The Good Apprentice
In the opening pages of The Good Apprentice, Iris Murdoch seems to be writing a comedy of manners, lightly satirizing both the selfish indulgences of sexually liberated swingers and the philosophical pretensions of drug-consuming students; when the scene, however, ends abruptly in death, she begins to explore, in a detailed narrative that is alternately realistic and farcical, the unforeseen moral and psychological consequences of one’s careless or self-satisfying actions. Her fictional parable grows to be as long as a nineteenth century Russian novel and as fantastically plotted as an opera. Within the narrative are realistically detailed descriptions of clothing, faces, and locales, as well as philosophical dialogues among characters arguing various concepts of the good life. Murdoch’s technical brilliance in her twenty-second novel enables her to manage not only her initial shift from comic satire to tragicomic fiction but also wins the reader’s acquiescence to her subsequent mixture of modes. Neither consistently solemn nor consistently silly, The Good Apprentice portrays individuals’ search for the good, their responses to the accidental, and their moral responsibility for their actions in the world.
In the novel’s opening scene, Edward Baltram, a college student of French literature, has just introduced his roommate, Mark Wilsden, to a mind-altering recreational drug, without Mark’s knowledge or consent. Like an evil magician chuckling over his own power, Edward watches the drug take effect: Mark babbles happily about the true meaning of existence and then falls asleep. Edward is lured away from Mark by an unexpected telephone solicitation from a luscious college girl, Sarah Plowmain, who quickly seduces the willing boy. After intercourse, Sarah questions Edward about his very intriguing stepbrother, Stuart, who, in search of the good life, has given up sex. Sarah is also curious about Edward’s mother, Chloe Warriston, who, pregnant by an artist, Jesse Baltram, had married Harry Cuno, then had died shortly after bearing Edward, who had been reared by Harry, who earlier had married another young woman, who had died shortly after giving birth to Stuart. Sarah herself reveals some details about her feminist mother, who had known Chloe at school, and her mathematician father, a suicide, who had been Stuart’s teacher. Murdoch plants too many expository clues in this conversation, parodying the murder-mystery narrative which warns the reader that something of significance is about to happen. When Edward finally remembers that he has abandoned his friend Mark in a helpless state, the reader’s suspicions are lulled by the context, which suggests that, actually, Edward is fleeing from the intrusive intimacy of Sarah’s questions. Edward returns from his brief encounter to find the room empty. Mark’s mind has flown out the window, but his body has landed on the ground below. Edward, plunged into a self-centered depression, struggles to recover in the remaining 516 pages of Murdoch’s novel.
Despite being annoyed by Edward’s unheroic pettiness, the reader is engaged by the moral dilemma that Murdoch unfolds. Edward was merely careless, not malevolent—and yet his deliberate actions made possible Mark’s death. Edward is, to his credit, unable to shake off his feelings of guilt; his misery is genuine. His older brother, Stuart, whose behavior has been proper and careful, nevertheless suffers from feelings of nothingness and seeks, blindly, a sort of discipline that will allow him to enjoy life by helping others. Edward hopes to redeem himself by seeking forgiveness from his father; Stuart waits for some sign to direct his life. If Edward is a prodigal son, then Stuart is the prodigal’s older brother, bewildered by the morality of his culture. Stuart and Edward both become apprentices to the idea of the good, but Edward, having lost conviction in his own identity, and lacking any system of belief, flounders in the shallows of his own mind.
Individual characters in this novel may strike some readers as silly, but their questions command serious reflection. Edward and Stuart, who are in their twenties, and an older generation of characters ask variations on these questions: How can one manage to live a good life, when neither avoiding pain nor seeking pleasure can prevent one from causing others to suffer? How can one choose the moderation of a good, productive life in a relativistic world in which there are many more than two extremes?
One definition of the good life which Edward rejects is high culture, associated with Bloomsbury and universities. Ignoring the clever conversation of the artists, doctors, and other upper-class intellectuals who form his social circle, Edward mopes throughout the dinner party planned by his aunt, Midge McCaskerville, to distract him from his troubles. Midge’s husband, Thomas McCaskerville, a philosophical psychiatrist who combines a Jewish and Scots cultural heritage, treats his nephew Edward for his depression by listening and asking some questions, but he refuses to play the role of a priest granting absolution. Another guest, Ursula Brightwater, Edward’s family doctor, treats him by prescribing tranquilizers. Her husband, Willy Brightwater, Edward’s French tutor, has a mild crush on Midge, whose fashionable appearance still wins admiration, even though she has become plump. In the evening’s conversation, two apparently stable young men are compared favorably with Stuart and Edward, who are regarded as mentally unbalanced. The conversation also compares Isaac Newton’s faith favorably with the madness of quantum physicists and political terrorists. The dinner party conversation begins to resemble a philosophical dialogue. In response to the suggestion that computer logic could successfully imitate the human mind, Stuart, a brilliant mathematics student who seems familiar with the field of artificial intelligence, passionately asserts that only human intelligence can judge between good and evil. Stuart distinguishes justice from truth, and his vow of abstinence is related to his attempt either to embody good or to act justly—he is not yet certain which. At this dinner party, the philosophical seeker does not triumph; the others respond to Stuart with laughter, with a diverting complaint about pornography, and with a reversion to an old proof of reality: Midge knocks her wedding ring against the...
(The entire section is 2624 words.)