“We do not need a little government to interfere with our millions of anonymous hearts”: Unempathetic surveillance in Muriel Spark’s The girls of slender means

Emily Anna Maria RIDGE

Research output: Contribution to conferencePapers

Abstract

“We do not need a little government to interfere with our millions of anonymous hearts”: Unempathetic surveillance in Muriel Spark’s The girls of slender means In studying the relationship between surveillance, literature and liberal personhood, David Rosen and Aaron Santesso identify two kinds of surveillance: coercive and empathetic. While coercive surveillance purports to influence and control the behaviour of subjects under scrutiny, empathetic surveillance aims to better understand those subjects to provide appropriate care. They hone in on empathetic surveillance as a practice which replicates novelistic techniques in that the ‘novel’s pursuit of interiority … often brought it into near alliances with the developing technology of surveillance…’ Set in a subsidised women’s hostel at the end of World War II, Muriel Spark’s The Girls of Slender Means (1963) reads as a parable for the emergence of a form of empathetic state surveillance in mid-century Britain in line with the development of a welfare system which sought to oversee the well-being of its subjects ‘from the cradle to the grave’. Yet, on a narrative level, the novella forestalls the ‘pursuit of interiority’ facilitated by an empathetic method of authorial engagement. Spark was accused, at the time, of ‘uncharitableness’ and a lack of ‘care’ in her approach to her characters. This paper will argue that Spark deliberately adopts a posture of unempathetic surveillance in the novella in order to expose the implicitly coercive aspect of a political model of empathy. In so doing, she both writes against and co-opts a modernist mode of estrangement, casting a cold eye on the collectivist ideal enacted by her characters. Copyright © 2017 British Association for Modernist Studies Conference.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2017

Citation

Ridge, E. (2017, June). “We do not need a little government to interfere with our millions of anonymous hearts”: Unempathetic surveillance in Muriel Spark’s The girls of slender means. Paper presented at the British Association for Modernist Studies Conference, University of Birmingham, Birmingham, UK.

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