The Unicorn (1963) is a tale of imprisonment in a shared fantasy, where the cages, rotating on a blank axle, are full of longing.
When the story opens, Marian Taylor, a thirty-something school teacher, is coming to a country house located in a remote area on the west coast of Ireland. Having answered an advertisement for working as a governess in Gaze Castle, Marian believes she has been hired to be a tutor for children. However, she soon discovers that she is to work as a companion of the lady of the house, the mysterious Hannah Crean-Smith.
As Marian becomes gradually entangled in the house’s strange pattern of lies and mysteries, she starts to suspect that Hannah is being kept a prisoner by her estranged husband, Peter Crean-Smith, who has been away from Gaze Castle for seven years. Perhaps, Marian has been hired, in a way, just as another of Hannah’s jailers.
Through the estate’s clerk, Denis Nolan, Marian learns that Peter has been an absent, unfaithful, and probably abusive husband. During one of his travels, Hannah had an affair with the neighbour, Philip “Pip” Lejour. One day, having arrived home unexpectedly, Peter caught the couple together and, after an ensuing struggle with Hannah, he fell from a cliff. Badly injured, Peter moved to New York to pursue an affair with a man, and imprisoned Hannah in Gaze Castle as punishment, leaving the house in the hands of Gerald Scottow, his former lover.
Gerald is a handsome man, who seems both to attract and repel each character in a different way. In his task of controlling Gaze Castle, he is assisted by the teenager Jamesie and the spinster Violet Evercreech, two distant poor relations of Hannah. Marian is told that, after having tried to free Hannah one day, Jamesie was whipped into submission by Gerald, and ended up by becoming… his lover.
The only contact of Gaze Castle with the world outside is provided by the neighbours at Riders. Max Lejour, Pip Lejour’s father, is a former Philosophy professor who is writing a never-ending book on Plato. Alice, his daughter, is a middle-aged woman caught in an unrequited love for Effingham Cooper, a successful public servant who had been Max’s pupil and, since then, comes every year to visit him (and to court Hannah, for whom he is in love).
From the beginning, we feel that there is something off with this place and its inhabitants: they seem to be under a strange spell, woven into Gaze Castle’s mysterious tapestry, and as imprisoned by it as Hannah herself. All seem to be waiting for something magical to happen, after the end of the seven years of punishment; and all seem to be bewitched by the lady of the house: “Hannah makes romantics of us all”. Moreover, it is not clear who is the prisoner of whom; is Hannah a victim or an executioner? Is she in love with her jailer? Did she really try to kill Peter? By attempting to answer those questions, we become prisoners of Gaze Castle’s pattern, too.
This feeling is accentuated by the novel’s delicious Gothic atmosphere: the remote setting, surrounded by lonely moors, a deadly bog, and dangerous cliffs, lashed by a violent sea; the labyrinthic house full of dark rooms, lit by oil lamps and candles; the ethereal figure of Hannah, a prisoner surrounded by mirrors, who may or may not be a mad woman in the attic. In Gaze Castle, we feel as if we were entering a world of elemental passions, magic, and violence, where the limits between reality and fantasy are somewhat blurred. Also, we are not sure to what extent we are imagining things here: is the place really haunted, or are we led to think so, by becoming a part of it? It feels as if you were probing how far you can weave the reader into the tapestry of the book.
The unicorn in the title is a symbol for a sacrificial figure, “a pure being who only suffers and does not attempt to pass the suffering on”. At first, it is tempting to read it as a representation of Hannah, a magical, lonely beast with a strange power to enchant everyone around her; a thing of beauty made captive of everyone’s desires, like a blank slate where each character projects what he or she most needs. Is Hannah a victim in need of protection? Or an executioner in need of its victims? The enchanter and the enchanted? A saint or an egotist? A martyr or a madwoman? The unicorn in a cage or the cage itself? Whatever the characters come to seek in Hannah, they end up by only finding what they had set out to find in the first place – and, ultimately, they find themselves. Or, rather, we find them.
Another reading of the image of the unicorn, however, would be to conflate it with the idea of freedom – a value that either is to be sacrificed so as to make the pattern hold together; or that only is truly achieved by the destruction of the pattern itself. If it is true that both Marian and Effingham desire to free the lady of the house from her cage, they do so precisely because they are prisoners of their own thoughts about what Hannah is or should be; they are impelled more by their own fantasies of freedom than by a reckoning with the reality of Hannah. As you write about Effingham, “he had not really loved Hannah, he loved a dream figure which he had been able to superimpose upon her”.
For them, she has become an object of contemplation, an emblem of suffering. Marian and Effingham are as imprisoned by their own fantasies about Hannah as she is: more than a prisoner of Gaze Castle, she is a prisoner of other people’s ideas about her. Whoever attempts to free the lady of the house will never be able to give her any freedom, and will only lose his own in the meantime: “The soul under the burden of sin cannot flee. What is enacted here with her is enacted with all of us in one way or another. You cannot come between her and her suffering, it is too complicated, too precious, we must play her game, whatever it is, and believe her beliefs. That is all we can do for her.”
Hannah’s cage, when open, will prove to be even more violent than when it was locked, for the escape and the freedom this opening entails. No one can free Hannah, as much as no one can free the woman in the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries: she is the pattern of her own suffering; she feeds on her captivity. Likewise, only the destruction of the pattern – and thereby Hannah’s own destruction – can make the other characters free.
Maybe the image of the unicorn stands not for the value of freedom itself, but for that without which no freedom is possible: the idea of goodness, as discussed by one of the characters, the recluse Max Lejour. In a conversation with his former pupil, Effingham, Max argues that goodness frees oneself from pain by taking it all in, and refusing to pass it on: pain and guilt are transferred from one person to another, until they reach a truly good person who refuses to pass them on to others. Once Hannah agrees to destroy the pattern on which the people around her were caught, she takes on the suffering, so as to free them; she breaks their fantasies, and, by doing so, she makes herself real to them: “she is gone, and now we can all see each other again.”
In The Bell (1958), you wrote: “Violence is an escape from oneself.” You claim that true moral experience is marked by the ability to pay attention to contingency, to see the reality of other people: the highest form of moral vision is love. As long as one is deluded by fantasies – for instance, fantasies about what Hannah represents, or about what one is in relation to her -, self-knowledge collapses, and it is impossible to see and love others: violence is the result of this escape from the reality of others and of oneself.
Locked in one’s own fantasies about other people, one gives up the realm of contingency in the name of necessity; and, in this sense, gives up the sole realm where goodness and freedom are possible. Once the characters are brought back to reality by means of tragedy, they are forced to confront their own fantasies about each other – and so are we, as readers of those fantasies.
The characters are thrown into contingency: they seem to be emerging from a dream. We cannot help but to have the feeling that, soon, they will be weaving each other into another tapestry pattern again. But, for now, they are just that: unique things, like images peeling off from a painting, finally meeting one another.
“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 involved, and destinies which belong to us and which we love even in the moment when they destroy us.” ― Iris Murdoch,
Love holds the world together, and if we could forget ourselves everything in the world would fly into a perfect harmony, and when we see beautiful things that is what they remind us of.” ― Iris Murdoch,
About the book
- Vintage Classics, 2001, 270 p. Goodreads
- First published in 1963
- My rating: 4 stars
- I read this book for the Iris Murdoch Readalong