Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Murdoch raises and discusses a multitude of ideas but rarely elevates any one of them to the level of absolute truth. The shifting meanings of the novel’s title serve as an example. Bradley Pearson’s initials are hardly incidental to it, yet one cannot identify the wretched, falsely incarcerated hero with the epitome of evil. There are numerous allusions and quotations from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet which are even more difficult to fit to the title. While Pearson does delay the writing of his book, it is Julian who dresses as Hamlet and Rachel who administers the final vengeance. To associate the malingering Hamlet with the evil black force destroying Pearson is equally inappropriate. Hamlet as a plaything of forces beyond his control is a more likely theme. Murdoch may well use her Hamlet comments to demonstrate that an artistic text invites many approaches but is exhausted by none. The novel is best served by identifying the black prince with Eros, a presence described as an aspect of Apollo, yet Apollo himself remains shadowy, barely hinted at, his significance implied, but not certain.

A favorite Murdoch theme is evoked by Pearson in his foreword to the manuscript: “I know that human life is horrible. I know that it is utterly unlike art.... Any man, even the greatest, can be broken in a moment and has no refuge. Any theory which denies this is a lie.” Throughout the novel, Murdoch appears to posit horror as integral to the human condition, a horror that cannot be totally redeemed even by the artistic creation of a transformed Pearson. His weary acceptance of it and his ability to render it as art in no way alter the general, continuing vulnerability of human existence. Yet for Murdoch, art, as presented in Pearson’s self-discovery, is the limit of what is humanly possible. Beyond it lies death, quite possibly the real black prince, who claims Pearson as soon as the manuscript is completed. The final statement, then, is a powerful paradox, drawing readers onto a somber, contemplative path. Murdoch does not, however, turn the novel into a philosophical tract. Her themes are question marks, subtly underpinning a fascinating tale that is full of comic elements and that ingeniously employs all of the devices of a good thriller.