Study Guide

Bradley Pearson in The Black Prince

By Iris Murdoch

Bradley Pearson

Bradley Pearson. BP. The Black Prince. Is it just us, or is there a pattern here?

We're not gonna sugarcoat it—getting a read on Bradley Pearson's character is one of the most complex tasks you're likely to come up against in the next ten minutes. It's not just that Bradley is an unreliable narrator (though he is) and that we readers have no way of knowing whether he's lying to us or telling the truth (though we don't)—it's also that Iris Murdoch has deliberately set out to make it pretty much impossible to say one particular interpretation of Bradley Pearson is more accurate than any other.

Why on earth would she do that?

Remember how we told you that The Black Prince is kind of like a masterful jazz riff on Shakespeare's Hamlet? Well, if you covered Hamlet in high school or even in one of your college courses (and we're betting you did), then you probably know that readers have been debating and arguing about the angsty prince's sanity (or lack thereof) and motivations (or lack thereof) for literally hundreds of years.

Was Prince Hamlet really insane? Was he mostly pretending to have gone mad but actually losing his grip despite his own best efforts? Was the ghost real, or was it a figment of the prince's unhealthy mind? Did Hamlet really love Ophelia, or was he just playing around? Why did Hamlet freak out and run Polonius through with a sword instead of just pulling the curtains away? And here's the million-dollar question: Why did Hamlet wait so long before taking revenge on his nasty uncle Claudius?

Not only do the other characters in Hamlet ponder many of these questions themselves, but theater-goers and readers of all stripes have been offering various answers to them ever since an Elizabethan thespian first To be'd, or not to be'd on a public stage. Prince Hamlet's complex character is at least one of the reasons why he's become one of the most enduring literary figures of all time, and The Black Prince would fall far short of its predecessor if Murdoch made it easy for us to pin Bradley Pearson down.

Bradley himself puts it concisely when he says in his foreword to "The Black Prince" that "any human person is infinitely more complex than this type of explanation. By 'infinitely' (or should I say 'almost infinitely'? Alas I am no philosopher) I mean that there are not only more details, but more kinds of details with more kinds of relations than these diminishers can dream of" (Bradley Pearson's Foreword: par. 7).

(And hey—don't miss Bradley's subtle parroting of Prince Hamlet himself in this passage. His words about there being more kinds of details than diminishers can dream of bear more than a passing resemblance to the prince's remark, in Act 1: Scene 5 of Hamlet, that "[t]here are more things in heaven and earth […] than are dreamt of in our philosophy.")

What all of this means for you is that coming to terms with Bradley Pearson's character is going to take some doing, but ideally, it'll also be engrossing, and even fun. If you're the kind of person who enjoys a Rubik's cube, you're going to love it.

If you're trying to figure this dude out, we suggest you approach the task in three different ways:

  • Assess what Bradley Pearson says about himself in his foreword and postscript, and in the text of "The Black Prince."
  • Consider what the novel's other characters tell us about Bradley Pearson.
  • Chart the way that Bradley Pearson assumes different roles as he depicts his shifting relationships with other characters

Sound like a lot? Never fear, dear readers, Shmoop is here to guide the way.

Bradley Pearson, According to Bradley Pearson

In his foreword to "The Black Prince," Bradley Pearson introduces himself like this:

I am fifty-eight years old. I am a writer. 'A writer' is indeed the simplest and also the most accurate general description of me. In so far as I am also a psychologist, an amateur philosopher, a student of human affairs, I am so because these things are a part of being the kind of writer that I am. […] I have, I hope and I believe, kept my gift pure. This means, among other things, that I have never been a successful writer. I have never tried to please at the expense of truth. I have known, for long periods, the torture of a life without self-expression. (Bradley Pearson's Foreword: par. 2).

Bradley also goes on to tell us that in the lead-up to the events that his story describes, he had just retired from a long career as an Inspector of Taxes working for the office of the Inland Revenue (Bradley Pearson's Foreword: par. 8). He took that early retirement so that he could devote more time to writing, but that wasn't really working out for him in the months leading up to "the crisis of his life" (3.14.47). As he explains:

But when I had given up the tax office and could sit at my desk at home every morning and think any thoughts I pleased, I found I had no thoughts at all. This too I suffered with my bitterest patience. I waited. I tried to develop a new routine: monotony, out of which value springs. […] Noise, which had never distressed me before, began to do so. For the first time in my life I urgently wanted silence. (Bradley Pearson's Foreword: par. 12).

If you're starting to feel, even as early as Bradley Pearson's foreword, that this guy has one too many excuses for not being able to write, congratulations—you're onto the first of many major hints that Bradley will be an unreliable narrator.

So much for Bradley's occupation and writerly ambitions at the time when his story begins. What does he tell us about his physical and psychological characteristics?

Throughout "The Black Prince," Bradley tends to describe himself as looking quite young for his age. Early on, he tells us: "I am thin and tall, just over six feet, fairish and not yet bald, with a light fine silky rather faded straight hair. I have a bland diffident nervous sensitive face and thin lips and blue eyes. I do not wear glasses. I look considerably younger than my age" (1.1.8).

Later, when Bradley tells Julian Baffin that he's only forty-six years old, not only does she accept him at his word, but she also says with some surprise: "Oh, then you are a little older than my father. I thought you were younger" (2.8.117).

From Bradley's own perspective, his youthful good looks present a bit of a contrast to his psychological characteristics, as he considers himself to be "conventional, nervous, puritanical," and "the slave of habit"—in other words, he's old-fashioned and old-mannish.

The novel gives us a wonderful representation of Bradley's inner self through the interior-decorating scheme that he's gone for in his apartment, which looks as though it was lifted straight out of the nineteenth century. As Bradley himself tells us: "This place I had crammed with too much furniture, with Victorian and oriental bric-à-brac, with tiny heterogeneous objets d'art, little cushions, inlaid trays, velvet cloths, antimacassars even, lace even" (1.1.3).

And here's a longer description of the dude's sitting room, to which he devotes particular attention: "Against the walls variously: a tiny velvet armchair with what Hartbourne, who was too stout to sit in it, called 'frilly drawers'; two frail-legged lyreback chairs (Victorian copies) with petit-point embroidery seats, various (one with a sailing swan, the other with tiger lilies); […] a red, black, and gold lacquered display cabinet in the Chinese style, Victorian; a mahogany night-table with tray top, badly stained, possibly eighteenth-century; a satinwood Pembroke table, also stained"… and the list goes on and on (1.5.2).

Francis Marloe sits in this room and accuses Bradley of being a repressed gay man with a particularly nasty Oedipus complex, as well as a particularly acute desire to return to his mother's womb. Whether or not you buy Francis's take, Bradley's decor certainly expresses his admiration for the past, and it pairs well with his Victorian sensibilities on the whole.

To sum up: Bradley Pearson depicts himself as a devotee of artistic excellence, an aging man who looks younger than his years, and a man who acts more like a repressed, puritanical Victorian than a modern, mid-twentieth-century man. He also represents himself as a man who, like Romeo, is "fortune's fool" (Act 3: Scene 1).

In other words, he tends to describe himself as a person to whom unexpected and occasionally crazy things happen, not as someone who brings surprising changes and occasional craziness into other people's lives.

Whether or not the novel's other characters agree with his assessment remains to be seen.

Bradley Pearson, According to Everyone Else

Getting a sense of what Bradley Pearson thinks of himself is a relatively simple task compared to the much trickier task of figuring out what the novel's other characters think of him.

The first hurdle we run into as we try to figure out the other characters' opinions of Bradley Pearson is this: every word spoken by another character in "The Black Prince" comes to us through Bradley Pearson's own pen.

That means that we have no way of knowing whether or not Bradley's friends and family actually said and thought the things that Bradley depicts them as saying and thinking. Just to give you one example, Arnold Baffin remarks in one scene: "You're such an agonizer, Bradley. You romanticize art. You're a masochist about it, you want to suffer, you want to feel that your inability to create is continuously significant" (1.3.229).

Did Arnold Baffin really feel this way about Bradley, and did he really say this to him, or is Bradley putting words into Arnold's mouth in order to create a starker contrast between Arnold's "facile" approach to art and Bradley's own commitment to perfection?

When it comes right down to it, we just don't know.

Now, there are also a number of instances throughout "The Black Prince" in which Bradley's representations of other characters' words and opinions intersect with those characters' own words in important and intriguing ways. These instances don't necessarily make it easier for us to pinpoint the truth, but they do give us opportunities to try to read between the lines.

For example, Bradley writes that Rachel Baffin often referred to him as a "schoolboy." In his version of events, Rachel used this word almost as a term of endearment, meaning by it that Bradley was adorably awkward when it came to things like romance, extramarital affairs, and sex. Take a look at these examples to see what we mean:

'Oh, you are ridiculous,' she said. 'All right, all right. Schoolboy. Running away. Off you go then. Thank you for kissing me.' (1.14.109)

I do respect and admire you, Bradley. That's part of it. You're so much more serious about writing than Arnold is. Don't worry about tomorrow or anything. I'll ring you. Don't get up. I want to leave you sitting there looking so thin and tall and solemn. Like a—like a—Inspector of Taxes. Just remember, freedom, a new world. Perhaps that's just what your book needs, what it's been waiting for. Oh you're such a schoolboy, such a puritan. It's time for you to grow up and be free.' (1.16.117)

Now, compare the way that Rachel uses the word "schoolboy" in Bradley's version of events to the things that she says in her own postscript to "The Black Prince":

BP is what might be called a 'Peter Pan' type. […] A psychiatrist would probably find him 'retarded'. His tastes in literature were juvenile. He speaks grandly of Shakespeare and of Homer, but I doubt if he had read the former since schooldays or the latter ever. His constant reading, which of course he nowhere admits, was mediocre adventure stories by authors such as Forester and Stevenson and Mulford. He really liked boys' stories, tales of crude adventure with no love interest, where he could identify himself with some princely hero, a man with a sword or such. (Postscript by Rachel: par. 4)

Yeah. There's no hint of any endearment here.

This is just one of many examples throughout The Black Prince when Bradley Pearson's take on things intersects with that of another character, but with some radical differences. Who's actually telling the truth here, or coming closest to it? Is Bradley using the tried-and-true method of making a lie seem more believable by infusing it with elements of truth, or is Rachel taking jabs at Bradley as she firms up her defense against his accusation that she murdered her own husband?

These questions bring us to the second major hurdle that we face as we try to determine what the novel's other characters think about Bradley Pearson: the novel's other characters are unreliable, too.

Womp womp.

What that means, of course, is that we can't trust the other characters' postscripts any more than we can trust Bradley Pearson's version of events. In other words, on the road to Truthtown, we've gotten about as far as Nowheresville.

Thankfully, The Black Prince does give us at least a few instances when Bradley Pearson's take on things matches up with what another character says, and in those instances, we get to bask in the glorious luxury of having found something that we might actually be able to believe.

A good example is Bradley Pearson's representation of Francis Marloe. Bradley tells us in "The Black Prince" that Francis accused him of being a repressed gay man in love with Arnold Baffin, and Francis's own postscript to the narrative makes it clear that Bradley quoted him accurately.

Of course, Francis also ends his postscript by claiming that Bradley was also secretly in love with him, too, so don't gettoo comfy in your regard for what Francis says.

To sum up, it's hard to know exactly whateveryone else thinks (or thought) of Bradley Pearson, because trying to put your finger on the truth in this novel is about as easy as tracking an crazed squirrel running loose in a hall of mirrors. Even P. Loxias, Bradley's "dear friend" and editor, may have an ulterior motive for championing Bradley's innocence.

When all is said and done, only one thing's for sure: Iris Murdoch would have slayed if she'd ever been invited to play Box of Lies with Jimmy Fallon.

And the Tony Award Goes To…

Shmoopers, we salute you for sticking with us for the long haul here. Bradley Pearson's character analysis is already as long as Mr. Fantastic's arm, and we've still got a ways to go.

Moving right along: Now that we've discussed how Bradley represents himself and how the novel's other characters may (or may not) view him, we're ready to dive into the juiciest aspect of Bradley's identity as a literary figure—the various Shakespearean roles that he assumes as he depicts his shifting relationships with the novel's other characters.

Seriously, we could write entire essays on each of these dramatic roles, but we're going to spare your eyeballs the strain by giving 'em to you fast and dirty, flashcard style.

Here we go.

Bradley Pearson as Claudius

In Part 1 of The Black Prince, as Bradley seems to be embarking on a love affair with Rachel Baffin, Bradley plays Claudius to Rachel's Gertrude and her husband's own King Hamlet. Does Bradley do as Claudius did? Does he murder the king? Shmoop's jury is still out on that one.

And just in case you're wondering—Bradley's stint as Claudius doesn't come to end after he falls head-over-heels in love with Julian Baffin and kicks Rachel to the curb.

Remember that scene when Bradley and Julian go to see Der Rosenkavalier at Covent Garden, and the opera parallels Bradley's own situation so closely that he has to run outside to find somewhere private where he can puke?

In Hamlet, Denmark's wily prince lays a trap for the murderous Claudius by asking a theatrical troupe to perform a murder scene that closely parallels Claudius's own murder of the late King Hamlet. When Claudius sees something very much like his own evil doings being performed in front of him, he freaks out and runs away.

Sound familiar?

Bradley Pearson as the Ghost of King Hamlet

In one passage in "The Black Prince," Bradley Pearson describes himself like so: "I took off my tie and undid the top two buttons of my shirt. Then I did one of them up again. The hair on my chest is copious but grizzled. (Or if you prefer, a sable silvered)" (1.23.124).

Now, compare that passage to this bit of dialogue from Hamlet, in which Hamlet asks his friend Horatio to describe the ghostly apparition that looks just like his late father, the king:

His beard was grizzly, no?

It was as I have seen it in his life,
A sable silvered. (Act 1: Scene 2)

As you can see, Bradley's words make it clear that not only is he aligned with Claudius and Hamlet (and a host of other characters from his favorite play), he's also aligned with the late King Hamlet himself.

Beyond the color of Bradley's chest hair, we can see this connection play out if we think of The Black Prince figuratively as a kind of letter from beyond the grave. (To do so, of course, we need to think of Bradley's incarceration in prison as a kind of death.) By "cry[ing] out the truth to an indifferent world" (Editor's Foreword: par. 1), Bradley is playing copycat to the late King Hamlet, who haunts his own play until he sees that justice is being done.

Bradley Pearson as Hamlet

In Parts 2 and 3 of The Black Prince, once Bradley has embarked on his doomed relationship with Julian Baffin, Bradley plays Prince Hamlet to Julian's Ophelia.

This is a particularly significant role for Bradley, as it allows him to imagine himself as "the most romantic of all romantic heroes" (1.23.147), just as Shakespeare himself did—in Bradley's opinion—when he penned the original prince.

Bradley-as-Hamlet also introduces another dimension to Bradley's relationship with Arnold Baffin. If Bradley really did murder Arnold, as Rachel Baffin says he did, then we might also imagine that Bradley murdered him in an unmeditated moment of rage, nerves, or madness, just as Prince Hamlet murdered Ophelia's father, Polonius, when he caught him lurking behind a curtain.

Bradley Pearson as Laertes

This one is a little less obvious, but it makes sense as soon as you realize that Bradley's sister, Priscilla, is another Ophelia figure. Like Shakespeare's Ophelia, Priscilla loses her senses when she's faced with overwhelming grief, and, as Shakespeare's Ophelia is said to have done, Priscilla takes her own life. In his relationship with Priscilla, Bradley plays the role of the ineffectual older brother who doles out well-meaning advice, but who isn't actually much help to his sister when she needs him most.

Bradley Pearson as Romeo

This role is less important than the various ones from Hamlet that Bradley performs throughout The Black Prince, but it's worth taking note of the correspondences, anyway. When Arnold Baffin rages against Julian's declaration that she and Bradley are in love, his actions (or what we're told of them, anyway) recall those of Juliet's father, Capulet, in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. If Arnold is Capulet and Julian is Juliet, then Bradley must be Romeo, if only for a little while.

Ultimately, Romeo is a much less interesting character than Hamlet is, from Bradley's point of view, and so it isn't a role that he plays for long.

Bradley Pearson as Macbeth

This is another of the subtler correspondences that are open to interpretation in The Black Prince. The novel doesn't really mention Shakespeare's Macbeth at all, though it does contain a few subtle shout-outs for those who are reading closely.

When Bradley plays his Claudius-like role throughout Part 1 of "The Black Prince," it's hard not to see shades of Macbeth informing his performance. The key here is to notice that Bradley represents himself as acting far less decisively than Shakespeare's Claudius does. Throughout Part 1, it's Rachel Baffin who initiates a love affair, and it's Rachel who proclaims that she and Bradley are going to bring Arnold under their control.

Since Bradley doesn't think of Hamlet's Gertrude as being an instigator in this way, and since there's not much evidence in the play itself to suggest that Gertrude is so determined and crafty, it's likely that Bradley is associating Rachel with another of Shakespeare's most infamous women—Lady Macbeth. Once we start to catch a whiff of this association, it's easy to see that Bradley is depicting himself as having been manipulated and compromised by Rachel Baffin's own self-interested scheming.

Is that a cop-out? Probably. Does it indulge in a little shout-out to Macbeth? Most definitely.

Bradley Pearson as William Shakespeare

If you're thinking that it's pretty bold for Bradley to align himself with Shakespeare, you're not wrong—for all his talk about not daring to compare himself to literary gods, Bradley certainly dares big when he feels like it.

To understand the ways in which Bradley is comparing himself to Shakespeare, take another look at the way he compares himself to Hamlet.

In Bradley's view, Hamlet is Shakespeare. As he tells Julian Baffin, Hamlet is the product of Shakespeare's "urge to externalize himself as the most romantic of romantic heroes" (1.23.147).

By casting himself in the role of Hamlet within "The Black Prince," Bradley is also, as the story's author, aligning himself with the most celebrated author of the Elizabethan Age, and with probably the most celebrated figure in all of English literature, period. It's almost like Shakespeare is that "godhead" Bradley keeps going on about.

Is Bradley a raging egomaniac, a genuine artistic genius, or the crown prince of literary fanboys? We'll leave that one for you to decide.