The central issue of The Good Apprentice is one that Iris Murdoch treats in many of her novels: the nature of good. Although Edward Baltram is the novel’s focus of action, Stuart Cuno is the significant character, the one who gives the book its title. Edward is a young man growing into maturity and adulthood. Stuart is an apprentice, learning to be good and growing into goodness. Stuart’s attempts at doing good fail, but he keeps trying to help Edward, Midge, and even Mark Wilsden’s mother; eventually he succeeds, as an apprentice who perseveres will eventually succeed. Success comes when Edward takes Stuart’s advice to talk to Midge. When Edward does help Midge clarify her own position, he heals himself. For Murdock, being good comes from doing good and helping others.
Murdoch paints Stuart as awkward, dull, and charmless, because for her the aesthetic is separate from, and sometimes opposed to, the ethical. (For example, Brownie Wilsden also is charmless and plain.) Murdoch implies that sometimes the false cloaks itself in beauty and sophistication, while simplicity and innocence usually accompany the good. When Stuart Cuno and Jesse Baltram confront each other at Seegard, Jesse stands for creativity, undisciplined passion, and ego, while Stuart stands for simplicity, disciplined moral spirit, and selflessness.
Underlying this issue is the harder one of how humans know what is good. God and revealed religion are not options for Murdoch. Harry Cuno, a thoroughgoing secularist, cannot understand why Stuart must learn about goodness on his own: “Don’t you see you can’t do all this alone? Human nature needs institutions. . . . Why not go to the church, to some church, ask for help, ask to be directed?” Stuart rejects this advice because he rejects traditional religious convictions: “That’s just what I can’t...
(The entire section is 760 words.)