The Characters

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Iris Murdoch has cast Pearson’s narrative into a complex blend of two voices, that of the erstwhile emotionless, self-righteous, sarcastic puritan, smugly insulated from human contact, and that of the infinitely wiser end product, who stands stripped of all hope and delusion, in full recognition of his shortcomings. While Murdoch signals to the attentive reader the times when Pearson should and should not be believed, her technique renders difficult a sharp focus on Pearson. It also conceals her own point of view and attitude toward him. Though his many self-deluding arguments hint at authorial expose, his often witty and profound monologues, chronicling the follies of the post-World War II upper-class London and passing judgment on it, also establish a sympathetic association between character and author. Murdoch’s affinity with Pearson increases as she leads him along the tortuous path from ignorance to knowledge, in the process exposing the fragility of his carefully nurtured cultural universe and from there focusing on the general vulnerability of anyone arrogant enough to believe that disaster can be kept at bay.

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The book hints at mythic dimensions through the peripheral and mysterious figure of P. Loxias, seemingly a criminal who befriended Pearson in prison and in time became his confidant, mentor, manuscript editor, and publisher. A reference to Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, in which Cassandra addresses Apollo as Loxias, suggests that Murdoch envisions a two-faced Apollo in the figure of Pearson’s cell mate. In his guise as slayer of rivals (the Apollo-Marsyas myth), as rapist, as the dark side of Eros, he has tormented Pearson. As the god of art, dispenser of wisdom, and healer, he has granted him clarity of thought and divine inspiration. Another minor figure, Francis Marloe, serves as a keen commentator on Pearson. Francis realizes the value of human involvement despite the risks, senses Pearson’s repressed eroticism, knows that life offers no refuge from potential disaster, and thus is used by Murdoch as a vehicle for exposing Pearson’s intellectually faulty propositions.

Arnold is alternately Pearson’s friend and his literary rival. He is also a contrast to Pearson in that he actively seeks out new friends and is fully at ease with others. He lacks Pearson’s critical discernment; rather, he effortlessly produces one best-seller after another. Despite Pearson’s contempt for his friend’s literary output, Murdoch hints that Arnold is no worse a human being. He recognizes his limitations and operates within them. He also senses that the price for artistic perfection, to which Pearson aspires, is excessive, and he sets himself more modest goals. Neither saint nor sinner, he stands as a balanced counterpoint to the mercurial protagonist. The female figures are not given intellect, insight, or depth. Pearson’s great love, Julian, whom he immortalizes as the divine gateway to his rebirth, is a silly, shallow girl, on whom the brief episode with Pearson leaves no lasting trace. Christian, Priscilla, and Rachel are presented as variations of vindictive, middle-aged predators, serving primarily to torment and haunt Pearson. It must be kept in mind, however, that all the secondary characters are given but few lines of their own and come to life for the most part through Pearson’s personal and not always reliable recollections.

Characters Discussed

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Bradley Pearson

Bradley Pearson, a writer and the narrator of the novel. Bradley, who is middle-aged and solitary, has retired from his job as an inspector of taxes to devote himself to his writing, at which he works painstakingly. His life radically changes when he suddenly realizes that he passionately loves Julian Baffin, whom he idealizes. This love transforms his sterile existence, finally allowing him to write his great book,...

(The entire section contains 1176 words.)

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Critical Essays