Article abstract: Schooled in philosophy, Murdoch wrote more than twenty-five novels, many of them essentially philosophical, as well as several volumes that were overtly about philosophy.
Iris Murdoch, born Jean Iris Murdoch in Dublin, Ireland, in 1919, was the only child of John Wills Hughes Murdoch, a British civil service employee, and his wife, Irene Alice Richardson Murdoch, who abandoned her hopes of being an opera singer to marry at the age of eighteen. Although the family resettled in England during Iris’s first year and she grew up outside London, in Hammersmith and Chiswick, she maintained a strong allegiance to Ireland and considered herself Anglo-Irish.
Murdoch spent holidays in Ireland with her Gaelic relations. An only child, she fantasized about having siblings, notably about having a brother, although as she matured, she realized that had she had a brother, the family’s limited resources probably would have been spent to send him rather than her to the university.
Murdoch’s early education was in the environs of London. At the age of thirteen, she qualified for a scholarship, one of two awarded, to the Badminton School in Bristol. After finishing Badminton, she received a scholarship to Oxford University’s Somerset College, where she studied classical literature and philosophy. She also was quite involved in drama and the arts during her years at Oxford. She was granted a bachelor of arts degree with first class honors in 1942.
Only twenty years old when Britain was plunged into World War II, Murdoch completed her university studies but then worked for the British Treasury in London. She served as an assistant from 1942 until 1944, and she learned enough about the structure of Britain’s civil service to write about it convincingly in some of her subsequent novels.
Later, she became an administrator for the United Nations National Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. She served in London and, at war’s end, in Belgium, where she met Jean-Paul Sartre; she also served in Austria, where she worked at an encampment for displaced persons, an experience that helped her create the character of Nina, a displaced dressmaker facing deportation to Eastern Europe, in The Flight from the Enchanter (1956).
Upon her return to England, Murdoch spent a year doing little save for reading philosophical works and exploring London, whose byways she uses effectively in many of her novels. In 1947, she received a fellowship to study philosophy at Cambridge University’s Newnham College. After completion of her studies, she was a tutor in philosophy at St. Anne’s College, Oxford, until 1963.
In 1956, Murdoch married John Oliver Bayley, the Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature at Oxford and also a successful novelist and critic. In 1963, she became an honorary fellow of St. Anne’s College. She served as a lecturer at the Royal College of Art in London from 1963 until 1967.
By 1962, Murdoch had published six novels. Under the Net (1954) was the first of these, followed by The Flight from the Enchanter, The Sandcastle (1957), The Bell (1958), A Severed Head (1961), and An Unofficial Rose (1962). She was soon to embark on a project with J. B. Priestley, who collaborated with her on turning A Severed Head into a play that opened in London in 1963, was produced in New York City the same year, and was released as a film by Columbia Pictures in 1971.
From the beginning of her professional career, Murdoch’s consuming intellectual interest was moral philosophy. Well schooled in the history of philosophy and in ethics, she was as comfortable discussing Plato and Aristotle as she was in writing about Jean-Paul Sartre and existentialism, which she did in her landmark study Sartre: Romantic Rationalist, published by Yale University Press in 1953. Her novels consistently explore the moral questions with which she grappled as a philosopher and as a university lecturer in philosophy.
During her university days, Murdoch, who leaned to the left politically, went so far as to join the Communist Party briefly, as many intellectuals did in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s. Her past membership in the Party resulted in her being denied a visa to study in the United States when she was granted a scholarship in the late 1940’s.
Murdoch was intrigued by the theory, advanced by Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, that all people build their own nets, or structural protocols, in their lives. Murdoch had been exposed to the existentialism of Sartre and Albert Camus, with its emphasis on the meaninglessness of human existence. This approach is based on the notion that humans exercise free will and that the individual is all-important.
Although Murdoch denied that she was an existentialist, she imbibed a great deal from this school of thought, which, combined with Wittgenstein’s notion of how people seek to structure their lives, emerges as a dominant theme in many of her novels. The title of her first novel, Under the Net, refers directly to Wittgenstein’s theory that individuals create their own nets or structures. The protagonist, Jake Donaghue, seeks to find a structure for his life, but finally he rejects the net and accepts life as it is, acknowledging the significance of other people while denying the centrality of self. This first Murdoch novel, which reflected much of the hopelessness that Britain experienced following World War II, evoked considerable discussion and resulted in the author being widely recognized as a writer of note. The book was commended by most of the leading critics of the day and brought its creator considerable attention both within Britain and beyond its boundaries.
In Under the Net, which is dedicated to Raymond Queneau, Jake Donaghue displays two novels prominently on his bookshelf: Samuel Beckett’s Murphy (1938) and Queneau’s Pierrot mon ami (1943; Pierrot, 1950). Murdoch publicly acknowledged her considerable debt to both Queneau and Beckett, whose comic ironies are not unlike those in this first Murdoch novel.
Murdoch’s use of language is carefully...
(The entire section is 2600 words.)