Murdoch, (Jean) Iris (Vol. 22)
(Jean) Iris Murdoch 1919–
British novelist and playwright.
Murdoch's 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 importance of others. 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, 15, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)
The contemporary allegorist is likely to be both arbitrary and tentative. His world will be idealized but unsystematic, full of meanings but devoid of meaning. The world of The Unicorn is this kind of world. (p. 107)
Since every scene, every character, and every event in The Unicorn contributes to the plot or the meaning—usually to both simultaneously—we must have a firm grip on the structure of character and events in order to deal with the allegorical dimensions of the tale. As I understand the reading process, we read any story by engaging in what Poe called ratiocination. As we start to read, we build up expectations in the form of cloudy and tentative structures, into which we try to fit the details of character and event as they are presented to us. We modify these tentative structures as we are forced to by elements that do not fit, and we seek to perfect them as we move toward the end of the story.
In a work with as much story in it as there is in The Unicorn we are given considerable exercise in ratiocination merely in keeping up with events. (pp. 107-08)
As the reading process continues, this reader's consciousness will be filing answers, dismissing apparent irrelevancies, framing new questions—developing a whole structure of intellectual and emotional expectations. Trying deliberately to make this process fully conscious—as it normally is not—we should be...
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In her fiction, Iris Murdoch's usual technique is to set a group of characters around some abstract theme, generally of a rather philosophical nature. Semi-allegorical as these figures are, they serve, through their varying situations and relationships, to illustrate, elaborate, and expand the central concept. In The Red and the Green, there is a slight change, the characters being placed around an event rather than an idea. But, in other respects, whether of technique or subsidiary preoccupation—the patterning of relationships, the charting of bizarre entanglements, moments of melodrama, and the frequent use of symbolism—this work is in the same tradition as the majority of Miss Murdoch's fiction, though noticeably less complex….
Formally, [The Red and the Green] has great neatness. The characters are confined to the members of one large and elaborately inter-related Anglo-Irish family; the action restricted, in place, to Dublin and its outskirts, and in time, to the days from Palm Sunday to Easter Monday, Passiontide. The necessity of explaining what happened to everyone in, and after, the Rising does dictate a rather contrived Epilogue, but this, too, Miss Murdoch has tried to attach, through the use of echo and parallel, to the main body of the book. (p. 403)
In many ways, the Easter Rising is an appropriate subject for a writer of Miss Murdoch's propensities, the rebellion itself being already...
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Reading [Nuns and Soldiers] is a romp, it goes by in a flash; and we can be most seriously engaged by the ideas even while we are gasping like eleven-year-olds to know what will happen next. For the length of the story the thing just comes off, and I find a real reluctance in myself to take it apart and look at the mechanism.
Perhaps because there is so much mechanism; perhaps because the innards of Murdoch's novels turn out to be the same ones every time, in slightly different combinations; perhaps because the unity of each book is so fragile and splits so quickly in half, into ideas and narrative. An example of too much mechanism: the first word of Nuns and Soldiers is "'Wittgenstein—'"; and I am rather crossly aware that this must be an important clue that I could only follow up by reading Wittgenstein. (Or is the author having a bit of a self-parodying joke? Puzzles and contradictions again.) Then there is that appearance of sameness, of elements being recombined over and over again in different patterns. It may not matter very much, after all—the patterns are so ingenious, and we are too close to the whole sequence of novels to see the shape of it. The real trouble is in the lack of fit between theory and story, formality and naturalism, and a Murdoch novel stands or falls by the extent to which this is overcome….
These are the protests of a querulous addict of the Murdoch novels, who has...
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Murdoch intimidates not because she is so good or so prolific a writer but because she is also a working philosopher. One feels there must be some metaphysical system that explains the adultery and musical beds, the overcharged emotional atmospheres and meticulously developed characters of the novels. It seems inconceivable that this interpreter of Plato and Sartre, apparently cloistered behind the walls of Oxford scholarship and respectability, could know so scandalously much about the lusts and passions of ordinary folk. Murdoch the philosopher writes about freedom and moral choice; Murdoch the novelist is a comic genius, a goat-footed enchantress beckoning the reader to a toot in the pubs of literature for some good gossip and a heart-to-heart talk about the eternal verities.
Like all her novels, Nuns and Soldiers is about love,… the love that Murdoch calls "the real, the indubitable and authoritative Eros: that unmistakable seismic shock, that total concentration of everything into one necessary being, mysterious, uncanny, unique."
Nuns and Soldiers also has a great deal about religion, which "is to do with the destruction of personality."… The religiosity is not at all [somber or pervasive]…. The bizarre and the outrageous burst through the homilies. God does not get between the sheets, though Murdoch's admirers, whose appreciation amounts to an addiction, will want to know that Jesus Christ...
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Iris Murdoch's new novel, "Nuns and Soldiers," is an epitome and sum of its 19 predecessors. It provides us, therefore, with an opportunity to formulate some constants among this round score of fictions and to see what they add up to. The first of her novels, "Under the Net" (1954), won her immediate acclaim as one of the Angry Young Men—a confusion of sexes that anticipates a number of her characters. Since then, critics, as usual, have disagreed about what is good and what bad in her work. But they have agreed above all else to take Iris Murdoch seriously, to take her as among "the most accomplished British novelists to come to maturity since the close of World War II," to quote one of her critics. (p. 1)
Iris Murdoch has had a number of genuine, if modest, popular successes. I think I know why.
On the one hand, she writes Harlequin romances for high-brows…. Secular love is the efficient cause of what goes on in her novels, as when Paul loves Paula, who loves Paulo, who loves Pauline, who has a little something going with Saul, who falls into a sudden passion for his pretty nephew Apollo when, one portentous day ("a strange mystical light pervaded London"), he finds Pauline in the arms of Paulette. Apollo, meanwhile….
On the other hand, Iris Murdoch is a neo-Christian apologist. Her fictions, I mean, argue a Christianity that has become so much more interesting, don't you know,...
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Before I get into the puzzles, symbols and patterns in Iris Murdoch's 20th novel, "Nuns and Soldiers," let me say that at its heart lies a fairly intriguing love story. This involves Gertrude Openshaw, a wealthy, handsome Scottish-English woman in her late 30's, whose husband, Guy, a father-figure to her and his large circle of relations, has just died of cancer. The question is posed by Guy's death: who will win Gertrude's heart once the mourning period is over?…
Astonishingly enough, it will be Tim Reede, a somewhat feckless young painter who had also seen Guy as a sort of father-figure and whose main interest in Gertrude has been as a possible source of money….
Are Tim and Gertrude serious? The London circle is appalled when the word gets out. And so indeed are we, the readers. The match can't possibly work. Tim and Gertrude are the most unlikely pair of all possible pairs in the novel. Yet after a series of trials and misunderstandings, Tim and Gertrude marry and find contentment. And it is Miss Murdoch's not inconsiderable accomplishment to have made their romance convincing and compelling.
But this leaves out all the puzzles, symbols and diagrams. It leaves out the three mysteries that Guy poses on his deathbed—the white swan, the ring "he shouldn't have sold," and "the upper side of the cube" he wishes he could see. It leaves out the role of religion in the novel. What does it signify...
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The Atlantic Monthly
Iris Murdoch is the Houdini of modern novelists. Using props as ancient as the stars and plots as tangled as a botched Indian rope trick, she keeps our attention riveted on the larger questions of human behavior: whether it is possible to act wisely, to love honestly, to live purely. Now, in [Nuns and Soldiers], she has perfected her technique and pulled off the big one: a book that unwinds with all the sinuous inevitability of a contortionist to rise into the higher spheres of myth….
Naturally, this being a Murdoch novel, nothing is so simple as it might appear to be. While Nuns and Soldiers works wonderfully as an archetypal tale of love triumphant, it presents dozens of other possibilities. There is a great deal of questioning about the significance of religion; in fact, Jesus Christ makes a brief but dramatic appearance in Anne's kitchen. More general matters of morality are introduced; it is no coincidence that Gertrude's lover drinks in a pub called the Prince of Denmark, or that her husband's last ravings are drawn from The Merchant of Venice. Landscape has numinous powers beyond its aesthetic ones; so do the words of other people, however deeply rooted in deception. This is an exceptionally full book, packed with ideas, symbols, references, questionings, and with characters who, more than usually in Murdoch's novels, seem caught in the real web of life.
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There comes a point in many an Iris Murdoch novel when the enchantment sours, or cloys, and the hitherto rapt reader succumbs to the suspicion that some justice lies in the customary criticisms with which her faithfully produced fictions are faithfully belabored; e.g., that her prose can be as careless as it is abundant, and that her worthy preoccupation with the metamorphoses worked by ubiquitous, tireless Eros leads her to overillustrate her thesis and to produce a mechanical, farcical effect. On page 296 of her most recent and in many ways marvellous novel, "Nuns and Soldiers" …, we are told, having persuasively experienced one heroine's typically Murdochian immersion in an unlikely but ineluctable passion, that another heroine is promptly in line for the same strenuous treatment…. The language is desperate, perhaps, because one of Miss Murdoch's central couples has been so firmly linked and married by the amorous alchemics of the novel that the case should have been rested, and the other couple, for all the verbal heat she breathes on the two unhappy souls, remains a pair of sticks—a nun and a soldier, too priggish and stiff and solitary to mate. By the final page (505) of the book, we have lost patience with all the characters, who if not stiff and sterile seem to be spoiled and selfish, and the connection at the plot's heart, the female friendship between Gertrude Openshaw and Anne Cavidge, no longer holds current and breaks off...
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Bernard F. Dick
Unfortunately, Nuns and Soldiers is another disjointed performance that asks a question once raised by radio soap operas: Can a recent widow find happiness with a young artist although she is pursued by a bogus Polish count, attended by an ex-nun and scrutinized by her late husband's family? The answer is a qualified yes, but the price of happiness is high in Murdoch's world—in this case, trial by fire and water. One might do well to brush up on Mozart's The Magic Flute; Murdoch certainly has. The artist refers to himself and his delightfully obscene mistress as Pappageno and Pappagena.
This is a world situated between life and art. Guy Openshaw dies of cancer but as a combination Odysseus-Shylock. Thus the ideal reader should know the Odyssey (Penelope and her suitors), The Merchant of Venice (a variation on the three caskets in the form of Guy's dying references to a swan, a cube, a ring) and Hamlet (the Prince of Denmark pub, the Oedipal artist, the regal but fleshy Gertrude). A knowledge of the New Testament would also be helpful, and a smattering of Latin would not hurt.
But is it worth it? The novel is too long for its simple message (love redeems death), and the plot is encumbered by wearisome exposition that is often broken by frantic parentheses. One appreciates what Murdoch has been doing in her last few novels: she is making her own tortured return to...
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