Most of the novel’s action is related in highly subjective form, filtered through the complex and eccentric mind of Bradley Pearson’s first-person narrative. Since Pearson is a scholarly ascetic, much given to philosophizing, the novel abounds in cultural references, from literary quotation to mythic evocation, requiring a high degree of reader erudition or commitment to research. The story is told in retrospect via the posthumous manuscript of the hero, unjustly convicted of murder, who grew into an artist only after several traumatic events and intense suffering transformed his former sterile self. Pearson, whose name alludes both to “person” (Everyman) and “persona,” starts out as a crabby recluse, newly retired in order to write the masterpiece he feels latent within himself. Toward this end, he avoids personal contact as detrimental to his sacred undertaking. Women especially annoy him. His marriage failed long ago because of lack of commitment on his part, but close proximity to male friends, too, is perceived as bothersome. He much prefers to communicate by letter, pouring out his views on a variety of subjects at great length. From the outset, however, reality will not oblige him. Phone calls, visits, and casual encounters vie to embroil him in others’ miseries. His psychotic, suicide-bound sister, Priscilla Saxe, cast adrift by a philandering husband, is a constant irritating presence in his small flat, while Rachel Baffin, his friend’s wife, attempts to ensnare him to compensate for her own miserable domestic relationship. Out of Pearson’s past, other unwelcome guests intrude in the person of his newly widowed, high-spirited former spouse, Christian Evandale, and her fawning, homosexual brother, Francis Marloe.
For the first part of the novel, Pearson keeps his visitors at emotional arm’s length by remaining a callous, semidetached observer of their increasingly intertwined and treacherous entanglements. Artistic inspiration, however, eludes him. His naive belief that mysterious muses will be favorably disposed toward a selflessly committed scholar is destroyed when much darker forces lure him out of his self-imposed isolation. Quite unexpectedly, he finds himself in an emotional relationship with his friends’ twenty-year-old daughter, Julian Baffin. This first real encounter with another human being tears down all of his defenses. Decades of sexual repression render him incapable of coping with the powerful influence of eros. As he flounders helplessly and ridiculously in adolescent shudderings, Julian’s parents unite in fierce parental rage and in a few short days manage to deprive him of his goddess, but not before mad determination has led him to forcible consummation of his passion. Other desperate reactions on his part set Arnold and Rachel, his wife, against each other and result in the murder of the former by the latter. Pearson remorsefully attempts to shield Rachel but is actually manipulated by her to incriminate himself as the murderer.
Ironically, this disastrous foray into human relationships gives birth to the long-awaited burst of creativity. Pearson’s prison cell becomes the refuge in which he creates his great work of art, his odyssey of self-discovery and apologia, the very manuscript that makes up the novel. Pearson succumbs to illness soon after its completion. His account is framed by a foreword and a postscript from a mysterious editor and by four critiques of the manuscript by Christian, Julian, Rachel, and Francis. They challenge Pearson’s perception of them, fill in some gaps, and caution the reader against uncritical acceptance of such suspect first-person observations.
In The Black Prince , Murdoch returns to her preoccupation with love, exposing the sometimes horrifying face of the love god, Eros. Although Bradley Pearson, a...
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- Critical Essays