The Black Prince

by Iris Murdoch

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 820

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 novelist and the narrator, describes this work as “a simple love story,” it is really his competitive friendship with successful writer Arnold Baffin that creates the tension at the core of the work.

What distinguishes Bradley from others in the novel is his sense of guilt and his prudishness. He insists that morality is a simple affair and is shown trying to live by these simplicities. Bradley is wrapped in self-righteousness, although it does not prevent him from acting badly. His friend Arnold, on the other hand, accepts life as it is and does not try to be perfect. He enjoys the self-satisfaction that Murdoch often uses as a second-best virtue.

The tension between the two men arises from their respective erotic entanglements and their different attitudes toward art. Aesthetically, Bradley believes in concentration and patience to achieve high art; he has published only three books. He believes that art is connected to the quest for a good life. Arnold writes prolifically, sells very well, and considers his work fun. Their erotic life echoes their professional rivalry. Bradley has a very brief liaison with Rachel, Arnold’s wife, then later becomes involved with Arnold’s daughter Julian. At the same time, Arnold is engaged in an affair with Christian, Bradley’s former wife. Yet both men are doomed. At the end of the novel, Arnold is murdered by his wife, and Bradley, who is wrongly convicted of the crime, dies of cancer in prison.

The erotic and aesthetic themes mesh in Bradley’s belief that a great love will induce him to produce a great book. His obsessive love for young Julian results in his writing The Black Prince, which he claims is the fruit of his passion. Readers must judge for themselves whether Eros has fertilized Bradley’s muse. This realistic love story, however, is not all the reader has to consider. There are two forewords and six afterwords added to the narration; four of the afterwords are by characters involved in the story who feel the need to vindicate themselves and correct Bradley’s narration. The enclosure of Bradley’s tale by forewords and afterwords forces the reader into a world of multiple, sometimes conflicting, points of view. The resulting irony is the primary literary device in the framed structure of The Black Prince, yet the multiple viewpoints reveal more than Bradley’s ironic delusion. Irony is used to expose the ultimate duality of the human condition—the highly developed comic sense alongside the inevitable pain of human existence.

The experience of a violent passion is described in great detail in The Black Prince—the various phases of the passion, the transformation of the lover in the eyes of his friends, the delusions caused by the passion, and the moral consequences of such obsession. Although these moral consequences are serious enough to cause a suicide and a violent murder, one of the richest ironies is that the passion does result in a work of literary art.

William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (c. 1600-1601, pb. 1603) provides a touchstone for Murdoch in The Black Prince, but it, too, is touched with irony. Bradley and Julian’s first innocent meeting is a discussion of the meaning of Hamlet. Quotations and allusions to the play run throughout the novel. Bradley’s erotic energies are suddenly focused on Julian when she mentions that she once played Hamlet, thus identifying herself with the play’s ambiguities. After several failures, Bradley manages to make love to Julian when she is fancifully dressed as Hamlet. Julian’s interest in the play forces Bradley to think it through again, and in so doing he understands the pain of tragedy for the first time. Later, on his deathbed, Bradley realizes that his affair with Julian was not tragic after all, but ironic.

The black prince of the novel’s title clearly refers to Hamlet and to Julian when she is dressed as Hamlet; “B. P.” are Bradley Pearson’s initials, as well. Yet there is evidence that the black Eros, a dark god who is constantly evoked in the book, is the real black prince. As Bradley sees it, the catalyst that the talented creator needs, the god whom he awaits, is the mythic Eros. Eros rules not only the erotic life of all human beings but also the creation of art. Bradley thinks that after he encounters this god he will create a great work. Yet as the plot progresses it becomes apparent that Bradley completely misunderstands this god.

Many of Murdoch’s readers consider The Black Prince her finest work. In the way it challenges its own conclusions in the afterwords and speculates on what fiction is, it is Murdoch’s greatest departure from the realistic nineteenth century novel.

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