Despite the novel’s pervasive symbolism of black and white, through emphatic descriptions of the nuns’ and Abbess’ attire, Spark’s portrait of the adversaries, Alexandra and Felicity, is neither all one nor all the other, an absolutism perhaps anticipated of a Watergate satire (villains against the heroes). Alexandra is on occasion treated sympathetically and Felicity, caustically. Mixed with ironically implied censure for the Abbess’ misuse of her talents or natural endowments is Spark’s admiration for them and scorn for their lack in Felicity.
Furthermore, Spark’s satiric characterization at times has the added complexity of reproving her historical targets by antithetical rather than parallel traits in the fictional equivalents.
The Abbess, for example, is fond of quoting from memory passages from masterpieces of British poetry. She is advised by Sister Gertrude to delete these passages from the audiotapes of her surreptitiously recorded conversations because the Congregational Committee at Rome will be outraged by these quotations more than by her actual misdeeds.
In actuality, tapes released by President Nixon had, in the notorious phrase of the time, “expletives deleted” because of vulgarity in inner-circle White House conversations. In this instance, the Abbess’ learning and tastefulness are admirable. Yet Alexandra’s private recollection and substitution of these poetic passages (many drawn, allusively, from seventeenth century lyric poetry) for parts of the service in which she is participating show a tendency toward secularism and also hypocrisy, since the Abbess publicly advocates a rigid, reactionary ,conservatism in returning to the original Latin language in all ritual. Also satirized here, through the Congregational Committee, are the American Congress and public for Victorian prudery (more concern for...
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