento Mori is that of equal access to healthcare. As Kelly M. Rich points out in the recently published The Promise of Welfare in the Postwar British and Anglophone Novel, “Spark focuses on the problems of communal living, what I am identifying as a hallmark of the midcentury transition from warfare to welfare” (2023, p. 77). Class inequities are exposed in the novel, as the well‑to‑do social circles are set in opposition with the destitute women in the ward. The public ward where Jean Taylor is confined stands in stark contrast to the comfortable private home in Surrey to which former novelist Charmian Colston takes up residence. When her husband Godfrey visits Charmian’s nicely furnished room in chapter 14, he calls her residence a “cheerful place” (p. 203). This stands in stark contrast to Dame Lettie Colston’s reaction to Jean Taylor’s sparse living quarters, which she finds “too disturbing” (p. 171) and lacking in privacy. England and Ganzer in their analysis of “The micropolitics of elder care in Memento Mori […]” similarly suggest that Spark criticises “a partially realized welfare state in which traditional class inequities are reproduced and in which bureaucratic values define human relations” (1994, p. 359).

25This class inequality is reflected in relations of care, as there is great discrepancy between the narrative surrounding care and the lived experience of it. In Memento Mori, Jean Taylor’s care is evoked in very mercantile terms, as she went into the care of the National Health Service because Godfrey and Dame Lettie refused to pay for a private nursing home in Surrey. Spark’s prose reflects this exclusion and dehumanization, as Jean Taylor is likened to an object to be disposed of: “[Taylor] had left them with the daily argument still in progress concerning her disposal” (p. 69). Falsely claiming that the public hospital is hers, Dame Lettie forces Jean Taylor to accept being institutionalised somewhere less expensive, where she will be separated from everyone she knows: “Would you not really, my dear, prefer to be independent? After all, you are the public. The hospitals are yours. You are entitled…” (p. 68). Under the illusion of choice, Jean Taylor’s presence in the ward is marked by necessity, not by independence or preference, and this exemplifies the extent to which older women in Memento Mori are excluded from political decision, national belonging and community by the very “National” Health Service.

  • 6 See Hockey & James (1995).

26This discrepancy between care and its lived reality is also pointed out by Introna in Autonomist Narratives of Disability in Modern Scottish Writing when she explores the notion of “non‑identity” between “the concepts of work and care and how those are experienced” (2022, p. 120), based on Adorno’s concept in Negative dialectics (1990). In Memento Mori, there is a general power imbalance in modes of care, as reflected in how Muriel Spark’s anti‑ableist satire exposes the discrepancy between caregiver and receiver of care. In the ward the old women are simultaneously disregarded for being old and infantilized by nursing staff, as captured by the remark “Turn over, Granny, that’s a good girl” (p. 9). Taking advantage of the characters’ need for care, the nurses’ language reflects their dominance on their patients, although they are younger than those they care for. This reflects the cultural stereotype of old age as a “second childhood”, as Hockey and James examine in their research.6 Indeed, old age is also envisioned as a cultural imaginary, not just a linear or temporal reality, as older people fall victim to infantilising practices, notably in institutional settings.

27The reality of ableism is pervasive, as shown by how ageist and classist prejudice operates amongst older women themselves. Paradoxically, the old female patients have ageist prejudices against the nurses “over fifty”, deemed to have “the workhouse mind. You can’t never trust a ward sister over fifty” (p. 36), as Mrs Barnacle claims. However, their ageism is based on legitimate fears for this “workhouse” mentality, evoking the cultural memory of the cruel treatment of the aged poor in Victorian Britain. The post‑war welfare state has not succeeded in fully eliminating that mentality, as shown by institutional injustice against the poor.

28Hierarchies within the hospital also impact medical staff. Jean Taylor notices Sister Burstead’s influence on the younger nurses, and how “the young nurses were less jolly since Sister Burstead had taken over the ward” (p. 36). As low paid workers within the healthcare system, the young nurses are under the dominance of Sister Burstead and the doctors in the ward. In some ways they belong to the same social class as their patients. Reflecting her working-class background, one nurse does not understand why Jean Taylor calls Lettie Colston a “Dame”: “‘Some dame!’ said the littlest nurse, who could not make out why Granny Taylor had so seriously called her visitor ‘Dame Lettie’. She had heard of dames as jokes, and at the pictures” (p. 11).

  • 7 Initially based on Hamilton’s play Angel Street (1939), and later from the movie Gaslight starring (...)

29However, even in upper-middle class circles, old women are victims of this discrepancy in care, as shown by the imbalanced relations between Charmian and her new maid Mrs Pettigrew. She assumes the role of “the archetypical predatory paid companion”, as pointed out by England and Ganzer (1994, p. 358). On top of blackmailing her husband in order to inherit from him, Mrs Pettigrew constantly disbelieves Charmian and doubts her sanity, essentially “gaslighting” her.7 Even if it is likely that she forgot to take her pills in chapter 6, Mrs Pettigrew aggressively disbelieves her, sparking an argument.

30Countering narratives of frailty and dependence, Charmian feels “strong and fearless” (p. 125) when she manages to make tea for herself in chapter 10. Even if it takes her a long time, she is able to do it just the same, despite the absence of her caregiver: “all was usual, save that she was blissfully alone, and the tea was not altogether hot”, we read (p. 126). But when her husband Godfrey comes home, Mrs Pettigrew claims that she was the one who made it. Taking advantage of Charmian’s perceived senility, Mrs Pettigrew invalidates her perceptions and judgements, to the point that she lies to portray Charmian as insane—showing how sanism also plays into gerontophobia.

The effects of satire: revealing ableist logics on a societal scale

  • 8 Nicholas Royle points out how Memento Mori is a “bloodless” novel, despite the insistence on corpse (...)

31Through fiction, Spark’s satire of gerontophobic ableism acts as a way to reveal underlying social issues and penetrate the “marrow” (1992, p. 36). Even if Memento Mori lacks graphic description of physical violence,8 Spark’s satire illuminates the ableist violence that operates in the very intricacies of institutional power relations. Despite having initially claimed the public ward to be a place of independence, Dame Lettie Colston stops visiting Jean Taylor there, as she is too upset by the sight of the so‑called “geriatric” patients, in worse shape than the rest of the patients. Even if an old woman herself, she refers to them as “decrepit women” whose sight is too “distressing” (p. 171) to her.

32Institutionally, the nurses bury their ableist principles in the same patronizing language:

“You must try to remember,” she said, “that these cases are very advanced, poor dears. And don’t get upset, like good girls. Try and help the nurses by keeping quiet and tidy.”

“We’ll soon be senile ourselves at this rate,” said Granny Green.

“Sh-sh,” said the sister. “We don’t use that word. They are geriatric cases.”

When she had gone Granny Duncan said, “To think that I spent my middle years looking forward to my old age and a rest!”

Another geriatric case was trying to climb over the cot. A nurse bustled to the rescue.

“A mercy,” said Granny Duncan, “poor Granny Barnacle didn’t live to see it. Poor souls — Don’t you be rough with her, Nurse!” (p. 40)

  • 9 England and Ganzer write: “Nurse Burstead, like Nurse Ratchet in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, i (...)

33In this dialogue, Spark captures the intricacies of power relations within the nursing home, according to many factors (gender, age, class, perceived mental and physical ability…) and exemplifies the imbalanced power dynamics in an institutional setting. Beyond polished discourse, institutional violence glaringly reveals itself when the nurse Ratchet-figure, Sister Burstead9 finally voices her hatred of the residents:

She gripped the bedrail and yelled at Granny Duncan for a long time, it might have been ten minutes. Words, in isolation and grouped in phrases, detached themselves like sparks from the fiery scream proceeding from Sister Burstead’s mouth. “Old beast… dirty old beast… food… grumble and grouse… I’ve been on since eight o’clock this morning… I’ve been on and on… work, work, work, day after day, for a lot of useless, filthy, old…” (p. 41)

  • 10 Gilleard and Higgs write: “We argue that the fourth age emerges from the institutionalization of th (...)

34Acutely expressing the hypocrisy of narratives of care in institutional settings, the nurses’ politically correct terms “geriatric cases” (p. 40) cannot hide the violence of Sister Burstead’s insults: “dirty old beast” (p. 41). The divide between the “geriatric” patients and the other women is reflective of the cultural imaginary of the “fourth age”, which associates old age with physical impairment as well as lack of agency, as pointed out by Gilleard and Higgs in “Aging without Agency: Theorizing the Fourth Age” (2010).10 Once they are associated with this “fourth age”, ageing people face a process of radical “othering”, as Julia Twigg notes: “‘These old remain eternally Other. And that sense of them as a wholly separate and fundamentally different category of being lies at the heart of how ageism operates’” (2004, p. 64). In Memento Mori, Sister’s Burstead’s dehumanizing language when she calls one of her patients an “old beast” epitomises this process of “othering”.

35Numerous times in the novel the characters’ fears and mistrust of ableist discourse are justified. When Charmian worries about her nurse Mrs Pettigrew poisoning her, she does not feel safe telling her doctor, as he would medically gaslight her: she ponders, “the doctor would attempt to soothe her down, assuming she had started to entertain the wild suspicions of the aged” (pp. 158–9). Her worries are explained by Mrs Pettigrew’s abusive behaviour towards her, and the lack of understanding from a medical system that undermines women’s voices. Charmian’s wealthy status does not prevent her from being despised by her own husband Godfrey, and we witness “everyone making a fuss of Charmian, as if she were still somebody, and not a helpless old invalid” (p. 153). In old age, neither her past reputation as a writer, nor her wealth, can fully protect her from ableist violence. As such, old women’s “wild suspicions of the aged” (p. 158) are more justified than they seem, as their concerns and voices are validated in Spark’s satire of gerontophobic ableism.

36As it manifests the dormant ableist violence in society, the murder of Dame Lettie Colston at the end of chapter 13 further dramatises ableist logics and speaks to the isolation of older people in society: it takes four days for people to realise that Dame Lettie Colston is dead, as only the milkman gives the alert when he sees bottles accumulate at her door. She is also tellingly beaten to death with her own walking stick, in a “striking” image: her mobility aid, supposed to help her find her place in the world, ends up taking her out of it. As the source of help turns into a source of death, the image powerfully expresses the toxicity of imbalanced care power relations.

37One could think of reading her murder as a divine punishment, in a religious vision: it is her anxiety around death that ends up causing her to die (it is because her paranoia becomes known that the murderer ends up breaking into her home), and she was a quite cruel character. However, her cruelty does not legitimise her murder, as she is ultimately a victim of ableist and gerontophobic violence. In the pages preceding her murder, her concerns are dismissed by the sanist assumptions of her caregiver, with the words “my girl says the woman will be carted off looney in the end” (p. 175). If “Death” is the culprit in the novel (p. 151), as suggested by the police inspector’s wife Ellen Mortimer, so is gerontophobic ableism—tragically unidentified by the powers that be.


38Spark’s satire in Memento Mori powerfully resists ableist narratives of care informed by gerontophobia. In mocking medical discourse, dramatising imbalanced relationships of care, and portraying mechanisms of control in institutionalised settings, Spark satirises the workings of ableism in both discourse and practice. In proportion as it entrenches class and gender inequalities, gerontophobic ableism also reveals wider social issues. As such, Spark’s satire in Memento Mori allows the reader to question ableist biases, as the characters’ non‑normative bodyminds offer resistance to narratives of economic progress in post‑war Britain. Studying ableism, as defined by Kumari Campbell in Contours of Ableism (2009), goes beyond studying strictly the disabled experience and “offers more than a contribution to re‑thinking disability”; it crucially provides “a platform for reconsidering the way we think about all bodies and mentalities within the parameters of nature/culture” (p. 198).

39In this spirit, and in that of the “salutary scar” mentioned by Spark in her description of satire, Memento Mori foregrounds ways in which the study of disabled and ageing people’s marginalised experiences can prove essential to reveal central, societal issues.

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Primary source

Spark Muriel, 2017, Memento Mori [1959], Edinburgh, Polygon.

Other works by Muriel Spark

Spark Muriel, 1992, “The Desegregation of Art”, in J. Hynes (ed.), Critical Essays on Muriel Spark, New York, Hall, pp. 33–7.

Spark Muriel, 2000, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie [1961], London, Penguin Classics.

Spark Muriel, 1974, The Abbess of Crewe, London, Macmillan.

Spark Muriel, 1963, The Ballad of Peckham Rye, London, Penguin Books.

Secondary sources

Adorno Theodor, 1990, Negative Dialectics, London, Routledge.

Campbell Kumari, 2009, Contours of Ableism, London, Macmillan.

Cruikshank Margaret, 2013, Learning to Be Old: Gender, Culture and Ageing, New York, Rowman & Littlefield.

Dorpat Theodore L., 1996, Gaslighting, the Double Whammy, Interrogation, and Other Methods of Covert Control in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis, North Bergen, NJ, Janson Arenson Inc.

Duncker Patricia, 2002, “The Suggestive Spectacle: Queer Passions in Brontë’s Villette and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie”, in M. McQuillan (ed.), Theorising Muriel Spark: Gender, Race, Deconstruction, New York, Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 67–77.

England Suzanne E. & Ganzer Carol, 1994, “The Micropolitics of Elder Care in Memento Mori, Diary of a Good Neighbour, and a Taste for Death”, International Journal of Health Services, vol. 24, no. 2, pp. 355–69.

Foucault Michel, 1975, Surveiller et punir, Paris, Gallimard.

Gilleard Chris & Higgs Paul, 2010, Aging without Agency: Theorizing the Fourth Age”, Aging and Mental Health, vol. 14, no. 2, pp. 121–8.

Hockey Jenny & James Allison, 1995, “Back to Our Futures: Imagining Second Childhood”, in M. Featherstone and A. Wernick (eds), Images of Aging: Cultural Representations of Later Life, London, Routledge.

Introna Arianna, 2022, Autonomist Narratives of Disability in Modern Scottish Writing, London, Palgrave Macmillan.

Price Margaret, 2015, “The Bodymind Problem and the Possibilities of Pain”, Hypatia, vol. 30, no. 1, pp. 268–84.

Rich Kelly M., 2023, The Promise of Welfare in the Postwar British and Anglophone Novel, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Royle Nicholas, 2002, “Memento Mori”, in M. McQuillan (ed.), Theorising Muriel Spark: Gender, Race, Deconstruction, London, Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 189–204.

Rust Martha D. & England Suzanne E., 2015, “Sweet Old Things: Moral Complexities in Old Age in Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori”, Journal of Aging Studies, vol. 33, pp. 76–85.

Schrage-Früh Michaela, 2017, “‘Embarking, Not Dying’: Clare Boylan’s Beloved Stranger as Reifungsroman”, in C. McGlynn, M. O’Neill and M. Schrage-Früh (eds), Ageing Women in Literature and Visual Culture: Reflections, Refractions, Reimagininings, London, Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 55–71.

Schrage-Früh Michaela, 2018, “Reimagining the Fourth Age: The Ageing Mother in the Poetry of Mary Dorcey and Paul Durcan”, Nordic Irish Studies, vol. 17, no. 1, pp. 77–94.

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1 The cultural imaginary of the “fourth age”, as examined by Gilleard and Higgs (2010) also reflects on the body, disability and age.

2 For more detailed definitions of “ableism” and different perspectives in studying disability and ableism, see “The Project of Ableism” in Campbell (2009).

3 See Cruikshank (2013).

4 In a 1959 interview to mark the publication of the book, Spark said: “The prospect of death is what gives life the whole of its piquancy. Life would be so much more pointless if there were no feeling that it must end.” See Zoë Strachan’s introduction to the 2017 Polygon edition of Memento Mori, p. ix.

5 One must also note that breaking with the Bildungsroman tradition does not necessarily mean focusing on a lack of evolution. Indeed, novels that depict old people can express a sense of “ripening”, as the concept of the Reifungsroman has shown. In From the Hearth to the Open Road: A Feminist Study of Aging in Contemporary Literature (1990), Barbara Waxman introduced the term Reifungsroman or novel of ripening’ for novels that feature an often female protagonist’s “quest of self-knowledge, self-development, and a role for the future” (p. 16). The concept is also developed further by Michaela Schrage-Früh in her analysis of Irish writer Clare Boylan’s novel Beloved Stranger as Reifungsroman in Schrage-Früh (2017).

6 See Hockey & James (1995).

7 Initially based on Hamilton’s play Angel Street (1939), and later from the movie Gaslight starring Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman, the concept of “gaslighting” originates from a scene where the victim’s husband manipulated the gaslight in a way that made his wife’s complaint about it seem as if she were going insane, in order to have her committed to a mental asylum. As T. L. Dorpat writes in Gaslighting: The Double Whammy (1996): “Gaslighting is a type of projective identification in which an individual (or group of individuals) attempt to influence the mental functioning of a second individual by causing the latter to doubt the validity of his or her judgments, perceptions, and/or reality testing in order that the victim will more readily submit his will and person to the victimizer.” (p. 6)

8 Nicholas Royle points out how Memento Mori is a “bloodless” novel, despite the insistence on corpses and death (2002, pp. 194–5).

9 England and Ganzer write: “Nurse Burstead, like Nurse Ratchet in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, is an archetype of the officious and cruel charge nurse.” (1994, p. 359)

10 Gilleard and Higgs write: “We argue that the fourth age emerges from the institutionalization of the infirmities of old age set against the appearance of a third‑age culture that negates past representations of old age. We outline the historical marginalization of old age from early modern society to the contemporary concentration of infirmity within long-term care which makes of old age an undesirable ‘social imaginary’”. (2010, p. 121)

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Gabrielle Fath, « The Satire of Gerontophobic Ableism in Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori: A “Salutary Scar” »Études écossaises [En ligne], 23 | 2024, mis en ligne le 01 avril 2024, consulté le 25 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Gabrielle Fath

Graduate student, ENS de Lyon
A graduate student at École Normale Supérieure de Lyon, Gabrielle Fath researches the representation of women’s ageing in literature. During her master’s, supervised by Philippe Laplace, a Senior lecturer at the University of Franche-Comté, she has studied the representation of older women in six 20th‑century Scottish novels. She has shared her research on the topic at the panel organised by the French Society for Scottish studies (SFEEc) at the congress of the SAES in Rennes, and at the International Congress of Celtic Studies in Utrecht, in 2023.
Élève à l’École normale supérieure de Lyon, Gabrielle Fath étudie la représentation du vieillissement féminin en littérature. Pendant son master sous la direction de Philippe Laplace, maître de conférences à l’Université de Franche-Comté, elle a étudié la représentation des femmes vieillissantes dans six romans écossais du vingtième siècle. Elle a partagé ses recherches sur le sujet à l’atelier de la Société française d’études écossaises (SFEEc) au congrès de la SAES à Rennes et au congrès international d’études celtiques à Utrecht, en 2023.

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