The Unicorn by Iris Murdoch


Long ago a teacher of mine at university said that this is a text that eradicates itself – each paragraph cancels the meaning of the previous one, and no matter how hard you pay attention, in the end you’ll have no idea what’s just happened. And I couldn’t agree more.

I’ve read this novel altogether four times now, and each time I made a solemn resolution that I will pay attention extremely hard, and I’ll remember everything. It doesn’t work like that, though – not with this book. As soon as I reach the end, my memories are erased. In fact, I don’t even have to get to the very end – the last time I read it, I tried to jot down a couple of ideas about the story when I still had around 30 pages to go, and I couldn’t.

I felt like one of the characters, who gets lost one night in the bog, starts sinking slowly, and after a while he ponders the possibility that this is the time and place where he’ll die. And as his sense of self, life, and reality recedes, he experiences a great spiritual enlightenment, and realizes what is God, what is goodness, and what is love. Later on, after making it out alive from his near-death experience, he tries to describe his feelings and new knowledge to others but this turns out to be impossible: the experience doesn’t let itself be contained and shared with others.

This is what this novel is like. While reading, I’m aware of the presence of a great, frightfully beautiful, moral and spiritual something (and feel as if that something were happening to me as well), but the moment I finish reading, I’m unable to formulate the experience. The story closes itself off, and while it’s already rather curious and elusive while I’m in it, it gets utterly unfathomable once I’m out of it, and after a short while I start to wonder: did it really happen? Did I really read this?

This ultimate inscrutability probably has something to do with the main motif of the novel: looking (observing) – which is not coupled with understanding. There’s hardly any synonym of the word „look” which you wouldn’t find in this novel, starting right with the name of the castle where most of the story takes place: Gaze. And the people living in and around the castle hardly do anything else in the story than watch the others, look at each other, steal glances at each other, peer into each other’s eyes, stare at the other, and study and observe each other from all possible angles, standpoints, from near and far, openly and secretly, with desire, with fear, with silent prayer, with suspicion.

All this looking is for a reason – the characters want to understand what happens and why; they want to learn the others’ secrets; and they want to piece together a meaningful story out of all the tragic-melodramatic events going on in the gothic-fantastic Gaze castle, all centered around the evanescent Hannah – an almost mythical, perhaps saintly, perhaps mad, remorseful, self-torturing figure. After all, all looks are directed at her, and she builds and destroys herself and others by feeding on the power of all those gazes – but she only lets others look at her until it suits her needs, and all the while she remains unknowable, unrememberable, forever elusive.

And I – as a reader – am also only an onlooker. And it seems I must forget everything the moment I no longer have anyone or anything to look at on these pages.