Marian Taylor takes a position as a governess at Gaze Castle, a remote house set among barren moors. But when she arrives, she discovers that there are no children to be taught; her pupil, rather, is Hannah Crean-Smith, a reclusive but beautiful woman in search of a female companion to help her read foreign languages. Gaze, cobbled together from any number of Gothic houses, is filled with Gothic types: the mysterious Gerald, who runs the house; Hannah's shrill cousin Violet; the mercurial gamekeeper Denis. And like any good Gothic novel, Gaze has a secret, though it is dispensed with quite early: Hannah hasn't left the house in seven years, after being abandoned there by her husband Peter, whom she may or may not have tried to push off of a cliff.
Is Hannah a prisoner? If so, who is her "gaoler?" Gerald? Peter? All of them--including Marian? Or does she stay there by choice? If so, what is the difference between being a prisoner and being free? One of the things that The Unicorn does is interrogate the very notion of freedom, and it wonders to what extent any of us are free. Marian, appalled at the situation, resolves to kidnap Hannah in order to set her free, and the irony of that is lost on no one--particularly Murdoch.
But Marian's not the first to invent such a scheme, nor is she the last. In fact, numerous characters, major and minor, try to kidnap Hannah, or persuade her to leave, in quick succession, to the point of parody. In each case, it doesn't work, and they change their minds about whether its wise, and they change them again. Hannah remains elusive, simultaneously fragile and unassailable. Murdoch goes out of her way to compare Hannah to God, and her various gaolers and hangers-on trying to know or claim her. She discovers a useful metaphor in the image of salmon, swimming upstream:
"Have you ever seen salmon leaping? It's a most moving sight. They spring right out of the water and struggle up the rocks. Such fantastic bravery, to enter another element like that. Like souls approaching God."
If Hannah is an image of God, then she reveals the way God exists at the nexus of suffering and love. She suffers greatly, Marian is convinced, and others suffer for her, but to what extent is that suffering redemptive? Is it different from the love which she seems to provoke from everyone without trying? The image of the unicorn ties her to Christ:
"Forgive is too weak a word. Recall the idea of Ate which was so real to the Greeks. Ate is the name of the almost automatic transfer of suffering from one being to another. Power is a form of Ate...But Good is non-powerful. And it is in the good that Ate is finally quenched, when it encounters a pure being who only suffers and does not attempt to pass the suffering on."
Does that describe Hannah? No one is sure. It certainly describes the kind of dialogue you get out of Murdoch. But if Hannah absorbs suffering, she inspires love--not only love for her, but among others. Every male in the book is in love with Hannah. And every other page, people find themselves compelled to smooch each other. Marian smooches, like, three different men, and they all smooch all the other women. It gets silly, but I think intentionally, but why? Is the suggestion that Hannah brings these people together, and without her, they would never reach these feelings? Is that an attribute of God? Whatever the case, for Murdoch, the lines between love and sex, or at least smooching, are extremely blurred; love is almost always expressed physically, even across gendered lines.
I enjoyed The Unicorn, but I felt that Murdoch's philosophizing fit more neatly in the picaresque mode of Under the Net, rather than the Gothic style she cultivates here. Something here begs to be taken not seriously, as a parody or genre exercise, and something is deadly serious, but reading the novel I was never quite sure which was which.