The Good Apprentice

by Iris Murdoch

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The Characters

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Edward Baltram moves from despair to hope in the course of the novel. What brings about this change is not so much his own efforts but the efforts of and contact with others. For example, Thomas McCaskerville works behind the scenes to bring Edward to Seegard, while Stuart helps the mother of the boy Edward has inadvertently killed to forgive him. In addition, the appearance of such characters as Brownie and Jesse helps Edward return to a more normal perception of the possibilities in life. Edward must, however, make that last step by himself; when he does so, he becomes, in perhaps a truer sense than Stuart, an apprentice to the good. Furthermore, when he thinks of becoming a writer and using his experiences, he unites the advice of Thomas, the role of his father, Jesse, and the example of his stepfather, Harry.

Stuart Cuno is something of a stereotyped character; he is so earnest about becoming good that he creates misery and disruption wherever he goes. His concept of goodness has something of the abstract about it. It is only at the end of the novel, when Stuart finds a specific outlet for his attempts to do good, that he becomes a force for good. He is to become a teacher of small children in order to “give them an idea of what goodness is, and how to love it.”

Jesse Baltram has many of the traits of the great artist; he lives an unconventional life, he loves many women, and his art is ignored or unappreciated. Jesse, however, is now only the shadow of his once-heroic self. His madness and infirmities reduce him to a near-childish state. Even in that reduced state, however, he can reach out, touch, and change others. The few words he speaks to Midge and Stuart alter their lives, and his forgiveness begins to bring about some important changes in Edward. His death is as romantic and mysterious as one can imagine; it is similar to the death of Percy Bysshe Shelley or that of George Gordon, Lord Byron. After his death, “Jesse lives” begins to appear on walls in London. In a curious way, then, Jesse embodies many of the aspects of the great artist even though he has lost the ability to create.

Characters Discussed

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Edward Baltram

Edward Baltram, a man who hopes to bring joy and happiness to his beloved friend Mark Wilsden by giving him a hallucinogenic drug hidden in a sandwich. As Mark falls asleep under the influence of the drug, Sarah Plowmain telephones, and Edward goes to her apartment, where they make love. While Edward is away, Mark apparently wakes, then falls to his death from the window of Edward’s room. From his euphoric heights of sensual and mind-altered pleasure, Edward is plunged into a mental, emotional, and spiritual hell, blaming himself for Mark’s death. The novel portrays the consequences of the other characters trying to help cure or intensify Edward’s depression. Edward slowly begins to understand that his pain will never go away but that he can live with it, as others do.

Jesse Baltram

Jesse Baltram, an elderly, bedridden mystic living on the edge of insanity. He is Edward’s father as the result of a brief affair with Chloe Warriston. He exerts a powerful influence on Mother May, Bettina, and Ilona, who protect him from the outside world while they wait for him to die. As an artist, his early fame, now diminished through inactivity, will blossom anew at his death. As a lover of many women, his fame continues to burn brightly. His large and remarkable head...

(This entire section contains 1358 words.)

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is out of proportion to his diseased body. He drowns in the small river running near Seegard, fulfilling a vision that Edward had.

Harry Cuno

Harry Cuno, twice a widower, a man in his mid-to late forties. He married Chloe Warriston knowing that she carried Jesse’s child and reared Edward as his own. He lives with his older son, Stuart, from his first marriage. He is having an affair with Midge, Chloe’s sister and wife to his best friend, Thomas McCaskerville. Returning from a passionate weekend away from London, he and Midge lose their way, get their car stuck in a ditch, and find themselves at Seegard, where both Edward and Stuart happen to be. Midge ends their affair, and Harry, a writer, sets out for Italy to confer with his publisher, another woman.

Stuart Cuno

Stuart Cuno, a man in his mid-twenties who has had a revelation and has become an advocate of the pure in heart, the “white” existence as opposed to Edward’s “black.” Tall, bulky, and awkward, Stuart is a source of strength to Edward, Midge, Harry, and Meredith (Midge’s son). Estranged from Harry after discovering the affair, and from Edward before Mark’s accident, Stuart eventually reconciles with both. The novel ends with father, son, and stepson drinking champagne toasts to one another’s health and to the future at home together.

Margaret (Midge) Warriston McCaskerville

Margaret (Midge) Warriston McCaskerville, a former model married to Thomas and the mother of Meredith, age thirteen. As a child, she once was noticed by Jesse and has been haunted by the memory. She and Harry have attempted to keep their love of two years secret but have been caught once by Meredith and then by Stuart, Edward, Mother May, Bettina, Ilona, and Jesse at Seegard. Jesse thinks that Midge is her sister, Chloe. She finally decides to leave Harry and to tell Thomas the truth, something that Stuart has been urging her to do.

Thomas McCaskerville

Thomas McCaskerville, the psychiatrist treating Edward for his depression over Mark’s death. It is Thomas who arranges secretly for Edward to be asked to visit Jesse at Seegard; who urges Edward to return to the room where Mark died; who quietly arranges to help bring things to a better conclusion; and who is the last to know of the affair between his wife, Midge, and Harry. A quiet, gentle Scotsman of mixed Catholic and Jewish descent, it is his inner strength that provides the stability that the major characters need to survive and to learn to live with pain.

Meredith McCaskerville

Meredith McCaskerville, the thirteen-year-old son of Midge and Thomas. Wise and observant, he knows of the affair between his mother and Harry but does not speak of it. He and Stuart become close friends. He is very much like his father, with whom he communicates silently. Meredith has a wine-colored birthmark on his cheek.

May Baltram

May Baltram, Jesse’s wife of many years, who runs Seegard the way Jesse wants it run. Life at Seegard is quiet, simple, and self-supporting, and Mother May, as she is called, has established and lives by a routine that Edward readily accepts. At Thomas’ request, she invites Edward to visit, telling him that Jesse wants to see him. After Jesse’s death, she publishes excerpts from her diary, naming names and places and embarrassing Harry, Midge, and others.

Bettina Baltram

Bettina Baltram, May and Jesse’s twenty-four-year-old daughter. Like her mother, she is plainly dressed, efficient, cool to Edward, and a conspirator in keeping Edward ignorant of Jesse’s condition. She dominates Ilona, her sister. Her future, at the end of the novel, is uncertain.

Ilona Baltram

Ilona Baltram, May’s eighteen-year-old daughter, who may not be Jesse’s daughter but the product of an affair between May and Max Point, an old friend of Jesse. Quietly bored and frustrated by life at Seegard, she ultimately sees, in Edward, the chance to escape. When Edward sees her in London after Jesse’s death, she has lost her virginity and become a stripper in a Soho club. Of the three women at Seegard, she is the most prone to public emotion and the one closest to Edward.

Brenda “Brownie” Wilsden

Brenda “Brownie” Wilsden, Mark’s sister, who confronts Edward about Mark’s death. He tells her the truth. Edward falls in love with her and pursues her, only to discover that she is to marry Giles Brightwalton and move to America.

Jennifer Wilsden

Jennifer Wilsden, Mark’s mother, who writes bitter and inflammatory letters to Edward, accusing him of murder and wishing all sorts of horrors on him. At Brownie’s urging, probably aided by a visit from Stuart, she writes a final letter of forgiveness and moves with Brownie to America.

Mark Wilsden

Mark Wilsden, Edward’s dear friend and fellow student and the cause of Edward’s painful search for peace. He dies from a fall from Edward’s window while under the influence of drugs.

Sarah Plowmain

Sarah Plowmain, a nineteen-year-old who seduces Edward while Mark is under the influence of the drug. Later, she meets Edward by accident at Railway Cottage, near Seegard, which she shares with her mother and with Brownie. She accuses Edward of fathering her child, but the child is never born.

Elspeth Macrain

Elspeth Macrain, Sarah’s mother, a vocal feminist writer and friend to and protector of Jennifer Wilsden and Brownie. She reviews Mother May’s diaries unfavorably.

Willy Brightwalton

Willy Brightwalton, Edward’s tutor in French. He is married to Ursula and is father to Giles.

Ursula Brightwalton

Ursula Brightwalton, the Cuno and McCaskerville family physician. She thinks that pills, taken regularly, will cure Edward’s problems.

Giles Brightwalton

Giles Brightwalton, Stuart’s friend, who is pursuing an academic career in America.

Mr. Blinnet

Mr. Blinnet, Thomas McCaskerville’s longtime patient, who, by accepting psychiatric treatment, apparently is constructing an alibi for some horrible crime that he may have committed in the past.

Mrs. Dorothy Quaid

Mrs. Dorothy Quaid, a woman who conducts séances. Ilona moves in with her when Jesse dies, and Edward finds her there when he tries to have another séance. Ilona tells him that Mrs. Quaid is dead.

Max Point

Max Point, an aging, besotted old painter friend of Jesse, now living as a human derelict on a barge, kept alive by a social worker and booze. He and Jesse apparently once were lovers, as were he and May. Ilona is thought to be the child of Max and May. He dies shortly after Jesse does.

Victoria Gunn

Victoria Gunn, a rich twenty-year-old American whose father has bought Jesse’s old house in London for her. Edward visits her while trying to find Jesse. She invites him to a party.




Critical Essays