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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 335

The Unicorn is a novel by British writer and philosopher Iris Murdoch. The book was published in 1963. The first thing the reader is made aware of upon reading the novel is the importance of the setting. The story is set in a remote coastal area of Ireland, which conjures romantic images of foggy seas, dark skies, and hauntingly beautiful pastoral landscapes.

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The isolation of the setting reflects the character of Hannah Crean-Smith, who is being punished by her abusive husband for being unfaithful to him, despite the fact the he had been unfaithful and inattentive first. She is a woman who is stuck geographically and mentally. Despite the many men who had tried to love her, she does not want to run away with them. The other main character—the tutor who is dispatched to the remote town from London to teach Hannah Crean-Smith languages—becomes an active participant in trying to get Hannah Crean-Smith to leave.

However, in the end, it is evident that the outsiders had tried to interject into a micro-culture or an encapsulated world they could not control. In the end, most of the main characters die, and yearnings from the characters (e.g. love, companionship, a new life) are left unfulfilled. The two outsiders are the only ones who do not suffer a tragic fate, as if they were never a part of the drama happening in that remote town or were simply the audience of a play and therefore were left untouched.

In this light, the isolation of the setting emphasized a major theme of the novel: the Londoners had stepped into a different world, both geographically and socially. The setting itself felt claustrophobic and similar to an echo chamber, in which the local characters all knew each other and had developed intense emotions for one another. The fact that they either killed each other or died in other tragic ways emphasized the socially incestuous dynamics of the remote village in which they had lived, loved, and died together.

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Critical Essays