Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Muriel Spark delights in exposing the foibles of human nature. In “The Black Madonna” she employs elements of her own Roman Catholic faith to reveal the hypocrisy of Lou Parker and her husband. Although Raymond and Lou view themselves as “progressive” and open-minded in accepting Oxford and Henry as their equals, Spark uncovers their prejudices. The Parkers lack true Christian charity at all levels. Lou, it appears, merely practices acts of benevolence and prayer for selfish ends, such as using her friendship with the Jamaicans to prove to others how accepting she is of those who are “different.” She uses the weekly pound that she sends to her poor sister to make herself feel charitable. Finally, she attempts to use her prayers to the Black Madonna to provide what she thinks she wants. In each case Spark unmasks the self-centered motive behind Lou’s outwardly unselfish behavior.

The rejection of the infant at the close of the story gives weight to Spark’s theme. The reader understands the embarrassment the Parkers must feel. Their friendship with the black men creates suspicion in everyone’s mind, including Raymond’s. Did Oxford or Henry father the child? Lou’s insistent denials of impropriety offer no remedy for her shock and embarrassment. Consequently, the couple’s shame is magnified when Lou’s sister Elizabeth confirms that their cousins also had dark skins—a fact suggesting there is black blood in Lou’s ancestry. The child symbolizes the Parkers’ humiliation; it is impossible for them to see it as God’s answer to their prayers. Their rejection of the baby amplifies the shallowness of their religious faith.

The linkages between “The Black Madonna” and Spark’s own Christian world view are evident. Lou’s priest tells her that as a Christian she must accept suffering, but Lou replies that she cannot be expected to “go against [her] nature.” Therefore she resists personal sacrifice and renounces the child instead. Unlike the Virgin Mary, Lou is unwilling to rear a child whose origins are suspect or whose life may bring suffering and humiliation as did Christ’s. In contrast to the Madonna, Lou is an unholy mother; unwilling to suffer, refusing to sacrifice, she rejects the gift for which she prayed.