Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Love, particularly sexual love, and what it means, what responsibilities it entails, how it can enslave and how it can free, is the central theme of Bruno’s Dream. Love is not always a good thing, is rarely perfect, and may, as in Miles and Lisa’s case, be repudiated simply because it is impossible in any honorable sense for them to celebrate it without harming Diana, who is innocent. Adelaide must learn that easygoing Danby is not for her, simply because he does not love her, and that she must accept the love of Will Boase, who will push and shove and yell throughout their lives together, but will love her nevertheless. Danby has to learn that being a bit of a fool does not deny him the love of an exceptional woman. He has, in fact, been lucky enough to be loved by two of them, Gwen and then Lisa, because he is a kind man—because, as Gwen put it, he is fun.

Bruno, through the sweet ministrations of Nigel, Lisa, and Diana, learns that he, too, despite his past, is lovable and can be forgiven. It is, significantly, repulsive-looking, half-delirious Bruno who teaches Diana (who is not afraid of spiders), as he learns himself, in his last days, that nothing else matters but to be kind and good. Romantic love, as Lisa says, is an overprized condition. It fails her badly with Miles, but she is willing to try again with Danby. Love, like farce, has winners and losers, but the act of loving is humanity at its best and, sometimes, farcical worst. Some of the characters live happily ever after (almost), and some, such as Bruno, Miles, and Diana, learn to accept what comes.

If the somewhat lunatic wrestling for sexual happiness is most blatantly attractive, it ought not to overshadow the passage of Bruno from frenetic, squalid unhappiness to the elegiac tenderness of his death. Nigel, one of those strangely inspired figures who often appear in Murdoch’s novels, hints inchoately at the existence of God, but Bruno is never convinced that God is anything but death itself. It finally comes to take him, when he is at peace with himself, moving toward him in the form of his old dressing gown, a typical Murdochian bizarrerie.