Murdoch, (Jean) Iris (Vol. 15)
Murdoch, (Jean) Iris 1919–
Murdoch is a British novelist and playwright. Her education in philosophy is evident 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, indeed, possible only when an individual recognizes the existence of someone other than himself. Some critics complain that the philosopher sometimes triumphs over the novelist, reducing characters to puppets thrown into situations to make a point. Murdoch's novels are intricately plotted and often treat complex and fantastic situations rather melodramatically. 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, 11, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)
Form, Iris Murdoch warns, is the artist's consolation and his temptation: he is tempted to sacrifice the eccentric, contingent individual while he consoles himself with the secure boundaries of structure. As she sees it, this constitutes a crisis since the contemporary novelist tends to produce fiction in the shape of tiny, self-contained, crystal-like objects. Diagnosing the tyranny of form as an ill that must be cured, she postulates a return to the novel of character as it is manifested in the works of Scott, Jane Austen, George Eliot and Tolstoy, for these nineteenth-century writers were so capable of charity that they gave their people an independent existence in an external world….
Surely few modern writers are as concerned as [Murdoch] is with the plight of the novel. Few have contributed so many dazzling, not to say intelligent, essays on the subject. And few have worked within forms as inventive as her own original metaphysical fantasy. (p. 347)
[Does] Miss Murdoch's nostalgia for nineteenth-century characterization satisfy the twentieth-century dilemma between fictive form and the human person?
The Flight from the Enchanter, A Severed Head and The Unicorn, all invoke eerie, twilight regions, netherlands where characters act out their fantasies remote from the daylight world of everyday human affairs. To heighten the nightmare, the author relies upon haunting settings and...
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[Miss Murdoch's] novels are copiously endowed with details; however, these details are not selected solely to satisfy the demands of realism…. [Her] fiction is rich in details that serve as allusions: incorporated in each of her works is a background of material selected from earlier literary classics, myths, biographies, and so forth. Since her novels seldom display an extended parallel with an earlier work, her practice is perhaps closer to that of Eliot in The Waste Land than to that of Joyce in Ulysses. (p. 361)
The narrator of Under The Net, Jake Donaghue, states that his acquaintance with Hugo Belfounder is "the central theme" of the book: consequently, he spends considerable time in the novel describing Hugo's background, personality and ideas…. While interested in theories about everything, Hugo has a great distrust of generalities and of language, in particular of the use of language to describe one's emotions: for him, "the whole language is a machine for making falsehoods."… Readers of Norman Malcolm's Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir … will find that many details of Wittgenstein's life and personality are quite similar to those of Hugo described above…. The similarities in their ideas are also obvious. Wittgenstein … was constantly striving for precision in language: his attitude can be summarized by a frequently quoted statement …: "What can be said at all can be said clearly,...
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Steven G. Kellman
The self-begetting novel is a major sub-genre of this century. Its paradigm is Marcel Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu, at the same time an account of its own birth and of the rebirth of its principal protagonist as novelist…. Notable examples of self-begetting novels since Proust's have been Jean-Paul Sartre's La Nausée, Michel Butor's La Modification, and Claude Mauriac's La Marquise sortit à cinq heures. Iris Murdoch's Under the Net (1954) is a remarkable instance of this French tradition transposed to British soil. (p. 43)
On the very first page of Murdoch's very first novel [Under the Net], published soon after her study of Sartre [Sartre: Romantic Rationalist], the narrator [Jake Donaghue] presents himself as, perhaps like his creator, arriving in England 'with the smell of France still fresh in my nostrils'…. His suitcases are heavy with French books.
Jake Donaghue never relinquishes the center of attention in this narrative, which is consistently related to us from his first-person perspective. Although he admits 'I can't bear being alone for long' … and 'I hate solitude' …, Jake is in effect 'a connoisseur of solitude'…. Jake declares: 'The substance of my life is a private conversation with myself and to turn it into a dialogue would be equivalent to self-destruction'…. However, his introspective narrative will prove to be self-creative...
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"Can one have relations with a severed head?" Iris Murdoch herself raises this most provocative question in her novel [A Severed Head]. Obligingly, Murdoch also supplies both the myth and at least several of the meanings of her central symbol: the head of the Gorgon Medusa, the Freudian reading of such a head as the female genitals both feared and desired, and the drastic segregating of the individual from a whole nexus of relationships…. Her characters include a psychiatrist, a sculptor, and an anthropologist. Every major character in the novel is in some sense a head-hunter, with the exception of the chief victim, Georgie Hands—and when Georgie realizes to what extent she has been a victim of two brothers in turn, she cuts off her hair as prelude to a more literal attempted suicide.
Yet a secondary sequence of images belongs to a different order: art, specifically religious art….
"If you asked Francesca to describe her soul," Saki asserts in The Unbearable Bassington, "she would probably have described her livingroom." So it is with the characters in A Severed Head (for instance, "The room was Antonia")—all except the naive Georgie, who lacks, not a soul, but an established nexus for her identity. The narrator, Martin, and Antonia, his wife, are always placing objects carefully "in the rich and highly integrated mosaic of [their] surroundings,"… while Georgie [Martin's mistress] is...
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A fifty-year vogue for "experimental" novels notwithstanding, Iris Murdoch continues, to all outward appearances, to write nineteenth century fiction. But if she avoids wordplay, unstructured plots, even the stream-of-consciousness, her novels are still experimental, but in Zola's sense, not Joyce's. Like her French predecessor, Murdoch believes that the novel can evaluate ideas; for her literature is "the most essential and fundamental aspect of culture … an education in how to picture and understand human situations." Thus, although she has written a number of philosophical essays, Murdoch seems uncomfortable with abstract pronouncements and repeatedly returns to the novel, where ideas about moral behavior can be acted out in recognizable psychologies and situations. To a great extent, the success of her novels depends on the rigor of the experiment; at best, they criticize, complicate, or even contradict her preconceptions, while at their worst, they serve as vehicles for expounding ideas they fail to dramatize. This link between successfully developed ideas and successful fiction can be seen if we look, for example, at Murdoch's critique of romantic suffering—and, by extension, of romantic love….
In The Sovereignty of Good [a collection of essays published in 1970], Murdoch argued against the ideas about suffering we have inherited from the romantics. Romantic suffering, as we know, is primarily psychological and...
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