The Black Prince (novel)

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The Black Prince
First edition
Author Iris Murdoch
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Publisher Chatto & Windus
Publication date
Feb 1973
Pages 363
ISBN 0-7011-1924-1

The Black Prince is Iris Murdoch's 15th novel, first published in 1973. The name of the novel alludes mainly to Hamlet.

Plot summary[edit]

The Black Prince is remarkable for the structure of its narrative, consisting of a central story bookended by forewords and post-scripts by characters within it. It largely consists of the description of a period in the later life of the main character, ageing London author Bradley Pearson, during which time he falls in love with the daughter of a friend and literary rival, Arnold Baffin. For years Bradley has had a tense but strong relationship with Arnold, regarding himself as having 'discovered' the younger writer. The tension is ostensibly over Bradley's distaste for Arnold's lack of proper literary credentials, though later the other characters claim this to be a matter of jealousy or the product of an Oedipus complex. Their closeness is made apparent from the start of the book, however, as Arnold telephones Bradley, worried that he has killed his wife, Rachel, in a domestic row. Bradley attends with another character, Francis Marloe, in tow.

Bradley then starts to get trapped in a growing dynamic of family, friends, and associates who collectively seem to thwart his attempts at achieving the isolation he feels necessary to create his 'masterpiece'.

During this time he falls in love with the Baffins' young daughter, Julian. Despite a private vow never to confess or seek to realise this love, he promptly blurts it out to Francis, thereafter abandoning self-control, embarking on a brief, intense affair, stealing Julian to a rented sea-side cottage, neglecting pressing needs at home. During his absence his depressed sister, Priscilla, commits suicide. While Bradley postpones returning, Arnold arrives, enraged, to collect his daughter, though leaves, apparently, without her, with a promise that she will return home the next day. Yet Julian vanishes in the night, in Bradley's mind (at least), is taken off and hidden against her will. The final action of the main section takes place at the Baffins' residence, where Bradley attends an incident parallel to the opening one: Rachel appears to have struck Arnold with a poker, killing him. Bradley's arrest, trial, and conviction for Arnold's murder are briefly described, bringing to a close Bradley's telling of the events.

The Post-Scripts by the Dramatis Personae[edit]

This section is told from the point of view of the other characters, each being said to have had the luxury of reading the main section before drafting their responses. Each interprets the action differently, focusing on separate issues to a more or less selfish degree. The author's purpose in creating the post-scripts is to cast doubt on the veracity of the fiction that preceded it, but also on themselves. They also allow Murdoch's meticulous craft to be laid bare, exposing some of the finer nuances of her work. Some of these are discussed in the Influences and Themes section below.

Influences and themes[edit]

Chief amongst Iris Murdoch's influences for this novel is the Shakespeare play Hamlet. It is openly referenced and discussed throughout, especially by Bradley. It is noted in the Post-Scripts that Bradley Pearson shares initials with the Black Prince, the title of Pearson's fictional as well as Murdoch's real work. Also present is the influence of Freud, especially through the frequent sexual imagery centered on recurrent references to the phallic Post Office Tower. Bradley's possible proxy admission of homosexuality is made possible through his seeming self-identification with Shakespeare throughout his narrative, and in his claiming both Hamlet and Shakespeare were homosexual. It is strengthened further by the moments in the book where he finds himself attracted to Julian, during each of which her gender is made ambiguous. The final of these is when he finally achieves sexual arousal, having previously been unable, when Julian has dressed herself as Hamlet. These themes are discussed by Francis, himself a homosexual, in the Post-Scripts. It is also notable that the two characters Bradley has achieved intimacy with, Julian and Christian, are not clearly female in characterisation or name. An attempted seduction by Rachel, a more traditionally feminine character, is described passionlessly by Bradley's narrative.

Subtler Ancient Greek influences are seen in Bradley's quest for a pseudo-Platonic perfection in his writing and his purported Asceticism.

Awards and nominations[edit]

The Black Prince was awarded the 1973 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction.[1] It was shortlisted for the 1973 Booker Prize. [2]


  1. ^ "James Tait Black Prizes". The University of Edinburgh. Retrieved 11 September 2014. 
  2. ^ "The Man Booker Prize Archive". The Man Booker Prize. Retrieved 20 October 2014.