Security, Hospitality, and perversion in Muriel Spark’s robinson

Emily Anna Maria RIDGE

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapters


The above reflection comes from January Marlow, the narrator of Muriel Spark’s 1958 novel, Robinson, in response to a presumed murder. The novel, “a kind of adventure story,” as Spark herself described it, concerns the experiences of three castaways (including January) who are stranded, following a plane crash, in the care of an eccentric hermit on his secluded island in the North Atlantic Ocean, both called Robinson.1 The castaways are given food and shelter by Robinson, and he is a generous if weary host who also manifests a fanatical concern for maintaining a tight regime on his island state. It is to the apparent fate of Robinson, as desert-island “benefactor,”2 that January refers in the above quotation. Robinson mysteriously disappears approximately two months after the unexpected arrival of these guests, and it is believed that he has been killed by one among them. In the absence of the host, their strictly regulated island life is plunged into disorder, prompting paranoia and mutual suspicion. If January sees the circumstance of Robinson’s death at the hands of one of his beneficiaries as the essence of his particular tragedy, we could also see it as the essence of the potential tragedy at all times embedded within hospitality itself, not least at an etymological level. Drawing on the philological investigations of Émile Benveniste, Derrida, in his copious writings on this subject, made much of the paradoxical intertwinement of ideas of reciprocity and mastery in the “troubled and troubling” origins of this term which, as he notes, “allows itself to be parasitized by its own opposite, ‘hostility,’ the undesirable guest.”3 As Tracy McNulty has observed, this uneasy semantic juxtaposition, while offering a model for egalitarian and mutual exchange, equally taps into an inherent “anxiety, rivalry, or hostility, in which the host’s power over the guest is conceived in a threatening manner, or in which the guest threatens to overtake the host’s place as master by usurping his home, personal property, or social position.”4 The most extreme version of the latter more pessimistic interpretation would see the death of the host as the endpoint in this act of usurpation. Spark’s Robinson purports to enact, then, this ultimate dark scenario of “hostipitality,” to use Derrida’s well-known amplification of a preestablished portmanteau. Copyright © 2016 Taylor & Francis.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationSecurity and hospitality in literature and culture: Modern and contemporary perspectives
EditorsJeffrey CLAPP, Emily RIDGE
Place of PublicationNew York; London
ISBN (Electronic)9781317425847
ISBN (Print)9781138915848, 9781315690018
Publication statusPublished - 2016


Ridge, E. (2016). Security, hospitality, and perversion in Muriel Spark’s robinson. In J. Clapp & E. Ridge (Eds.), Security and hospitality in literature and culture: Modern and contemporary perspectives (pp. 53-63). New York; London: Routledge.


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