The Unicorn by Iris Murdoch (1963)
“Everyone here is involved in guilt.”
The Unicorn is the first novel by Iris Murdoch that I have read. The narrative weaves in elements of the Gothic, the allegorical, and the mythical, and it does so within the framework of suspense. There’s a lot going on in this novel, and by the end, Murdoch leaves it up to the reader to determine what it all means. Some readers will be frustrated by Murdoch’s ambiguity and that the meaning of the story is open to a wide variety of interpretations.
The story begins when Marian Taylor, a thirty-year-old former schoolteacher, arrives at Gaze Castle to perform the duties of governess. When she arrives, she learns that she is not to be a governess, but instead a lady’s companion to Hannah Crean-Smith, owner of the big house in what is presumably the Irish countryside. Gaze and the surrounding lands are repeatedly characterized as being ancient, alien, and isolating, and its inhabitants and their ways are more akin to people living in medieval times, not a mid-20th century Western society. Perhaps the epitome of this is that upon Marian’s arrival at the train station, she searches for a way to get to Gaze and someone recommends that she travel there by horse. Arriving at Gaze is like going back in time, and it frightens Marian. What worries her most though is the revelation that for the last seven years, Hannah has been effectively imprisoned at Gaze by her husband, Peter Crean-Smith. The other inhabitants of the house—Gerald Scottow, Violet Evercreech, Jamesie Evercreech, and Denis Nolan—are her jailers. Marian wants to help Hannah escape from Gaze, and the question of how to release Hannah from her prison drives much of the plot.
The narrative structure of the novel offers the events of the story through two points of view—Marian’s and Effingham Cooper’s. Effingham (or Effie) is a frequent visitor at Riders, the only other house within miles of Gaze. Riders is the home of Effie’s mentor, Max Lejour, and his adult children, Alice and Pip. Alice has been in love with Effie for years, but he’s paid no attention to her though his egoism is such that he hasn’t spurned her entirely. Effie, like Marian, is an outsider, and he fancies himself to be in love with Hannah. Although he is an outsider, he also shares in the guilt of keeping Hannah prisoner in the form of inaction and because he likes the idea of Hannah being sequestered and shut-up, deluding himself into thinking that she is being shut-up just for him. At last, Marian convinces Effie to help her break Hannah out of the prison-house. The consequences of this attempt, the reasons for Hannah’s imprisonment, the meaning of Hannah’s suffering, and the ways in which the characters respond to that suffering and see it as being significant, drive the plot to its somewhat ambiguous climax and conclusion.
The title of the novel is an image that finds its figurative representation in the character of Hannah. Through a conversation between Max and Effie, we are told that the unicorn is a Christ-like image in that it is an innocent creature that is captured and turned into a scapegoat, sacrificed to purge away the sins and crimes of others. This is the allegorical aspect of the novel, but this is a modern allegory in that the meaning of Hannah’s suffering is not interpreted for us. As readers we have to decide what her suffering means, if it means anything at all. Iris Murdoch doesn’t tell readers what to think in this novel, and I like that. On the other hand, I did find the novel a bit frustrating. In order to leave the interpretation of the story up to the reader, there has to be a certain level of ambiguity. It’s that very ambiguity, however, that I find frustrating. There were several moments when I wasn’t all sure what had just happened or what was going on. Admittedly, while this irked me, it kept me turning the page, and after finishing the novel, I still find myself thinking about it and puzzling it through and modifying my interpretation of the story. I’ve always thought that that was one mark of a great book, so on that level the story succeeds in capturing my interest and making me think.
On the other hand, while The Unicorn made me think, I’m not sure how much I liked it. Because we get the story through two different points of view, there’s an element of psychological realism in the novel. We get to see how everything that is happening is impacting the psyches of both characters. We spend a lot of time in each person’s head, and so there are a lot of interior monologues throughout the novel, and less dialogue. I found this to be a bit tedious, though why exactly I can’t say because normally this doesn’t bother me in a novel. Perhaps I just didn’t find Marian and Effie’s thoughts to be sufficiently interesting, or maybe it’s that I wasn’t as invested in them as characters. I understand the purpose of multiple points of view, but I wonder if I would have felt more engaged if there had only been one. When rating this novel elsewhere I gave it two of five stars, and now that it’s time for me to decide whether or not I would recommend it to other readers, I’m still conflicted and undecided. While I enjoyed teaching this novel in a college literature course and I got good response to it from a handful of students, I don’t think I would recommend it to friends. In fact, I would recommend a lot of other books before even thinking about The Unicorn. In the end, I’m glad I can finally say that I’ve read a novel by Iris Murdoch, but I’m not exactly rushing to the bookstore to purchase another.