Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Spark’s interest in the Watergate affair was probably a result of her recognition in its details many of the themes recurrent in her own oeuvre: appearance versus reality (distortion versus the truth), loyalty versus betrayal, the need for communication between people but its difficulty, the increasing presence of technology in daily life, fate or predestination, the criminal or sinful depths of human nature, and the conflict between materialism and spirituality. Many of these themes are collected in one of the novel’s main symbols, the Infant of Prague statue in the Abbess’ private office.

Throughout the novel, Spark emphatically describes the Abbess touching the statue, indicating not only its importance to the Abbess but also its important symbolism. More usually known as the Infant Jesus of Prague or the Holy Child of Prague, the statue has several features echoing or reflecting ironically on facets of the Abbess. The statue has been housed permanently in its Baroque Prague church since the early seventeenth century, one of the Abbess’ favorite literary periods. The name of the Prague church is Our Lady of Victory, corresponding to the Abbess’ drive to achieve triumph, no matter what the cost. With its left hand around a globe topped by a cross (the conventional symbol since the Middle Ages of kingship combined with religion) and right hand extended as though in a papal blessing, the statue is usually understood to represent the blend of Christ’s kingship and childhood. Correlatively, the Abbess has sought for dominion, but she has pursued secular power, enjoying rule of the convent and connivance, rather than ascendancy in the spiritual realm or the humbling of her own spirit genuinely to experience total obedience to...

(The entire section is 716 words.)