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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Unicorn

Iris Murdoch

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To purchase The Unicorn

Title: The Unicorn
Author: Iris Murdoch
Genre: Novel
Written: 1963
Length: 270 pages
Availability: The Unicorn - US
The Unicorn - UK
The Unicorn - Canada
Le château de la licorne - France
La sua parte di colpa - Italia
El unicornio - España

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Our Assessment:

A- : grand, bizarre, allegorical-philosophical gothic novel

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Rev. of Books . 1/6/1963 Eve Auchincloss
The Spectator . 6/9/1963 Malcolm Bradbury
Sunday Telegraph . 8/9/1963 Nigel Dennis
Sunday Times . 8/9/1963 J.W.Lambert
TLS . 6/9/1963 Anthony Cronin

  From the Reviews:
  • "(T)he least social, most nakedly mythical of all her novels. (...) The intensity and real sensitivity with which Miss Murdoch always handles the contacts and emotions of love pro- vide her with an effective means of deception, since stability is the last thing to be characteristic of any affectionate relationship she shows. (...) There is an element of unsureness in the depiction of Hannah, and in the working-out of the action toward the close, that takes us away from this essentially anti-romantic centre of revelation." - Malcolm Bradbury, The Spectator

  • "Clearly, this allegorical pile-up is no traffic accident. The idea of compressing numerous legendary fancies into a single tale has tickled Miss Murdoch and excited her talent for technical manoeuvrings. So, to enjoy her book one must be in tune with her particular kind of comedy and her skill, and anybody that finds the former insipid and the latter overdone will also find the book a labour to read. (...) The Unicorn seems fuzzy, lengthy, and clobbered. Its characters have neither the dreamy or grim fascination of fairy-tale persons, nor the fleshy qualities of real ones." - Nigel Dennis, Sunday Telegraph

  • "One thing is certain: Iris Murdoch's new novel cannot fail to give a great deal of pleasure, and for several reasons. Its narrative unfolds a tale of romantic ingenuity, deployed with a skill which is itself delightful. (...) The apparatus of the simplest sort of romantic novel, and sometimes its language, as well as trick after trick of narrative suspense and shock, are put unerringly to work. The result is at the very least a dazzling "entertainment": and those whose cast of mind leads that way will find in every figure, every incident, a symbolic something" - J.W.Lambert, Sunday Times

  • "It is as if we were at one of those drunken parties where declarations of love by almost complete strangers and ordinary people were the order of the night. But there is no hint of satire; far from it. (...) Though there has been some exceedingly unsatisfactory talk about God, almost the entire interest resides, as in any ordinary romance, in who gets whom and why, but the permutations and combinations are so endless and apparently meaningless that even the thin interest of ordinary romantic culmination has vanished long before the end." - Anthony Cronin, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Unicorn begins with Marian Taylor taking up a new position. Formerly a schoolmistress and nearly thirty, a romance that wasn't going anywhere has led her to upend her life: she answered an advertisement for a governess and accepted the job (with its: "suspiciously high" salary): "without having found out, or quite liking to enquire, the age and number of her prospective pupils". If the estate where she is to be employed has an enticing name -- Gaze Castle -- the area it is located in is certainly remote, a: "God-forsaken spot" as one of the locals puts it upon her arrival (and that in more ways than one). So also the nearest local villages and towns are called Greytown and Blackport .....
       The position isn't quite what Marian had imagined: for one, there are no children at Gaze Castle. Instead, she finds she is meant to be a sort of "lady companion" to the lady of the house, Hannah Crean-Smith -- "youngish and beautiful and spiritual-looking in a rather fey way". Marian assumes that Hannah is a widow, since there's no Mr. Crean-Smith in residence, and though she senses something is off about this whole domestic tableau she now finds herself with a part in, can't quite figure it out very quickly -- uncertain, for example, whether Hannah: "were not somehow ill, or convalescing from some grave ailment".
       It takes a while before she begins to learn some of Gaze Castle's secret -- and even just the tip of the iceberg (and, boy, is it an iceberg) is bizarre and shocking. There is a Mr. Crean-Smith -- Peter -- but he lives in the United States. Seven years earlier he had caught Hannah in flagrante with Philip 'Pip' Lejour -- the son of: "A curious recluse, an elderly scholar called Max Lejour", who lives in the neighboring estate, Riders. A cliff-top altercation in this dramatic seaside locale not much later between husband and wife had seen Peter go over the side -- but miraculously survive; he had not returned to Gaze Castle since after this incident.
       Peter might be away, but he is insistent about one thing: that Hannah remain. When Hannah greets Marian by telling her: "I do hope you won't mind being imprisoned with us here miles from nowhere" she means it all too literally: Hannah is, in fact, a prisoner. Not actually locked in her room, or even the house, but securely enough shackled to the place that she does not venture beyond the gardens. Her one escape attempt, five years earlier, ended with her being sent back by her own father, who would not even see his daughter: he, just like the locals, seem to accept that Crean-Smith's treatment of his wife was entirely appropriate.
       She is well guarded, and well-attended to, beginning with the man who is more or less the official jailer, Gerald Scottow -- a childhood friend of Peter's (and his longtime lover ...). Two poor relatives of Hannah's, Violet and Jamesie Evercreech joined the cast after the escape attempt of five years earlier, with Jamesie employed as the chauffeur (and completely under Gerald's thumb, among other things). The "gloomy little clerk" Denis Nolan completes (that part of) the picture; he had previously been employed at Riders, but an apparent attempted assault by him on the daughter of the house, Alice Lejour, had led to him moving to Gaze Castle.
       If Marian's arrival brings a minor change to Gaze Castle, more seems afoot at Riders: Max is near to finishing "his immense work on Plato", while Pip has quit his job and is: "Clearing the decks for action. It's seven years, you know". (Something is certainly in the air -- though whether it's change, and whether it's change of the sort that anyone wants, remains to be seen.) They also have a guest staying with them, one of Max's former students, Effingham Cooper, whom Alice long hoped and expected to marry but who has fallen in love with Hannah: "She was the only one, the great phoenix, his truth, his home, his ἁπαξ λεγομενον". While Pip is, of course, not allowed near Daze Castle -- though he often strays close by, on the neighboring grounds ... --, Effingham's visits are, somewhat surprisingly (and predictably unwisely) tolerated, and for four years now he has wooed Hannah.
       All around there are cases of unfulfilled love, whether essentially unrequited -- Alice's long longing for Effingham or Marian's for the man she left behind, Geoffrey -- or in one way or another thwarted, including Hannah's various would-be amours. With some same-sex attraction also surfacing in this almost claustrophobic small setting -- not least around Marian, whom both Evercreechs seem drawn to, with Jamesie even noting with considerable satisfaction about her: "I've never known a woman like you. You're different. You're real. Like a man." There is no functioning, happy relationship in the novel -- the one happy coupling is entirely off-scene, Marian's former beau getting happily engaged -- with only Gerald and Jamesie involved in a somewhat satisfying (if decidedly unequal) sexual relationship, but a torrent of passion flows under the surface. (Appropriately, a big storm washed through and flooded the area, wiping out a great deal a few years earlier; another storm, complete with flooded and washed out roads will make for the backdrop to the novel's climactic finale.)
       As Marian comes to realize: "it was all quite insane", but she becomes ensnared in this odd place. She worries about Hannah and her situation, and she wants to free her -- it wouldn't seem that difficult. But nothing here is straightforward or simple. As she is reminded:

You have imagined that you know our ills and you have imagined that you have the power to cure them. But neither is the case. Eh ?
       Eh, indeed .....
       As Max -- a more peripheral figure, though not without significance as the story progresses -- explains to Effingham, Hannah and this situation are quite special:
In a way we can't help using her as a scapegoat. In a way that's what she's for and to recognize it is to do her honor. She is our image of the significance of suffering. But we must also see her as real. And that will make us suffer too.'
     'I'm not sure that I understand,' said Effingham. 'I know one mustn't think of her as a legendary creature, a beautiful unicorn --'
     'The unicorn is also the image of Christ. But we have to do too with an ordinary guilty person.'
     'Do you really see her as expatiating a crime ?'
     'I'm not a Christian. By saying she's guilty I mean she's like us. And if she feels no guilt, so much the better for her. We must just not forget that there was a crime. Exactly whose probably doesn't matter by now.'
       Marian sees herself as apart, but she can't help but get sucked into this whole strange situation, and become part of it. When Denis speaks bluntly she can still try to convince herself it does not apply to her, but not for terribly long:
'Everyone here is involved in guilt.'
     'Except me,' said Marian, half to herself after a moment. 'Except me, except me, except me."
       Rather than break Hannah out, Marian might really want to be thinking about getting the hell out of this lunatic situation for her own good. But she's all in, soon enough -- not least thanks to the various attentions she enjoys there, from Hannah's generous gifts to male (and female) romantic (or at least sexual) attention. She wants to save Hannah -- but does Hannah want to be saved ? And, in this strange household -- "There is something very odd about this place", Marian senses from early on, before grasping just how much of an understatement that was -- isn't everyone already far beyond saving ?
       Plato-man Max might be the novel's thinker-ideal -- barely figuring in the action, but good for some of the talk -- but they're all living his philosophy:
     The free society ? That rag freedom ! Freedom may be a value in politics, but it's not a value in morals. Truth, yes, but not freedom. That's a flimsy idea. Like happiness. In morals we are all prisoners, but the name of our cure is not freedom.
       Scottow makes a similar case to Marian, when she has tumbled far deeper already into the Gaze-abyss:
There are things which are appalling to young people because young people think life should be happy and free. But life is never really happy and free in any beautiful sense. Happiness is a weak and paltry thing and perhaps "freedom" has no meaning. There are great patterns in which we are all involved, and destinies which belong to us and which we love even in the moment when they destroy us. Do you think that I myself am separated in any way from what goes on here, that I am free ? I am part of it too. It does not belong to me, I belong to it.
       Pip sensed that change was in the air, after these seven years, and change does come, precipitously. The to and fro after Marian's and then Effingham's arrivals had already stirred things up, but the true turning point comes with the shocking announcement that Peter is coming back. It is not good news, upsetting whatever little balance was left at Gaze Castle (and Riders, for good measure): if The Unicorn was wobbling on the rails up to this point, it quickly goes completely off them -- gloriously, absurdly, and quite entertainingly so. Effingham literally sinking into the bog when he storms off in the night is the least of it; calamity follows. Also: death. Not to give too much away, but the final body count, accumulated in short order (and in an astonishing variety of ways, all in separate incidents), is four. But at least a few do make good an escape from Gaze Castle -- with Denis even managing to save some of his beloved fish from the pond .....
       The Unicorn is a very bizarre novel. It's a semi-modern gothic -- twentieth-century, but barely (beyond the automobiles that figure in the story), and with all the old trappings, as Gaze Castle doesn't even have electricity -- but with a distinctly Murdochian cast that includes the sexually ambivalent, both the rarefied intellectual (Effingham begins teaching Marian ancient Greek) and down-to-earth (and beyond) physical, as well as, of course, the philosophical. Murdoch is remarkably good at atmosphere here, and The Unicorn is good simply as (somewhat perverted) Gothic entertainment. (It's also hard not to admire a novel of a secluded place that doesn't even bother with the pretense of the characters drinking fine wine: almost all they seem to consume here is whiskey, and that copiously and at all hours.) But of course it's also more than that.
       The Unicorn is steeped in philosophy and allegory, often quite explicitly. It is an interesting take on individual freedom, on guilt, on morality and love -- most of Murdoch's big themes. The heat of the quite compact novel almost overwhelms her philosophical considerations, but they're also at the heart of the odd story. It's a lot to disentangle, but all in all it's really quite well done -- though it might perhaps not seem, to everyone, entirely convincing.
       This is a gripping novel, action- and insight-wise, as far-fetched as so much of it might be. It's quite grand (as also in: over the top) entertainment, but also grounded in considerable depth (without, as in some of her baggier novels, getting mired in it: this is consistently sprightly fun). The Unicorn is probably not to all tastes, but is almost worth it just for its sheer strangeness.
       Not the worst place to start with Murdoch -- and a must for any fan.

- M.A.Orthofer, 24 May 2020

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The Unicorn: Reviews: Iris Murdoch: Other books by Iris Murdoch under review: Books about Iris Murdoch under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction at the complete review

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About the Author:

       Iris Murdoch (1919-1999) studied at Oxford and Cambridge, and was a fellow of St. Anne's College, Oxford. She published twenty-six novels and won the Booker Prize in 1978.

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