(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

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...

(The entire section is 1067 words.)