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The Black Madonna by Muriel Spark Brief summary

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The Black Madonna by Muriel Spark
Brief summary
Lou and Raymond Parker are a Catholic working-class couple with middle-class aspirations

(D.: Bestrebungen) . They flaunt /display (D.: zur Schau stellen) their progressiveness and tolerance by befriending two newly arrived Jamaicans, Henry Pierce and Oxford St.John and they also introduce them to their friends. As Lou is jealous of her neighbours` and her sister`s children, Lou prays to the newly installed and consecrated Black Madonna – a statue with apparent miraculous power of granting the wishes to those who pray to her – for a child. To her and her husband`s horror, Lou gives birth to a black baby. Although tests prove that Oxford St. John is not the father of the baby, Lou imagines the neighbours`gossip when she brings the child home.Elizabeth, Lou`s sister , informs her that a distant relative descended from a black person, but this does not improve the situation. Neither Lou nor Raymond can feel any affection for their daughter, and give her up for adoption.

Structure of the plot
Exposition p.142-143 The story begins with a classical exposition. In the first part the reader is introduced to the congregation (D.: Kirchengemeinde) of the Church of the Sacred Heart. There is disagreement whether the new statue is contemporary art or old-fashioned. The Black Madonna is compared to the Madonna at Lourdes and is found as not as nice.People claim to know what they are talking about, but in actual fact they are ignorant (D: unwissend).

Spark wants to prepare her readers that not everything is to be taken at its face value. Quite the contrary , the reader must be prepared to read between the lines. In the second part of the exposition (p.143-146/19) Spark gives a detailed account of the Parkers`way of life. The fact that the author states one thing,but implies the exact opposite (p.146/ll.4-6) is also called irony.

The reader is constantly busy reading the text and goes hunting for signs which point to what might happen next. In this way tension is sustained throughout the rising action.

The climax is reached with the news that the baby is black. (p.159) Although this is not a surprise for the reader. The falling action is full of questions such as: “Who was it?” and “How can it be?” . Lou`s language becomes more and more vulgar and reveals her working - class background. The reader can anticipate (D: ahnen) the ending.
Point of view

The story is told by a third-person narrator who focuses on Lou but he always remains detached (D: losgelöst) and never comments directly.


The most striking symbol is the Black Madonna herself. The Jamaicans who arrived on the SS Empire Windrush were by no means the first black people to come to England. The first were brought in the 3rd century AD by the Romans,and belonged to an African division of the Roman army. From the 16 th century onwards slaves who had escaped or been freed, servants and other Blacks began to settle in Britain . The Black Madonna is carved from bog oak which had lain concealed in a bog for hundreds of years, and in this way can be seen as a metaphor for the latent blackness in the population (and in Lou`s DNA). As a religious symbol, the Madonna stands for justice and is a warning that one should not tempt fate.

The Black Madonna by Muriel Spark

The story is set in the New Town of Whitney Clay,which is somewhere inland near Liverpool. Its paper mills,canning factories and motor works attract workers from Liverpool and also new immigrants, such as the two Jamaicans Raymond meets at work. The Parkers live in a high block of flats – council flats in Manders Road, a pleasant area. The fact that the Parkers live in subsidized housing is a first hint that they may not be entirely honest.

Lou`s sister Elizabeth lives in a very downward quarter in London (p.148 and p.150). Her flat is the image of Lou`s own past (“She was reminded with startling clarity of her hopeless childhood p.150 ll.4-5). The contrast of settings reveals the extent to which Lou has moved up the social ladder and the different positions in society which are occupied by Lou and her sister and it finally explains the difference between Lou and her husband, because he is from a middle-class family and is used to words such as “ lounge” instead of “living-room.” (p.150/11)

Lou Parker

She was born into a very poor family in Liverpool and spent all her childhood in miserable conditions, from which she was eventually rescued by the “nuns” (perhaps from a convent school she attended) who enabled her to train as a nurse. Lou is determined to forget,or repress (D.:unterdrücken) her past and this explains her very ordered lifestyle and her desire to be regarded as middle-class. She has more or less created a new identity for herself.

When she gets introduced to the two Jamaicans ,Lou is delighted to have a chance to prove that she is progressive and unprejudiced. Lou abuses her Catholic faith because she asks to have someone taken away and secondly she uses it to get something she wants. However,when she gets it, she does not like it.

When her baby turns out to be black, Lou becomes hysterical,as she fears everyone will think that she was intimate with a black man. This would put an end to her middle-class aspirations.

Raymond receives a letter from Elizabeth in which she tells them that they had a black ancestor . All the time Lou has tried to repress her past, and now it comes back to her in the form of her little baby. Despite all Lou`s attempts to prove that she is not biased, she reveals herself to be racist and gives her child up for adoption.

Raymond Parker

He is a devout (D.: ergeben) Catholic, a kind and sympathetic (D.: mitfühlend) person. It is his idea to invite the two Jamaicans to their flat. His friendship seems more sincere and less showy. He tries to dissuade Lou from asking the Black Madonna for a child, but in the long run he is unable to stand up to her. Raymond has racist tendencies as well, because the blackness of the child will make him to the laughing stock of the town, as everyone will think his wife has been having an affair with a Jamaican.

The Jamaicans

Their function is to expose (D.: offen legen) the Parkers`snobbishness and hypocrisy.

Henry Pierce was brought up as a Catholic, but has abandoned religion because he thinks it is only superstition. Oxford St. John exposes Lou`s hypocrisy by behaving in a less refined way than Henry. When he really behaves like a friend, to the extent of putting his feet up in her living-room, Lou`s modern outlook breaks down.
The Black Madonna by Muriel Spark
Tina Farrell

She provides a contrast to Lou and also exposes Lou`s hypocrisy. When Tina refers to the Jamaicans by the derogatory (D.: abwertend) term “darkies”, she is immediately corrected by

Lou. In general, Tina is more open-minded than Lou and when she says that she would keep the child if it were hers, the reader feels that she really would be kind, tolerant and warm-hearted to do this.

She sees through her sister`s facade. But above all ,through her the reader learns what kind of background Lou comes from and what might have happened to her if she had not moved up the social ladder. The contrast between Elizabeth`s poverty and the Parkers`relative affluence exposes Lou and Raymond`s meanness. They only give enough to be able to boast of what good Christians they are and how they support Lou`s sister. Elizabeth is grateful for their help, but she realizes how little it means to them.


Snobbishness,hypocrisy,heartlessness (see characters)

Class-consciousness (see Lou)

Liberal and religious facade

Both Lou and her husband are active members of the church, but they are not at all Christian in their outlook.

Racism (see Lou and Raymond)
Links to other stories

Attitudes towards blackness

The way Carlier and Kayerts in “An Outpost of Progress” patronize the natives is similar to the way Lou treats Oxford nad Henry, and when Raymond “thought of the tiny black hands of the baby with their pink fingernails he did not regret smashing the cot” he expresses feelings similar to Doris`s in “The Force of Circumstance”when she says to her husband “I think of those thin black arms of hers round you and it fills me with a physical nausea”

The author
Muriel Spark was born in Edinburgh in 1918 to a Jewish father and Protestant mother. At the age of nine she began to write poetry. In 1937 she sailed to Africa and married Sydney Spark,who was working as a school teacher in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Her marriage was a disaster. She left him in 1944.

On her return to England she found a post with M16 (the British secret service) .After the war she became the editor of the “Poetry Review” and continued writing. In 1954, she converted to Catholicism. In the early 1960s,she moved to New York, where she was offered a job with the prestigious mgazine the “New Yorker” After that she moved to Rome and later Tuscany where she lived and worked until her death in 2006. She is praised for her unique blend of realism,satire and allegory.

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