Shortlisted for The Booker Prize in 1973, The Black Prince is part metafictional thriller, part love story: a book that explores the intricacies and inconsistencies of human relationships

Whether you’re new to The Black Prince or have read it and would like to explore it more deeply, here is our comprehensive guide.

Publication date and time: Published


Iris Murdoch’s 15th novel is part-thriller, part-love story: a book that explores the intricacies and inconsistencies of human relationships.

Bradley Pearson, narrator and hero, is an ageing writer with a ‘block’. Adding and contributing to his torment are a host of predatory friends and relations - his melancholic sister, his ex-wife and her delinquent brother, and a younger, deplorably successful writer, Arnold Baffin. Not to mention Baffin’s restless wife and disturbingly engaging daughter. Bradley attempts to escape. His failure to do so, and its aftermath, lead to a violent climax and a most unexpected conclusion.

The Black Prince by Iris Murdoch

The main characters

Bradley Pearson

Bradley is the protagonist of the book, a novelist in his late fifties who is looking to retire in the country after spending his life as a tax inspector. He’s previously published two novels and a collection of essays and wants to dedicate his free time to writing. Considered to be a cold and cruel man, his behaviour can be seen as quite rude. This changes throughout the novel as Bradley falls in love.

Arnold Baffin

Arnold is a successful genre novelist who has a tense friendship with Bradley. He’s seen as compassionate and polite, though Bradley dislikes him and is envious of his career. 

Julian Baffin

Julian is Arnold’s 20-year-old daughter and Bradley’s love interest. She is naive and sometimes acts foolishly. Julian broke up with her boyfriend just a week before deciding that she was in love with Bradley and wanted to marry him. She soon feels differently though, when allowed some perspective on their relationship. 

Priscilla Saxe

Priscilla is Bradley’s sister who is extremely unhappy with the state of her life. She has spent her time in an unloving marriage with her husband Roger and is unable to have children. Despite deciding to come and live with Bradley and needing his help, Bradley ignores her.

Christian Evansdale

Christian is Bradley’s ex-wife who has lived in America for the past few years. She is a confident and sympathetic woman whom Bradley now despises. 

The Post Office Tower, London, 1970s

About the author

Iris Murdoch was born in Dublin and made her writing debut with Under the Net in 1954. She wrote 26 novels and several books of philosophy.

She read Classics at Somerville College, Oxford, and was awarded a research studentship in Philosophy at Newnham College, Cambridge. In 1948 she returned to Oxford as fellow and tutor at St Anne’s College and later taught at the Royal College of Art. Her novels include the Booker prize-winning The Sea, The Sea (1978), the James Tait Black Memorial prize-winning The Black Prince (1973) and the Whitbread prize-winning The Sacred and Profane Love Machine (1974). Murdoch had a number of other novels on the long- and shortlists for the Booker Prize over the years, including A Fairly Honourable Defeat which was longlisted for The Lost Man Booker Prize.

Iris Murdoch portrait

What the critics said

Charlotte Mendelson, The Guardian:

‘More than almost any other writer, she understands the currents beneath the surface: the way that inappropriate crushes, egotism, loathing, loneliness, can overcome apparently calm lives and leave disaster, even death, behind.’

Sophie Hannah, The New York Times:

‘The book is so great, I almost feel it has magic powers. It’s tragic, comic, mysterious, thought-provoking and so much more than the sum of its parts. It manages to be both a great detective story and a great love story at the same time. It’s the only book I’ve ever read that feels as if it encapsulates all of life and the human experience.’

Miles Leeson, Five Books:

‘It’s the most complex and complicated of Murdoch’s novels. It plays around with form; it’s a quasi-postmodern novel. It’s got a range of voices. It’s the story of an eccentric failed artist/ author called Bradley Pearson, who’s trying to write a great work of artistry. His great friend and rival is Arnold Baffin, a popular author who writes works that sell. And Bradley is intensely jealous of this. The relationship between Bradley and Arnold fuels the novel.’

Michael Da Silva, The Toronto Review of Books:

‘Murdoch makes empathy easy by providing excellent phenomenological descriptions of everything from falling in love with someone you have known from a long time to vomiting (two related phenomena in the novel and life).’

Catherine Taylor, Brixton Review of Books:

‘Ruinous, melodramatic, tragic: Bradley Pearson’s attempts to separate life from art and from his personal artistic vision lead to his downfall but also to a state of pure mystical revelation. Yet Murdoch tempers this seriousness with caustic dialogue and a robust sense of the improbable, as well as parody, the whole being wrapped up in a surfeit of unreliable narrators and metafictional aspects.’

vintage telephone

Questions and discussion points

The Black Prince has an unusual structure which begins with two forewords and ends with six postscripts. These additional sections are written by characters in the story, with the central story being recounted by Bradley Pearson. Why did Iris Murdoch choose to write the novel in such a manner? What purpose do the forewords and the postscripts serve within the overarching plot? 

The novel’s protagonist, Bradley Pearson, is an unlikable man who is misguided throughout much of the novel. Yet he later surveys his life from afar, giving the impression of a revised wisdom after the events. To what extent do you think Bradley could be deemed an unreliable narrator? 

Bradley retires as a tax inspector to focus on writing, with a consuming desire to create the perfect novel. What sentiment does the novel attempt to impart on the reader about life and art? 

Bradley’s friend, Arnold Baffin, is a genre novelist who writes ‘one book a year man’. Bradley is envious of Arnold and despises him. What is it about their relationship, and Arnold in general, that causes Bradley to feel so envious of him?

Bradley’s friend, P.A. Loxias, who has edited Bradley’s text and written a foreword, is said to represent the Greek god Apollo. Indeed, Apollo appeared on the novel’s original cover. What is the symbolic role of the Apollo myth within The Black Prince?

Bradley undergoes a transformation throughout the novel and his love (which is referred to as ‘eros’) for Julian empowers him to write. However, it is also a destructive force, and consumes him, right to the point of destruction. Is this intense voyage beneficial for Bradley, and how does it serve his art? 

Many readers have commented on the misogynistic nature of the text. Bradley notes Rachel ‘turned to me with a grimacing smile such as women sometimes use, smiling through weariness and a self-indulgent desire to weep’ (page 182), and he also comments that he is unable to be ‘“friends” with a woman’ (page 16). Written through a male narrator, Murdoch has de-centred any female perspective but to what extent do you think she was aware of this slant to the novel? Discuss whether it was her intention to allow Bradley to condemn himself.

The Black Prince is intertextual. It contains several Shakespearean references and parallels, with nods to Hamlet, including the title. It is also noted in the postscripts that Bradley Pearson shares initials with the Black Prince. Why has Murdoch drawn so heavily on Shakespeare, and is it fair to call the novel a retelling? 

Critics have claimed Bradley Pearson to be an alter ego of Iris Murdoch, but could it be the case that both Bradley and Arnold represent different sides of the author? Bradley, a tortured writer, striving for literary perfection, and Arnold, his more successful opposite, producing vast quantities of entertaining work. Discuss whether you agree, and if Murdoch may have been self-reflecting in The Black Prince. 

Iris Murdoch was a philosopher as well as an author of novels, she was renowned as a scholar of Plato and believed in the illusory nature of life. Discuss any influences you noted within The Black Prince and the commentary Murdoch intended to impart on the reader.

Apollo and the Muses by Heinrich Maria von Hess, 1826

Resources and further reading

Iris Murdoch 1977

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