Iris Murdoch is perhaps better known as a novelist, but her books of philosophy articulate a moral vision that was the basis for much of her fiction, not least The Unicorn. Telling the story of Marian Taylor, a teacher who takes a post as governess at the remote Gaze Castle, the novel is at once a gothic melodrama and a pragmatic test of Murdoch’s philosophical ideas. At the centre of the novel’s mystery is Hannah Crean-Smith, who could be an innocent Christ-figure (the unicorn of the title) trapped against her will in the castle, or a corrupted and immoral devil. Marian is an existentialist, believing in the power of will and an individualistic notion of freedom. She sets a plan in motion to rescue Hannah from the castle, believing it is the right thing to do. Yet, reading Murdoch’s philosophy reveals that she thinks existentialism is a faulty doctrine. In her book The Sovereignty of Good, she writes:
‘Moral philosophy of an existentialist type is still Cartesian and egocentric. Briefly put, our picture of ourselves has become too grand, we have isolated, and identified ourselves with, an unrealistic conception of will, we have lost the vision of a reality separate from ourselves, and we have no adequate conception of original sin’.
Murdoch, in her philosophy, strives to overcome the power of the ego by emphasising the importance of attention, something inspired by Simone Weil. In The Unicorn, this idea is put forward as Marian’s own philosophy is challenged by Max Lejour, a retired professor who values the Platonic notion of good and the power of focused attention. He dismisses Marian’s emphasis on 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.’
Attention is the key to morality, according to both Lejour and Murdoch. The latter believes that to reach true morality one must overcome the ego by focusing attention on virtuous things (i.e. virtuous people, great art, the natural world, the concept of ‘good’ itself). In other words, real morality comes from engaging in the real, external world rather than the self.
The Unicorn strives to dramatize this philosophy, and the inhabitants of Gaze Castle (as suggested by the name) have an unfocused vision and lack virtuous attention. Hannah in particular has a very insular philosophy, something that undermines her status as the Christ-like unicorn at the centre of the novel. Hannah’s decline prompts a seductive discussion of what it means to be good when established moral symbols are revealed to be empty. Like all the best philosophical fiction, it examines its different ideas without the strictures of formal academic conventions and combines them with creative and experimental writing. Read as a novel, it is satisfying and provoking, but read with Murdoch’s philosophy, it is something else.
Iris Murdoch, The Unicorn (London: Vintage, 2000)