The Good Apprentice was Iris Murdoch’s twenty-second novel, and, not surprisingly, it shares some of the important characteristics of the earlier ones. First, The Good Apprentice has the social detail and realistic surface as well as the complex plot typical of Murdoch’s fiction. Her novels often have surprising twists, suspense, sudden reversals, and what one critic has called “the eventual subsidence of emotion in a general feeling of justice.” Another noteworthy aspect of Murdoch’s novels is the intellectual or philosophical dimension: Murdoch was for many years a professor of philosophy, and her first published work was Sartre: Romantic Rationalist (1953). From the beginning of her career, her novels have been concerned with such philosophical issues as power and freedom and, above all, the good. Since her eleventh novel, The Nice and the Good (1968), the problem of finding the good in the modern world has been a primary concern of her fiction. The Good Apprentice clearly reflects Murdoch’s interest in dealing with this ethical problem in fiction in the characters’ search for the good and in the dialogue about how and where it is to be found.
The critical response to The Good Apprentice, like that to most of Murdoch’s novels, has been mixed. Harold Bloom noted the typical complex and comic plot and the philosophical element, but he had doubts whether “the comic story and the spiritual kernel can be held together by Miss Murdoch’s archaic stance as an authorial will.” Howard Moss’s review was more favorable, but he did not like being “told so schematically and so often that the ’good’ exists.” Gillian Wilce called the novel a “moral soap opera,” but she also noted Murdoch’s great theme: “the human inclination to go on struggling not just for meaning but for, well, goodness.”