Elegy for Iris Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

John Bayley, the noted literary scholar of Oxford, England, was widowed in early 1999 by the death of his wife of over forty years, the important novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch, whose death coincided with the publication of Elegy for Iris. Bayley’s previous work includes book-length studies of Leo Tolstoy, William Shakespeare, and Alexander Pushkin, among others. He is also the author of a history of the short story and a novel, The Red Hat (1998). In Elegy for Iris, Bayley turns his considerable literary talent to a careful examination of his marriage and the consequences of his wife’s Alzheimer’s disease. By so doing, Bayley provides not only a glimpse into the life of Murdoch but also a meditation on the nature of love, marriage, and language.

Bayley divides his memoir into two sections he calls “Then” and “Now.” The first section is by far the longer, chronicling in some 223 pages how he met and married Murdoch. The section is particularly poignant because Bayley contrasts their early years with their final years, years he examines more closely in the second, much shorter, section of the book.

The book opens with a brief vignette about a recent swim in a river, a vignette that Bayley links quickly to another swim in the same river that took place nearly fifty years earlier. From this beautifully described memory of the swim and his and Murdoch’s subsequent lunch with one of her friends, Bayley moves even deeper into the past, describing his first sight of Murdoch some six months before. There is an air of inevitability in the account, a clear sense that there was a connection between the two from the first glimpse.

At the time of their first meeting in 1954, Bayley worked as a tutor at St. Anthony’s College at Oxford, while Murdoch, six years his senior, taught philosophy at St. Anne’s College. Their first meeting was not propitious; Murdoch scarcely seemed to notice the smitten young man. However, on a bicycle ride home from their next meeting, she confided in him that she had written a novel. Shortly thereafter, she accepted an invitation from him to attend a dance at St. Anthony’s. The date was disastrous: The food at the restaurant was dismal, and Murdoch fell down a flight of stairs going into the hall. Nonetheless, both Murdoch and Bayley recall that it was at this dance that they fell in love with each other.

Murdoch’s life, in spite of her marriage to Bayley, was never conventional. The author of twenty-six books and a number of philosophical treatises, Murdoch was an intensely private person. Even after her marriage, she continued to maintain close and sexually intimate friendships with men she considered “gods,” intellectual and artistic giants. Bayley does not sensationalize this. Rather, he reports on Murdoch’s life with both love and detachment, emphasizing their own unique understanding of marriage. It is the marriage, not Murdoch’s bohemian life, that provides the lens for the memoir itself.

For Murdoch and Bayley, marriage was not a suffocatingly close relationship, nor did they desire to grow together during the marriage. Bayley, after a charming description of their honeymoon on the Continent in 1956, concludes the chapter,

So married life began. And the joys of solitude. No contradiction was involved. The one went perfectly with the other. To feel oneself held and cherished and accompanied, and yet to be alone. To be closely and physically entwined, and yet feel solitude’s friendly presence, as warm and undesolating as contiguity itself.

The solitude-in-togetherness continues throughout the memoir as the most important feature of the marriage. Although both partners felt the grounding presence of the marriage, each was able to preserve the distance that allowed them to pursue their different careers. When they were absent from each other, Bayley maintains, they did not feel loneliness, because separation was their natural state. Their love did not depend on their physical presence or emotional closeness. It did depend, however, on the awareness in each of the other’s solitude. As Bayley writes, “Apartness in marriage is a state of love, and not a function of distance, or preference, or practicality.”

Indeed, it may be the sense of apartness that Bayley missed most with the worsening of Murdoch’s disease. He describes Murdoch’s Alzheimer’s-induced “terror of being alone, of being cut...

(The entire section is 1814 words.)