The Black Prince is a novel written by Iris Murdoch.
The Black Prince tells the story of Bradley Pearson, a fifty-eight year old man who has previously published three books. In order to write a great novel, he quits his lifelong job as a tax inspector, but soon finds himself struck with writer's block. He decides to spend the summer in a rented cottage on the coast for inspiration.
Before he can leave for the coast, however, a series of events keeps him home. When his detested ex-wife's brother, Francis visits him he finds out that his ex wife, Christian, has returned to London. He is called to intervene in a marital dispute between his close friends, Arnold and Rachel Baffin. Arnold is a successful but unartistic writer. During the fight, Rachel Baffin hits her head on the fireplace poker, but is not dead, as Arnold initially fears. After leaving their house, Bradley runs into the Baffins' twenty-year-old daughter, Julian, by the subway station. She wants Bradley to teach her how to write. The next morning, Bradley's sister, Priscilla, unexpectedly arrives, because she has left her husband. She almost immediately tries to commit suicide with sleeping pills. During the confusion of her suicide attempt, for which all of the Baffins and Francis Marloe are present, Christian, Bradley's ex-wife, appears, but is taken away by Arnold before Bradley sees her.
After Priscilla gets back from the hospital, Bradley visits Christian in order to tell her to leave him alone. Bradley then goes to Bristol to pick up his sister's jewels. He is unable to do so, and finds that Priscilla's husband has a younger, pregnant mistress. Priscilla starts staying at Christian's house so Francis Marloe, a former doctor, can care for her. While all of this is happening, Arnold Baffin becomes interested in having an affair with Christian and Rachel Baffin becomes interested in sleeping with Bradley. During Rachel and Bradley's attempted lovemaking, however, he cannot perform sexually. He and Rachel later determine to become platonic friends.
Julian has been pestering Bradley to teach her about Hamlet and arrives one day for a tutorial. During the tutorial, Bradley falls passionately in love with her. He initially tries to keep his love secret. After becoming physically ill while watching Der Rosenkavalier with Julian however, he confesses his emotions. He tells Julian that he is forty-six, instead of fifty-eight. Julian considers the issue of his love thoughtfully. By the next morning, she has determined that she loves him. Julian later confesses her love to her parents. They respond by locking her in her room and yelling at Bradley. Despite Rachel and Arnold's anger, Bradley refuses to see that his love is inappropriate. When Julian sneaks away from her parents' house, she and Bradley meet and leave for his rented cottage.
On their first day away, Julian entertains romantic fantasies about marrying Bradley. Their initial attempts at lovemaking are not successful. The next day, Bradley finds out that Priscilla has killed herself. He keeps the news from Julian to maintain their bliss. When he returns home, he finds Julian dressed up as Hamlet. He drags her to the bed and makes violent love to her in such a rough way that Julian later weeps. Arnold finds them later that night and begs Julian to leave. He tells her of Priscilla's death and Bradley's true age. Julian seems confused, but refuses go. After her father leaves, she isolates herself in a separate bedroom to think, but is gone by the time Bradley wakes in the morning.
Bradley goes back to London for Priscilla's funeral. He believes that Arnold stole Julian away in the night. Bradley cannot find her anywhere. Christian wants to start a relationship with Bradley, but he declines. Rachel tells Bradley that Julian left him freely because she learned of Bradley's recent sexual encounter with Rachel (Rachel had described the encounter in a letter that Arnold delivered). Bradley is so angry at Rachel's interference that he spitefully shows her a letter that Arnold wrote describing Arnold's love for Christian. Rachel is furious and vows never to forgive Bradley. A few days later, Bradley receives a letter from Julian. Despite her saying otherwise, he decides that she still loves him and that she is in Venice. He makes plans to go there. Before he can leave, however, Rachel calls and begs for his immediate assistance. After arriving at the Baffins' house, Bradley finds Arnold dead, having been hit with the same fire poker that once hit Rachel. When Bradley tries to cover up Rachel's crime, he is accused of it himself. He is later convicted because everyone believes that he killed Arnold out of envy. Bradley has written his novel from prison. In the final postscript of the book, the editor, P.Loxias, notes that soon after finishing the book, Bradley Pearson died of a fast growing cancer.
- Bradley Pearson - The protagonist and the author of the novel. Bradley is the novel's most fully developed character and also the one who changes the most within it. Bradley starts the book as a cold and occasionally cruel character. He treats Francis and Christian with blunt rudeness. He ignores his very depressed sister, Priscilla, and it is his neglect, in part, that leads to her suicide. In the beginning of the novel, Bradley acts only with self-interest, but after his experience of love he changes into a content, more generous creature, who is finally able to write a master novel.
- Arnold Baffin - The very successful popular writer whom Bradley is accused of killing at the end of the novel. Arnold and Bradley's friendship is one of the primary relationships within the novel. Although Bradley frequently dislikes Arnold, Arnold is portrayed very favorably. He is a polite, interesting man who always wants to know more about people's characters and who always longs to talk to them. He takes great pleasure in hearing about Francis Marloe's life, for example, while Bradley at the same time is trying to get Francis out the door. Arnold's compassionate interest contrasts Bradley's coldness.
- Rachel Baffin - The wife of Arnold Baffin. Rachel is a forceful woman whom both Arnold and Bradley underestimate. Arnold seems to think that all is well between him and his wife; Bradley regards Rachel as a benign, older woman. Rachel's firm speech and unforgiving tone, however, suggests the power within her personality, even if the other characters cannot see it. Rachel herself predicts her fierceness when she tells Bradley that she still has "real fire" in her. Despite Rachel's fierceness, she is also a sympathetic character who also helps to articulate the difficulties of being a middle-aged housewife.
- Julian Baffin - The daughter of Arnold and Rachel Baffin and the person with whom Bradley falls desperately in love. Julian is a youthful, naïve girl who frequently appears foolish. Because Bradley Pearson is in love with her, and because he retells her story, her naïve nature is not always apparent and she occasionally comes across as sexually aggressive. Her naïveté however can be seen in her actions. For example, although she has broken up with her boyfriend just a week before, she decides that she is completely in love with Bradley and that she wants to marry him.
- Francis Marloe - Christian's brother and Bradley Pearson's ex-brother-in-law. Francis is a comic character who exists for other characters and readers to laugh at. Francis's comic nature comes from his pitiful physical condition and his constantly groveling behavior. Furthermore, the way that the other characters verbally abuse Francis provides comic effect, in a slapstick manner. Francis basically is a kind man who wants to treat other people kindly, but his constant fumbling makes it difficult to fully respect and sympathize with him. For example, Francis wants to help Priscilla, but leaves her for the whole night to go get drunk with Bradley's homosexual neighbor, during which time she kills herself. The foolishness of Francis's behavior is characteristic of his way and is one of the reasons that he fits the role of the buffoon in the novel.
- Priscilla Saxe - The sister of Bradley Pearson. Priscilla is a sympathetic, but pitiful woman who spends the majority of the book moaning about the ruined state of her life. Priscilla's life, it appears, is somewhat ruined, since she spent most of it in an unloving marriage. Her painful experience testifies to the difficulties of life as well as the specific difficulties of being a woman. Priscilla's great regret is the abortion that left her unable to have children. Priscilla's sadness helps to establish Bradley's coldness as a character, because, despite her needs, he basically ignores her.
- Christian Evansdale - Bradley Pearson's ex-wife. Christian is a confident, strong woman who has aged but still remains sexually attractive. She has lived in America for the past few years and appears slightly brassy and American. Christian's character is seen entirely through her interaction with Bradley, which is not entirely credible given his previous hatred of her. She, like Rachel, is a woman of power, even though she has aged. Christian is a sympathetic and even admirable character, given the strength of her personality, but at the same time her brassy quality gives her a slightly comic edge.
- Roger Saxe - Priscilla's husband and Bradley Pearson's brother-in-law. Bradley always has disliked Roger's chummy, non-intellectual style. Roger has done bad things in the past, namely having Priscilla have an abortion and then making her father pay for half of it. Her current affair with Marigold in some ways also seems cruel since he is abandoning his wife, who cannot have children due to the abortion that Roger insisted upon. Still, while Roger has flaws, he is not all bad. Although Priscilla trick him into marrying her, he stayed with her for twenty years, despite their unhappiness. Furthermore, although he did have an affair, he kept it a secret until after she left him; then he asked for a divorce. Generally, the tendency to have an affair during marriage does not appear honorable, but since Roger and Priscilla's marriage was so terrible, his actions actually seem understandable.
- Marigold - Roger Saxe's mistress who is pregnant with his child. Little is known about Marigold except that she is a dentist. Her name suggests her freshness and youth. Her presence in Roger's life testifies to the terrible state of his marriage. She and Roger also are a couple that mirror Bradley and Julian, since Roger is significantly older that Marigold.
- P. Loxias - The editor of the novel. "Loxias" is a pseudonym for Apollo, the Greek god of the Arts. The prophetess Cassandra refers to Apollo as "Loxias" in Aeschylus's The Oresteia. Loxias is not truly a developed character in the novel, as he only serves to provide a foreword and postscript. His primary role is to alert the readers to the primary theme of the book: the importance of art in articulating truth. Since Apollo is the God of Arts, it seems appropriate that he is the one to supervise a novel that debates its relative merits.
- Hartbourne - A friend of Bradley's from work. Little is known about Hartbourne except that Bradley frequently has lunch with him and Christian later marries him.
- Oscar Belling - Julian's ex-boyfriend. He never appears in the novel. At the end of the novel however, Julian's name has changed to "Julian Belling" signifying that she has married him. His presence merely serves to suggest Julian's youthful approach the art of loving, since it is just after breaking up with him that she decides that is passionately in love with Bradley.
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.