The Black Prince
Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
Art as a Vehicle for Truth
As Loxias and Bradley Pearson explain in their forewords and postscripts, art is one of the rare venues that allows for the articulation of truth. As Loxias says in the conclusion of the novel, "art tells the only truth that ultimately matters." As a follower of the ideas of Plato, Iris Murdoch believes that the world of everyday life is a world of illusions, behind which exists a world of truth, containing "ideal forms". When one is finally able to see the world of ideal forms, one is glimpsing truth. In a realm with both illusory and "true" worlds, art holds a special place, because through it an artist is able to bring viewers out of the illusory plane and into the true one. Art serves as a fundamental philosophical tool that can alert the world to higher meanings in life. Bradley Pearson's struggle to write a deeply meaningful novel in The Black Prince captures one artist's attempt to preserve a glimmer of truth for others. Although Pearson is struck by writer's block for most of the novel, his experience of Eros allows him to create the ultimate master work. In doing so, as P.Loxias (the God Apollo) suggests, he is able to bring truth to us, the readers.
Eros's Facilitation of Expression
Bradley Pearson's experience of Eros gives him the ability to write. "Eros" refers both to erotic love and to a deeper lust for power, love, and desire. Bradley's experience of Eros originally starts as pure love for Julian Baffin: he becomes happy and pleasant after feeling it. As his love turns towards lust, however, he begins to refer to his Eros as "black Eros," referencing the negative qualities that overtake him during his obsession with Julian. Despite the potentially destructive power of Eros that Bradley experiences, it still is the avenue that allows him to glimpse truth. After such a sudden and intense voyage with Eros, Bradley emerges changed and is finally able to express truth through the creation of art.
The Randomness of Life
Iris Murdoch was not an existentialist, but she shares the existentialist idea that life has no greater purpose than what individual humans designate. For Murdoch and existentialists, there is no God who has preordained one's life path before one is born. Instead, one is born with freedom to create whatever type of life that one chooses. Despite the ability to be free, most people generally prefer to cling to a preordained meaning by believing in God, or by assigning meaning to everything that happens to them. In an effort to counter this tendency, Murdoch attempts to argue for the random nature of life in her novel. For example, Bradley and Julian randomly meet twice, but there is no sense that their coincidental meetings were meant to be. Likewise, a series of random arrivals and meetings drive the entire plot of her novel. These events are what make up people's lives, but they were not each individually plotted by the Fates. As Murdoch demonstrates, life is just a series of random accidents connected together.
The Black Prince begins and ends with a domestic quarrel between a married couple. During the novel, Murdoch analyzes the institution of marriage by looking at it through three different couples. For each of these couples, marriage fails. Furthermore, in two of the marriages, Priscilla's and Roger's, and Rachel's and Arnold's, the marriage proves fatal; one of the partners is dead by the end of the book. Given the failure of marriages in her novel, Murdoch suggests that it is a consistently painful institution, which might be better avoided. Bradley Pearson himself articulates a similar perspective when he suggests that the state of being married is inconsistent with a human's natural desire and that marriage generally leads one towards a state of perpetual loneliness.
Hamlet is major motif in the novel. Hamlet's characters, text, and themes recur several times. The play primarily appears because Julian Baffin wants to study Hamlet, so she keeps asking Bradley to teach it to her. By explaining it to Julian, Bradley is able to articulate his interpretation of what Hamlet actually means. The theme in Hamlet that is most important to The Black Prince is that of identity and the ability to create one's identity through the use of words. As Bradley Pearson writes his narrative, he struggles with this issue, which may be the reason for which the novel is called The Black Prince—a title usually given to Hamlet. Hamlet's appearance in the novel also plays an important role in the growing rapport between Julian and Bradley, since their initial tutorial is a symbolic sex scene, and when Julian eventually dresses up as Hamlet, Bradley proceeds to make violent love to her. Murdoch's frequent references to Hamlet also indicate her textual allegiance to Shakespearian techniques, which she greatly admired.
Feet and Boots
Attention to Julian's feet is a motif that chronicles the sexual awakening of Bradley. The motif begins when Bradley sees Julian walking barefoot by the subway station. He proceeds to buy her a pair of purple boots, but not before his socks tumble out of his pocket and she puts them on. It is when she finally puts on the boots in the store, that Bradley feels his first swell of lust. Later during their Hamlet tutorial, Julian arrives wearing the same purple boots. As the room grows hot, she asks if she can take them off. She asks Bradley if her feet smell and he says that they do, but that he finds it "charming". As lust and unrealized love overwhelm him, Bradley comments that he could smell "her sweat, her feet, her breasts." Julian's exposure of her feet galvanizes Bradley's sexuality and serves as one of the symbolic steps towards the awakening of his love.
When Bradley leaves Rachel's house after kissing her, Julian releases her kite and Bradley follows it faithfully as he walks to the subway station. The kite symbolizes the glimpse of the eternal that he is soon to get, but has not yet received. Bradley already has philosophized about the importance of kites when he was drunk in Bristol noting that kites are distant high things that are "an image of our condition." As he follows Julian's kite to the train station, he feels that it is the "bearer of some potent as yet unfathomed destiny." The kite's ability to fly and to see the world from a higher perspective is something that all humans aspire to and is something that Bradley shall be able to do by the end of the novel. The kite symbolizes the ability to see beyond the world of illusionary forms that dominates the everyday world.
Priscilla is obsessed with her jewels and believes that if she receives them, all of her troubles shall be over. This belief is false and represents the sad state of her life. Priscilla's jewels represent the one thing that she was able to gather during her married years. To some extent, they represent her sole legacy, since she has lived a childless existence. But it is a sad legacy, as jewels are cold, meaningless items whose primary significance is their monetary value. Priscilla's inability to see the illusionary and meaningless nature of these items is consistent with her inability to have seen, or looked for, a deeper layer of truth during her entire life. When Priscilla finally receives her longed after jewels, she not surprisingly does not feel happier. Her jewels are meaningless items that suggest the way in which she, and most people, waste their lives by not trying to aspire for more meaningful truths.
Der Rosenkavalier is Strauss's opera that Bradley and Julian attend. The opera has a special symbolic role because it contains sexual partners of grossly different ages, similar to the one in The Black Prince. Bradley's realization of the similarity between the opera and his own sexuality causes him to vomit after only several minutes of watching it. The color red that plays such a large role in the opera's setting also is significant in bringing out Bradley's silenced sexual desires. Although Bradley may not know this at the beginning of the novel, the plot of Der Rosenkavalier also foreshadows that of The Black Prince. While Bradley and Julian will have a love affair, as the Princess and Octavian did, both Julian and Octavian will eventually leave their older lovers and find partners their own age.
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