Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

The dominant theme of The Good Apprentice is, clearly, the search to discover “the good.” The major characters in the novel, Edward and Stuart, are closely involved in this ethical search, although Edward’s search is less direct than that of Stuart. The presence of such a theme in Murdoch’s fiction is not accidental; she has written about the subject a number of times, notably in The Sovereignty of Good (1970). The two qualities she singles out as prerequisite for the good to exist are “[first] the ability to perceive what is true, which is automatically at the same time [second] a supression of self.” Stuart’s renunciation of sex and his announced intention of doing good seem nearly a parody of Murdoch’s description of the good; his egotism and lack of contact with others ensure that his search will go astray. In contrast, Edward’s self has been nearly obliterated by his guilt, and he can begin to “perceive what is true” in the real world after an initial period of distortion. Another aspect of the good in the book is love; Murdoch equates love with both selflessness and the perception of reality, and so the affair between Harry and Midge is not one of love, nor is it remotely connected with the good, since it involves an affirmation of self above everything else.