[(essay date winter 2002) In the following essay, Stewart defines the type of metafiction at work in The Unicorn, positing that the novel is, "to some degree, an allegory of reading." Stewart shows how the metafiction in The Unicorn opens for critical inspection the "mythicizing impulses in author and characters that constitute the act of narration."]
Iris Murdoch is not usually thought of as an experimental novelist, although Robert Scholes, Patricia Waugh, and other critics have commented on her use of metafiction. But in The Unicorn (1963), she highlights the literary/psychological tendency to mythmaking in her own fiction through a stylized use of Gothic narrative and settings.1 Murdoch's metafiction, which mainly exposes the fiction-making illusions of her characters, is heuristic rather than formalistic in the postmodern sense. Waugh, who observes that "metafiction explores the concept of fictionality through an opposition between the construction and the breaking of illusion," places Murdoch's novels "at one end of the spectrum," where "fictionality [is] a theme to be explored," but "formal self-consciousness is limited" ([Metafiction] 16, 18-19). She asks: "Why do metafictional novelists so frequently concern themselves with the problem of human freedom?" (119) Why, one might add, does Murdoch treat the problem of freedom metafictionally in The Unicorn? The answer has to do with the way she deconstructs the Gothic fantasy of the text and her characters' illusions.2 As Peter Brooks says of Heart of Darkness, "[the] reader's own incapacity to sum up--the frustration produced by the text--is consubstantial with his dialogic implication in the text" ([Reading for the Plot] 260-61).
Mark Currie defines metafiction as "a kind of writing which places itself on the border between fiction and criticism" and emphasizes "the strong reciprocal influence between discourses which seem increasingly inseparable" ([Metafiction] 2, 3). In "[the] postmodern context," he notes, "the boundaries between art and life, language and metalanguage, and fiction and criticism are under philosophical attack" (17-18). Inger Christensen similarly observes that metafiction "focuses on the difference between art and reality and displays its consciousness of this distance" ([The Meaning of Metafiction] 22). Murdoch's novelistic discourse constructs a spellbinding mythos, while at the same time disclosing the reality of human relations that lies behind appearance. As a novelist, she is suspicious of the power of mythmaking; but mythos is connected with telos and "the reading of narrative ... is animated by [what Barthes calls] the 'passion for (of) meaning'" (Brooks 177).
In The Unicorn, where discourse is ultimately demythologizing, Murdoch dramatizes the construction and collapse of fantasies and illusions. If "the goal of literary work ... is to make the reader no longer a consumer, but a producer of the text" (Barthes [S/Z] 4), Murdoch as philosophical fabulist encourages the reader to participate in her character's illusions, but also to deal critically with issues of freedom and reality. For Scholes, Marian and Effingham "suggest two kinds of readers and two ways of encountering a book like The Unicorn, which is itself a 'fantasy of the spiritual life': the reader who,...