Murdoch, (Jean) Iris (Vol. 11)
Murdoch, (Jean) Iris 1919–
Murdoch is a British novelist and playwright. Her training in philosophy plays an important part in her novels which have as a central concern the ethics and moral alternatives of the English middle class. A frequent theme is that love is rare and only possible when a person realizes that someone besides himself truly exists. Some critics complain, however, that the philosopher sometimes triumphs over the novelist, reducing her characters to puppets thrown into situations to make a point. Her novels are intricately plotted and often treat complex and fantastic situations in a melodramatic way. Critical reaction to her work is generally divided; some critics see her as a major contemporary novelist, others as a middle-brow romancer. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)
It is difficult to chart Iris Murdoch's progress, if only because she has a gift for making the variety of possible plots and characters seem inexhaustible. The result of such plenty is that no new novel of hers is going to retain its air of finality for long: it joins the oeuvre, it confirms the appetite (in author and readers alike) for yet more novels. She herself would perhaps think this response appropriate, given her stress on art's capacity to strengthen our moral curiosity ('Virtue', she once wrote, 'is concerned with really apprehending that other people exist') but it has its problematic aspect, since it produces a nice confusion between quality and quantity. More does seem to mean better for her; imagination and curiosity are near akin, and curiosity can only be fed with particulars fresh-invented each time. Three years and three novels ago in The Black Prince she mocked her own reputation for prolixity in the person of popular novelist Arnold Baffin ('He lives in a sort of rosy haze with Jesus and Mary and Buddha and Shiva and the Fisher King all chasing round and round dressed up as people in Chelsea'), but for all that she gave him eloquent things to say in his defence—'the years pass and one has only one life. If one has a thing at all one must do it and keep on and on trying to do it better. And an aspect of this is that any artist has to decide how fast to work. I do not believe that I would improve if I wrote...
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Zohreh T. Sullivan
Iris Murdoch's waifs, orphans, refugees, demons, and saints, all share a common isolation, a loss of community, and the absence of close relationship to "a rich and complicated" group from which as moral beings they should have much to learn. As a philosopher, Murdoch connects this loss of community to the inadequacies of existentialist and empirical thought that rely on self-centered standards of individual consciousness and sincerity, rather than on other-centered values of virtue, love, and imagination. As a novelist, she dramatizes her ethical concerns by increasingly demonizing the existentialist, solipsistic hero who rejects the "messy reality" of involvement with others in order to pursue what he perversely sees as freedom, abstraction, and romance…. By failing to see reality as worthy of loving exploration, Murdoch's benighted protagonist is compelled to rely exclusively on personal values as his sole guide to morality. The resulting psychological distortions to which such solipsism is liable cuts a man off completely from others and from society…. Murdoch's characters cannot see because they are enclosed in "a fantasy world of our own into which we try to draw things from the outside, not grasping their reality and independence, making them into dream objects of our own."… Her protagonists, therefore, can redeem themselves only by discovering new ways of seeing reality and by resisting the false consolations of form and of fantasy which...
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Like most of Iris Murdoch's novels, [The Sea, The Sea] is a thriller and whodunit on two levels: factual and philosophical. It is not too difficult to do an exegesis of the philosophical content because she leaves so many clues around, not to speak of overt explanations in dialogues and interior monologues. But that does not make it any less exciting. It is action-packed, and the action is handled with her usual virtuosity: there seems to be nothing she cannot get her words round, and she treats the reader to several virtuoso set-pieces…. There are long, marvellously evocative descriptions of the landscape, seascape and weather—weather indoors, too, where a bead curtain clicks in the sea breeze, or else chill damp covers everything like a sinister slime, the perfect atmosphere for breeding demons. She has a spooky way with entrances and exits: characters materialise and disappear with hallucinatory suddenness. As for the characters themselves, they are mostly theatre people, so it is not unsuitable if some of them seem two-dimensional and overact a bit…. [The agonies of the main characters] are almost too much to bear—until Miss Murdoch redeploys their loves and attachments; and one begins to realise that what seemed to be a tragic novel with interludes of comic relief is really a comedy with portholes for looking out at the cosmos.
Gabriele Annan, "Murdoch Magic," in The Listener (© British...
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The Sea, The Sea is clearly one of [Miss Murdoch's] 'mature' books—one of her longest, her richest, her most carefully paced. Love, again, is the kingdom in which everything occurs; it is past love projected and repeated in a mysterious and thoughtful present. This is one of her more magical novels, set in an economical landscape and seascape: somewhere in the north, in and around a gaunt Edwardian house, with a view across the sea, that 'image of an inaccessible freedom'…. (p. 246)
The Sea, The Sea is about the dark chill in loving, the conflict of sacrifice and egoism. It is, in fact, a merciless and painful book.
It is also an elegant one—a comic dance in the Murdoch manner. There is much contrivance. Miss Murdoch is an elaborate but also a very thrifty plotter, and the world she at first makes contingently she then goes on to spend as a pattern. This is part of the magic of invention…. [The] magic is there partly for its flamboyance, partly to take us beyond reality into a world of dream and re-shaped identities…. Miss Murdoch has written before of the late time in life when we pass between love and death, when old desires become present contemplations, and the 'secret vital busy inwardness' that drives our lives is forced to find meaning. Thus, from the patterns of the love game, and also the pattern of fiction, a kind of truth might emerge. That has always been Miss Murdoch's interest;...
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Magic and the supernatural run, two lurid threads, throughout a loosely woven book [The Sea, The Sea]. Miss Murdoch has always presented love as though it were some kind of spell unaccountable in its mysterious waxing and waning…. Her people are infected with love or infect others in the same way that colds are caught and given….
By one of those coincidences more common in novels than real life, Charles finds that living in the same village is the girl, Hartley, whom he loved in his adolescence and whom he has gone on loving ever since. Now middle-aged, frumpish and déclassée, she lives with her retired husband, a former commercial traveller, in a ghastly little bungalow….
Charles at once begins to plot to get Hartley back, deceiving himself that she must still love him, when in fact all she feels is guilt for the abruptness of her former abandonment of him far back in the past. Guilt is one of the two major themes of the book….
[Magic] is the other theme of the novel. By summoning up good demons to his aid, Charles also summons up the bad ones that cause misunderstanding, unhappiness and a series of deaths, most of them violent.
The narrator, Charles, describes his story as 'a novelistic memoir' and later declares 'I am writing my life as a novel'. The result is a book that has all the waywardness, the inconsequence and the untidiness of autobiography, rather than...
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Joyce Carol Oates
Though Iris Murdoch has defined the highest art as that which reveals and honors the minute, "random" detail of the world, and reveals it together with a sense of its integrity, its unity and form, her own ambitious, disturbing, and eerily eccentric novels are stichomythic structures in which ideas, not things, and certainly not human beings, flourish. (p. 27)
There is a dizzying profusion … of characters, incidents, settings, "endings," so much so that even admirers of Murdoch's fiction often complain that they cannot remember a novel only a few days after having read it….
Despite this multiplicity, this richness however, the novels are not really difficult, so long as one reads them as structures in which ideas compete, as in a debate, or, when they are most successful, as in Greek tragedy, in which near-symmetrical, balanced forces war with one another….
Murdoch's philosophical position is austere, classical, rigorously unromantic, and pessimistic. Not that pessimism precludes comedy: on the contrary, it is probably the basis of the comic spirit…. [There are] amusing Murdoch characters who realize that they are doomed to happiness and to the mediocrity that seems to imply, since the circumstances of their lives prevent them from continuing the quest for the nature of truth…. But suffering itself, in the context of pitiless self-examination, can masquerade as purification, and we are back...
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