Oxford Gothic

Symbolic titles are often a bother, but lately there have been some very helpful ones. One knows what one’s in for, certainly, when a book is called Ship of Fools, and in case The Centaur should raise doubts, that book supplies a glossary. Iris Murdoch’s seventh novel, The Unicorn, follows so close on the hooves of John Updike’s third that progressively educated readers may pardonably be muddled. In fact, Miss Murdoch’s beast has played a greater role in Christian symbolology than in classical mythology; here she gives it a fresh run.

This author has always provided us food for thought. As none of her book jackets has failed to state, she graduated with first-class honors in classical “Greats” at Oxford. Moreover, she is (or rather was) a don so eminent among linguistic philosophers as to have called for Ved Mehta’s attention in his recent New Yorker survey. So we come to her novels prepared for subtle sortings out of appearance and reality. But she has more than a first-rate mind; for her virtues as a novelist are not donnish ones. She has no fear of insolent extremities: this, after the stylish pussy-footing of much admired fiction, is wonderful. She has a keen sense of the multiple levels on which people simultaneously function, a strong and sensitive hand when it comes to driving a narrative along for short distances at full gallop and an alarming, grotesque sense of humor—all this, in addition to a considerable fund of ideas. What an assemblage of excellencies! No wonder critics broken by drink and bad novels have invoked Joyce.

But it doesn’t add up, partly because of all those ideas. Their presence in her novels is like that of silver six-pences in a Christmas pudding. They are coin of the realm, but they don’t improve the flavor of the dish. When all seven of these novels are read at a sitting (not a good plan), certain preoccupations are plain to see. The author likes, for instance, to set rational young women the task of trying, with unforeseen results, to break down the mysterious order of a world to which they don’t belong (“Every young girl dreams of dominating the forces of evil”); she invests at least one person in each book with charisma; she believes love is a mere consolation, and finds normal sexual relations of little interest. She once summed herself up nicely in a scrap of dialogue: “So you do recognize certain mysteries?” one character asks another. “Yes, I’m an empiricist.”

The Unicorn begins with a dramatic severance from the world where “fierce rationality” controls events. The pedagogical young protagonist, Marian Taylor, is “a handsome, clever girl with the face of a Michelozzi angel” who has answered an advertisement for a governess in a remote part of an unidentified country (the western coast of Scotland?). The first hundred pages, which describe Marian’s arrival in an “appalling” landscape of boiling sea, bogs and …

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