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Florence in Words

Blog: 1963 Iris Murdoch essay on The Unicorn, continued, part three

Note to Iris Murdoch readers: This is the end of the essay I wrote nearly 50 years ago. I will be working on Doris Lessing for the next two months, but I will be glad to interrupt that work to respond to comments about this essay.

Within the “magic circle” of the binoculars’ view and in the center of Gaze is the beautiful but slightly soiled Hannah, the sinful, suffering, serene, sinister prisoner who, we are told, looks frequently into the mirrors that fill her room (and surround her person). She will remind readers of Miss Murdoch’s devotion to the family of female names that means “grace”: Anna, Annette, Nina, Nan, Ann, Nancy, and now both Hannah and Marian. She will remind readers as well of Miss Murdoch’s long line of golden Aphrodites, associated with the Miltonic “amorous net” that hearkens back to the classical one. The elusive, golden-voiced Ann of Under the Net is now the imprisoned, golden-haired Hannah who sips golden whisky until a song shatters her fragile peace and she moves to crack her own mold.

When the novel begins in summer sunshine, the inhabitants of Gaze are poised in perverted stasis—all, that is, but Denis who is simply there, virginal. Hannah, the prisoner at the center, loved by everyone but courted openly only by Effingham, loves unrequited the homosexual Gerald who has whipped Jamsie into submission to him. Violet, another homosexual, moving between Hannah and Marian, also suggests to Marian that Jamsie loves her. Marian, pulled fearfully toward each in turn, desires only Gerald. The scene, deceptively beautiful, the life-pattern seductively lazy, the net perversely attractive: seemingly all wait for the magical seven years to draw to a close. Marian tries action and is herself seduced by Gerald’s punitive kiss, Hannah’s and Violet’s hands In the second half of the novel, “the figures so strangely woven into the quiet tapestry” do “themselves jerk into unpredictable life.” The mirrors, the binoculars, crack.

Lightly, one might label the pattern of action that follows “sex and transfiguration,” for whatever motivation one settles on—and Miss Murdoch provides both possible and phony ones—the “fact” remains that Hannah chooses to submit to her long-intimated desire for the ironically unattainable Gerald, the symbol present of her hated husband. Hannah’s own move from captivity into another “amorous net” frees all the others. As if disenchanted, they spring into sexual positions: Effie with Alice; Marian with Dennis. But Iris Murdoch is not D.H. Lawrence; sex is never her answer. Her emphasis falls here and elsewhere on the brevity of the transfiguration, always ironically in contrast to the enchantment of worship and anticipation, and the pain and guilt of consummation and capture. In the action that follows, that grows increasingly more explicit and more violent, Effingham and Marian ironically play more and more roles of futility, frustration, or inaction and paralysis. Effie cannot move to fight Gerald when called upon; Marian cannot speak or act at the crucial moment when Hannah turns the doorknob. This novel moves with increasing swiftness toward a climax reminiscent of the flood in The Mill on the Floss or the storm in Lear or on Egdon Heath, for with the rain and the flood come a series of murders and suicides new to Miss Murdoch’s fiction.

But, you may ask, whatever happened to that wild, wicked, comic novelist, the inventor of farcical fantasy that rivaled the early Evelyn Waugh? Whatever happened to the creator of that disarming hypocrite, artfully named Martin-Lynch-Gibbon, who wanted and got that comically-named black demon, Honor Klein? Should Iris Murdoch’s unicorn not resemble Thurber’s gentle, lily-eating beast? The comic spirit, I hasten to say, is not wholly absent, but largely transmuted. A ludicrous name dropped into an otherwise somber scene, a ludicrous kidnapping, drunken scenes that verge on the ludicrous, a watery love scene that totters on the edge of hilarity, an ironic treatment of character, and an off-beat conclusion—all these are present. But they do not move toward guffaws, wild laughter, screamingly funny scenes, but rather toward the nightmare of fear or pain. She has deliberately, if with a backward glance of regret, abandoned the comic for the tragic mode. Happily, she has also abandoned the flaccid form and domestic interiors of An Unofficial Rose, her last novel, for an ascetic narrative structure and a setting that supports her predilection for fantasy, here turned toward Gothic terror, mingled allusively with such fairy tales as the Sleeping Beauty and Beauty and the Beast, with suggestions also of Keats’ “La Belle Dame sans Merci” and of Alice’s stepping through the looking glass. At the center is the unicorn, the idea and image of which turn her toward the scenic, dramatic narrative in which character is action and theme and in which her painterly eye contributes to all.

The color of the golden horn dominates The Unicorn in striking contrast to the white day and the black night. Marian, who wears blue when she arrives, is slowly re-dressed in amber clothes and jewels selected for her by Hannah. As the black-haired, blue-eyed, guilt-laden Denis departs at the end of the novel, accompanied by a golden retriever, Marian sees their figures disappear “in the saffron–yellow haze near the skyline.” Miss Murdoch’s color sense, moreover, is especially tapestry-like when, in darkly bright interior scenes, lit only by oil lamps or fire-light, faces appear gilded or black. Dark exterior scenes are memorably lit with flickering flashlight or with “fairy fire.” The colors, brightest in scenes of Gaze’s golden parties, grow darker as fear and anxiety increasingly dominate the novel’s mood and tone until in the climactic scene in which Marian, paralyzed, watches Hanna’s doorknob move, a candle flares briefly and then goes out.

If Hannah is the unicorn, why does she, captured, move to Gerald to free herself? Why can Gerald say that he and Hannah understand each other? These questions puzzle especially Marian and Denis who see Hannah as angel in need of their protection. Violet, on the other hand, who calls Hannah an adulteress and a murderer, sees in Hannah’s actions merely a repetition of her former actions. The questions and the answers, of course, are not simple. In The Bell Miss Murdoch drops a sentence just before a juvenile climbs and drops over a forbidden wall: “Violence is an escape from oneself.” The sentence echoes through the novel as one character tries running away, another tries drowning, and a third succeeds in blowing out his brains. One can read The Unicorn as an elaborate intensification of The Bell, but one that focuses more directly on the relationship between violence and guilt. Hannah’s cage, itself a destructive net of guilt, opens not to the freedom of the Marvelous Mister Mars, but first to the violence of Gerald and then, that a failure, to the paradoxical freedom-through-violence of death. Marian’s error has been to imagine that she could “free” someone who is indeed so much a part of the pattern of guilt and suffering that she is the pattern: Hannah feeds on her captivity and cannot, in fact, live without it. For herein lies the unique quality of the unicorn symbol as Miss Murdoch has freely used it. Hannah, the suffering, powerless figure, is not separate from the enchanting powerful one. The unicorn provides with a singular economy a means of combining within one figure both ideas: the enchanted is the enchanter; the serene angel is the black demon; the beauty is evil; the suffering is power. The combinations revealed in action move Miss Murdoch’s novel toward tragedy.

As in other Murdoch novels, the circle has come full round. The image of the “magic circle” reemphasizes the consistency with which all eyes have been directed toward Hannah. Cunningly contributed are multiple views of Hannah, as angel, as bitch, as suffering martyr, as madwoman, as ideal love, as supreme egotist, as everywoman or everyman. The name of “Gaze” comments on the the truthlessness of vision, for along with its associates in the novel, “haze” and “daze,” the reader is reminded of Milton’s Samson—“Eyeless in Gaza”—himself another deluded victim of love who ends in captivity. Miss Murdoch’s preoccupation with the particular delusion of vision that is called projection suggests, moreover, an alternate reading of the novel. The two narrative eyes, Marian and Effingham, leave the ordinary human world for dream. They journey toward a circle of light—the faces encircled with golden hair, the view through binoculars, the face in the mirror, the unicorn in his cage—in the center of which they hope to find joy and bliss. Though they come seeking ideals, they find only dark lightnesses of themselves. But the tapestry reminds us that, within the beautiful beast and the lure of virginal beauty, erupts the volcano that terrifies and destroys. Marian’s growing identification with Hannah and Effie’s increasing rejection of her suggest either killing or abandoning, in horror or in selfishness, in awareness or unconsciousness, their other selves. They do return, separately and differently, to the everyday world from which they came.

But whether the story is Hannah’s or whether it belongs to the double projection of Effie and Marian, the puzzle of motivation remains. Like others in our muddled century, Miss Murdoch provides so many possible answers—in terms of observers’ opinions as well as in fluctuations of self-analyses—that causality becomes an insoluble or at best an academic question. Dora in The Bell, like Mars, does not need to know why. But Marian asks and in effect receives the only answer possible: that there is a relationship between suffering and knowledge is all that we do know. As Max says to the morally deaf, unheroic Effie, we can see beauty, we can assume its goodness, we can even fear its evil: but “We can see wisdom only darkly.”
Retyped October 17, 2012

Would I subscribe to this view, written 49 years ago? Frankly, it astounded me. I would go over the ground of the early novels, had I the time right now, and I’m not sure I’d come out where I did in my youth. Perhaps after I have written the Lessing essay—also built on reviews of Lessing I wrote in the 1960s—I will return to the questions raised in this early essay. In the meantime, I am eager to hear from Lessing people. What do you think?
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