Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1067
The Good Apprentice incorporates many of the themes and techniques that are found in other Iris Murdoch novels. There is, first of all, the debate and dramatization of the ethical problem of “the good”; there is the theme of the role and place of the artist in the late twentieth century; there is the doubling and pairing of characters and the switching about of lovers and relationships; there is, finally, the qualified happy ending of this brilliant and typical Murdoch novel.
The novel begins with a moral and ethical problem: Edward Baltram gives a friend a hallucinogenic drug in a sandwich, leaves him sleeping while he visits a girl for a few minutes, and returns to find that his friend has jumped to his death through a window. Edward is crushed; everything he has lived for is now meaningless. A family friend, Thomas McCaskerville, who is a psychiatrist, is treating Edward, but there is no indication of improvement or change. Searching for some relief, Edward accepts a fortuitous invitation to visit his father, Jesse, at his house in the country.
Edward’s half brother, Stuart Cuno, is not looking to relieve guilt but has, instead, apprenticed himself to the good. He has given up sex, renounced his brilliant academic career in mathematics, and is thinking of doing some sort of slum work. His problem is the opposite of Edward’s; neither one, however, seems to be able to have any success in dealing with these very different problems. Edward is constantly depressed, and Stuart does more harm than good in his clumsy attempts at goodness.
Edward does not manage to see his father at Seegard, Jesse’s eccentric country home, but he is welcomed by Jesse’s wife and Edward’s two half sisters. It is a pastoral setting and an artistic one, and it begins to draw Edward out of himself and his problems. He takes long walks in search of the sea but finds instead the girl he had visited on the night of his friend’s death, Sarah. Through her, Edward manages to get in touch with Brownie, his dead friend’s sister. Brownie acts as an antidote to the hate and guilt that Edward feels; the possibility of her love may drive out the hate.
Stuart, who is in search of someone to help, visits Edward at Seegard and sets into motion a switch of lovers. His father, Harry, and Midge McCaskerville (whose husband is treating Edward) stumble upon Seegard after miring their car in the mud; they try to conceal their identity and relationship, but Stuart and Edward recognize what is happening. Midge, however, then transfers her love from Harry to Stuart. Stuart is appalled and rejects her offer of love, and Thomas McCaskerville finds out about the affair between Midge and Harry. The love quadrangle seems unresolvable, and everyone is miserable. Thomas is angry and sulking; Harry is furious about Midge’s betrayal and Stuart’s role in it; and Stuart’s plans to become a good person are sidetracked, while Midge is upset with everyone.
Edward is removed from most of the misery brought on by the love quadrangle as he continues his search to be reunited with his father at Seegard. The obstacle to that reunion is Jesse’s madness; he is kept under lock and key by his wife and daughters, and although Edward hears strange sounds that he connects with Jesse, he is frustrated in his attempts to make contact with him. Finally, father and son meet while Edward is talking with Brownie. Jesse asks if Edward has been forgiven by Brownie, and when Edward says that he is not sure, he says: “Then I forgive you.” Edward declares his love for his father and adds, “You could do everything for me, you could make me all over again.” Jesse has “forgotten it all,” however, and is incapable of doing what Edward asks. Edward must remake himself and not hand over the job to someone else.
A short while later, Jesse gets out of Seegard and drowns in the nearby river. Edward sees him in the water but thinks that it is only a hallucination. After arguing with his sister and Jesse’s wife, he sets out for London to find Jesse. He returns shortly thereafter and discovers Jesse’s body and takes his ring as a sign of their continuing connection. Both Edward and Stuart reach a low point here; Edward is accused of bringing nothing but death and misery to others by Mother May, Jesse’s wife, and Stuart is seen as the source of all the trouble by Harry. “You’ve done nothing but cause trouble, pain and strife, that’s what your good intentions amount to.” At this low moment, however, the novel begins to change; in the last chapter, “Life After Death,” the forces of life, love and renewal, overcome the death that began the novel and the suffering that pervades it.
What brings about a change in the mood of the novel is not individual effort or self-help but people helping one another; Stuart appeals to Brownie’s mother to forgive Edward, and Edward helps Midge see that her feelings for Stuart are false. Both characters must pass through a moment of crisis, however, before they can alter their situations. Stuart feels “as if he were banished from the human race,” but he suddenly has a revelation when he sees a mouse very much at home under the tracks at a train station; he is filled with a “peaceful joy” as he realizes that he has a place in the universe. Edward’s revelation is more subtle. When he receives a letter from Brownie telling him that she is to marry someone else, he falls into despair, feeling that he is “dead.” When he puts on his father’s ring, however, he begins to see more in life. He now thinks of simple survival, of other women he can love, and, perhaps, even of writing about his experience and transmuting the pain into art. Finally, he says, “Anyway I’ll try to do some good in the world, if it’s not too difficult, nothing stops anyone from doing that.” With his recovery, Midge and Thomas are reunited, Harry has published a novel and, thus, has found his place, and he and his sons drink to “the good things in life.”