Masterplots II, British Fiction Series, Rev. Ed.
The Good Apprentice
Author: Iris Murdoch
Born: July 15, 1919; Dublin, Ireland
Died: February 8, 1999; Oxford, England
Type of Work: Domestic realism
Time of Work: The 1980's
First Published: 1985
EDWARD BALTRAM, the protagonist of the novel, who is full of guilt over
causing his friend's death
STUART CUNO, Edward's half brother and the good apprentice of the title
HARRY CUNO, Stuart's father and Edward's stepfather, who is carrying on
an affair with Midge McCaskerville
THOMAS McCASTERVILLE, a psychiatrist who is treating Edward
The Good Apprentice incorporates many of the themes and techniques that are found in other Iris Murdoch novels. There is, first of all, the debate and dramatization of the ethical problem of "the good"; there is the theme of the role and place of the artist in the late twentieth century; there is the doubling and pairing of characters and the switching about of lovers and relationships; there is, finally, the qualified happy ending of this brilliant and typical Murdoch novel.
The novel begins with a moral and ethical problem: Edward Baltram gives a friend a hallucinogenic drug in a sandwich, leaves him sleeping while he visits a girl for a few minutes, and returns to find that his friend has jumped to his death through a window. Edward is crushed; everything he has lived for is now meaningless. A family friend, Thomas McCaskerville, who is a psychiatrist, is treating Edward, but there is no indication of improvement or change. Searching for some relief, Edward accepts a fortuitous invitation to visit his father, Jesse, at his house in the country.
Edward's half brother, Stuart Cuno, is not looking to relieve guilt but has, instead, apprenticed himself to the good. He has given up sex, renounced his brilliant academic career in mathematics, and is thinking of doing some sort of slum work. His problem is the opposite of Edward's; neither one, however, seems to be able to have any success in dealing with these very different problems. Edward is constantly depressed, and Stuart does more harm than good in his clumsy attempts at goodness.
Edward does not manage to see his father at Seegard, Jesse's eccentric country home, but he is welcomed by Jesse's wife and Edward's two half sisters. It is a pastoral setting and an artistic one, and it begins to draw Edward out of himself and his problems. He takes long walks in search of the sea but finds instead the girl he had visited on the night of his friend's death, Sarah. Through her, Edward manages to get in touch with Brownie, his dead friend's sister. Brownie acts as an antidote to the hate and guilt that Edward feels; the possibility of her love may drive out the hate.
Stuart, who is in search of someone to help, visits Edward at Seegard and sets into motion a switch of lovers. His father, Harry, and Midge McCaskerville (whose husband is treating Edward) stumble upon Seegard after miring their car in the mud; they try to conceal their identity and relationship, but Stuart and Edward recognize what is happening. Midge, however, then transfers her love from Harry to Stuart. Stuart is appalled and rejects her offer of love, and Thomas McCaskerville finds out about the affair between Midge and Harry. The love quadrangle seems unresolvable, and everyone is miserable. Thomas is angry and sulking; Harry is furious about Midge's betrayal and Stuart's role in it; and Stuart's plans to become a good person are sidetracked, while Midge is upset with everyone.
Edward is removed from most of the misery brought on by the love quadrangle as he continues his search to be reunited with his father at Seegard. The obstacle to that reunion is Jesse's madness; he is kept under lock and key by his wife and daughters, and although Edward hears strange sounds that he connects with Jesse, he is frustrated in his attempts to make contact with him. Finally, father and son meet while Edward is talking with Brownie. Jesse asks if Edward has been forgiven by Brownie, and when Edward says that he is not sure, he says: "Then I forgive you." Edward declares his love for his father and adds, "You could do everything for me, you could make me all over again." Jesse has "forgotten it all," however, and is incapable of doing what Edward asks. Edward must remake himself and not hand over the job to someone else.
A short while later, Jesse gets out of Seegard and drowns in the nearby river. Edward sees him in the water but thinks that it is only a hallucination. After arguing with his sister and Jesse's wife, he sets out for London to find Jesse. He returns shortly thereafter and discovers Jesse's body and takes his ring as a sign of their continuing connection. Both Edward and Stuart reach a low point here; Edward is accused of bringing nothing but death and misery to others by Mother May, Jesse's wife, and Stuart is seen as the source of all the trouble by Harry. "You've done nothing but cause trouble, pain and strife, that's what your good intentions amount to." At this low moment, however, the novel begins to change; in the last chapter, "Life After Death," the forces of life, love and renewal, overcome the death that began the novel and the suffering that pervades it.
What brings about a change in the mood of the novel is not individual effort or self-help but people helping one another; Stuart appeals to Brownie's mother to forgive Edward, and Edward helps Midge see that her feelings for Stuart are false. Both characters must pass through a moment of crisis, however, before they can alter their situations. Stuart feels "as if he were banished from the human race," but he suddenly has a revelation when he sees a mouse very much at home under the tracks at a train station; he is filled with a "peaceful joy" as he realizes that he has a place in the universe. Edward's revelation is more subtle. When he receives a letter from Brownie telling him that she is to marry someone else, he falls into despair, feeling that he is "dead." When he puts on his father's ring, however, he begins to see more in life. He now thinks of simple survival, of other women he can love, and, perhaps, even of writing about his experience and transmuting the pain into art. Finally, he says, "Anyway I'll try to do some good in the world, if it's not too difficult, nothing stops anyone from doing that." With his recovery, Midge and Thomas are reunited, Harry has published a novel and, thus, has found his place, and he and his sons drink to "the good things in life."
Edward Baltram moves from despair to hope in the course of the novel. What brings about this change is not so much his own efforts but the efforts of and contact with others. For example, Thomas McCaskerville works behind the scenes to bring Edward to Seegard, while Stuart helps the mother of the boy Edward has inadvertently killed to forgive him. In addition, the appearance of such characters as Brownie and Jesse helps Edward return to a more normal perception of the possibilities in life. Edward must, however, make that last step by himself; when he does so, he becomes, in perhaps a truer sense than Stuart, an apprentice to the good. Furthermore, when he thinks of becoming a writer and using his experiences, he unites the advice of Thomas, the role of his father, Jesse, and the example of his stepfather, Harry.
Stuart Cuno is something of a stereotyped character; he is so earnest about becoming good that he creates misery and disruption wherever he goes. His concept of goodness has something of the abstract about it. It is only at the end of the novel, when Stuart finds a specific outlet for his attempts to do good, that he becomes a force for good. He is to become a teacher of small children in order to "give them an idea of what goodness is, and how to love it."
Jesse Baltram has many of the traits of the great artist; he lives an unconventional life, he loves many women, and his art is ignored or unappreciated. Jesse, however, is now only the shadow of his once-heroic self. His madness and infirmities reduce him to a near-childish state. Even in that reduced state, however, he can reach out, touch, and change others. The few words he speaks to Midge and Stuart alter their lives, and his forgiveness begins to bring about some important changes in Edward. His death is as romantic and mysterious as one can imagine; it is similar to the death of Percy Bysshe Shelley or that of George Gordon, Lord Byron. After his death, "Jesse lives" begins to appear on walls in London. In a curious way, then, Jesse embodies many of the aspects of the great artist even though he has lost the ability to create.
Themes and Meanings
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.
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."
Baldanza, Frank. Iris Murdoch, 1974.
Bloom, Harold. Review in The New York Times Book Review. XCI (January 12, 1986), p. 1.
Byatt, A. S. Degrees of Freedom: The Novels of Iris Murdoch, 1965.
Byatt, A. S. Iris Murdoch, 1976.
The Christian Science Monitor. Review. LXXVIII (September 3, 1986), p. 22.
Hague, Angela. Iris Murdoch's Comic Vision, 1984.
Moss, Howard. Review in The New York Review of Books. XXXIII (June 12, 1986), p. 39.
Saturday Review. Review. XII (June, 1986), p. 74.
Time. Review. CXXVII (January 6, 1986), p. 89.
Wilce, Gillian. Review in New Statesman. CX (September 27, 1985), p. 30.
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