Murdoch, (Jean) Iris (Vol. 31)
(Jean) Iris Murdoch 1919–
Irish-born English novelist, dramatist, poet, essayist, nonfiction writer, and scriptwriter.
In addition to producing a lengthy novel almost yearly, Murdoch, a former teacher of philosophy at Oxford, is also known for such scholarly works as Sartre: Romantic Rationalist (1953) and The Fire and the Sun (1977), a study of Plato's aesthetics. Her background in philosophy is evident in her fiction, which often deals with complex moral, religious, and ethical issues. Her novels are also noted for their wit, intricate plots, and precise descriptive detail. Murdoch won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for The Black Prince (1973) and the Booker McConnell Prize for The Sea, the Sea (1978).
Murdoch's first novel, Under the Net (1954), is regarded as one of her best and is characteristic of her career's work in its treatment of moral problems. The central character, a writer named Jake Donoghue, is initially concerned with establishing a pattern for his life and insulating himself from the impact of "contingency," random happenings which are not a part of his design. In the course of the novel, Jake comes to accept contingency as a part of life and particularly to accept the reality of other people and their influence on him, which frees him to love. The changes which Jake undergoes in Under the Net are representative of what critics have identified as some of Murdoch's recurring thematic concerns: the relationship between love and freedom; the conflict between contingency and design; and the necessity of looking beyond one's self to discover truth.
Some of Murdoch's novels have been categorized as bittersweet comedies and others as ironic tragedies. Her subject matter is usually the various conflicts involved in love relationships, and complicated love triangles often occur in the novels. While most of Murdoch's novels are set in modern times, elements of magic and mystery and sudden, bizarre twists of plot invite comparison with the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Gothic novels. Often a modern-day "enchanter" figure, such as Mischa Fox in The Flight from tthe Enchanter (1956), the psychologist in A Severed Head (1961), or the philosopher in The Philosopher's Pupil (1983), influences the behavior of other characters and manipulates events in Murdoch's novels. Her imagistic prose aids her creation of the fantastic, symbolic quality of her works. As she explained in an interview with Harold Hobson, "In real life the fantastic and the ordinary, the plain and the symbolic, are often indissolubly joined together, and I think the best novels explore and exhibit life without disjoining them." Murdoch's works have also been compared to those of the nineteenth-century Russian novelists whom she admires, particularly Fedor Dostoevski, for they are often voluminous texts which involve numerous characters in complex interrelationships, rather than focusing exclusively on the viewpoints of one or two central figures in the manner more common to contemporary Anglo-American fiction.
Critical assessment of Murdoch's importance in contemporary literature is divided. Critics say that in her best novels she maintains a delicate balance between artful storytelling and abstract moralizing without allowing either to dominate. One of her expressed fictional tenets is that characters should have a degree of freedom from their creator; she hopes that in her novels "a lot of people who are not me are going to come into existence in some wonderful way." However, her characters sometimes appear to be puppets, illustrating moral and ethical issues in her intricately machinated plots. Moreover, while the fantastic elements in her fiction add variety and narrative richness to her work, it has been suggested that Murdoch's use of symbolism and melodrama can become heavy-handed and that her adherence to the conventions of the English novel make her work predictable. Nevertheless, although some critics attribute her popularity to what George Stade called her "Harlequin romances for highbrows," many place her among the major English post-World Was II fiction writers.
(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 8, 11, 15, 22; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 8; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 14.)
Of her twenty novels, Iris Murdoch has written six in the first person, each one using a male narrator…. [One] cannot help wondering if her continual use of a male narrator amounts to another woman writer's surrendering her pen to the authority of the male novelist.
As far as Murdoch herself is concerned this would seem to be the case. While she has declared that she does not find "much difference between men and women," she also claims a male viewpoint for much the same reason that Marian Evans chose a male pseudonym:
I think perhaps I identify with men more than with women, because the ordinary human condition still seems to belong more to a man than to a woman.
Murdoch's preference "to be male" is in many ways central to her art. Her choice of male narrators allows for a playful act of male impersonation as an ironic commentary on the paradox of fiction writing. She uses the male voice to articulate a sense of lived experience unique to another self, while making sure that her narrators themselves remain bound to the limitations of their own identities. While she seems to be eliminating any signs of her own female personality, since she speaks through a voice that is obviously not hers, her narrators write their stories out of the conviction...
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Although Murdoch argues against Plato on several points, it is nevertheless clear that her sense of the integrity of art reflects his injunction that fantasy and sophist lies be avoided: the world Murdoch knows best is always her subject, and if this means a proliferation of civil servants and middle-class types, her uncanny achievement shows how little the contours of an original and varied series of novels are limited by such necessities.
A patient study of Murdoch's work reveals how deceptive the bourgeois surface in fact is, and how ironic her deployment of its materials. Although she operates structurally from situation and character, the process of her best books involves a subtle peeling-off of layers of bourgeois complacency and prejudice. Her primary tools are a devastating accuracy in the detail of human character and an enormous allusive frame which pushes the reader toward a willingness to see how large her intentions are. When the allusions fail, as they tend to in early novels like A Severed Head and The Italian Girl, the result is over-plotted, tricksy books where the profound laws of causality central to Murdoch's thought are lost in clever satire. When these allusions to mythology, art and religion are functioning at a high level of imaginative power, however, their syncretic force is such that they become images assisting the novel towards profound and unnerving ends. These ends are religious in impact,...
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Iris Murdoch is a professional philosopher, and it has been interesting (though perhaps hitherto somewhat unprofitable) to speculate on what might be the relation between her philosophy and her brilliantly skilful though sometimes weirdly anarchic novelist's art. However in [The Philosopher's Pupil] … she has as her central character a renowned philosopher called Rozanov, and there are deliberate, though still enigmatic, connections made between philosophy and art.
Rozanov returns in his old age to his home town of Ennistone—a spa in the south of England noted for its hot water springs. Rozanov has lost his faith in the efficacy of philosophy, as a priest might have lost his belief in God. (There is in fact such a priest in the novel, Father Bernard, who ends up preaching to the birds about the non-existence of God.)…
Rozanov tries to organise the world around him by will: he has a hypnotic effect on people just because, perhaps, he believes there is nothing to be trusted except will. Around him circulate typical Iris Murdoch characters in various states of exaltation or despair: there are the McCaffrey family of a mother and three sons; their wives, servants and girlfriends; all are more or less under the guru-like spell of Rozanov. From their almost arbitrary circuits, like those of electrons, there from time to time appear emanations, or portents, such as also there often are in Iris Murdoch novels…....
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George [is the title character of The Philosopher's Pupil], and a somewhat hypothetical figure, a product of the ideas in the novel. He has a reputation for being 'beyond good and evil' and 'closer to awful aspects of the world' than other people. He is ambiguously involved in the near-drowning of his wife at the beginning, and in the attempted murder of the philosopher Rozanov at the end….
The need to try to explain George is widely felt in Ennistone. In his own voice, he comes on like Edgar on the heath, uttering snatches of quotations that are mostly nonsense but signify a soul in torment. Rozanov, the elderly philosopher who is the object of George's obsession, is for his part obsessed with his granddaughter's virginity. Rozanov is much the more believable character, though this involves believing in a very abstruse thinker at a time of crisis and despair. He has his own murderous impulses, which is doubtless what makes Althusser spring to mind. But Rozanov isn't mad; nor is he, like George, 'beyond good and evil'. What indeed makes him credible is simply that he is a puritan and a moralist. He is now 'tired of his mind' and tired of philosophy, in which 'everything went wrong since Aristotle.' But he is still a moralist, and what he fears most is 'to find out that morality is unreal'. Evidently (there's some guesswork to be done) this is what he does find out at the crisis of his relations with his granddaughter. He has...
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It is not easy for a reviewer to know where to catch hold of a novel by Iris Murdoch, when he has to make up his mind about it. [The Philosopher's Pupil] is the most difficult of all. Has it a story? Yes, A good one? Yes, but not one of your neat plots; wambling and discursive, like life itself, rather than smartly turned by a fabulist's invention. Is the style distinguished, then? There are several styles, and all are right for what they have to carry. Is it innovative? (This is the voice of eager youth.) Well, yes, you might say so. Is it a good read? (This is the voice of slippered age.) That depends on how alert you are to what is being said. What influences are apparent in it? (This is a professor, hot for the long chain of succession in what he calls The Art of the Novel.) Well, sometimes it reminds me of the 19th century novel in its leisurely pace and heaping-up of significant detail, and its pleasure in description of natural surroundings; but at other times it is a novel which could only be written now. Would you know it for a philosopher's novel? (This is someone who knows that at one time the author plied that demanding trade.) No, or at least not to the point where it hurts. Do you recommend it, then? Oh, indeed I do, but don't come whining to me if it is not your sort of book.
Not an easy book to write about, as you see. There were moments when I wished that it could be infinitely extended. There were other moments...
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Iris Murdoch is a conjuring kind of novelist. Her characters are upper middle class, mostly, with a sprinkling of intellectuals, artists and assorted Bohemians. Their language, tastes and habits are at the very blunted edge of contemporary Western civility.
And they are infested with passion; unpredictable and primitive and with lashings of pagan magic. Under the leather brogues the feet are cloven; under the tweed jacket is a fell. The cultivated English countenances have their fundament in a mermaid's tail or a centaur's haunches; the countryside and country towns are haunted.
The ostensible form of the Murdoch novel—she has written 21 by now—is the comedy or tragicomedy of manners. Each detail is precise, each social nuance is just so. The pleasures, pursuits, meals, anguishes and silly walks of her assorted English intelligentsia could not be more engagingly and dryly set down.
All this is carriage work and scenery. The engine that makes her books go—high-powered, tricky and sometimes, as in ["The Philosopher's Pupil"], with a tendency to stall—is the whiff of supernatural force. Her characters press along with reasonable purposes, but they are like people making their way against a high and shifty wind; sometimes their purposes blow off or reverse. The Pan-like hauntings and acts of possession, without quite winning out, bring about sudden violence and sometimes an equally violent and...
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Joyce Carol Oates
In Iris Murdoch's ambitious, unique and ingeniously plotted novels—"The Philosopher's Pupil" is the 21st—men and women are blinded by the dance of illusions. They fall in love, often violently and senselessly; they fall under the spell of individuals who appear to be special or extraordinarily powerful. A representative Murdoch novel—this one, for instance—is so densely populated and its dazed characters kept in such frenetic motion that it is sometimes difficult to remember what has happened to whom and why, which is perhaps the author's intention. For most people, life is a matter of sequential enchantments, a harlequinade in which many seek salvation but few find it, because they are captivated by mere shadows and blind to the true source of light. (p. 1)
From the start of her writing career, Miss Murdoch has chosen to associate, often with a wonderfully savage wit, the dance of shadows with that congeries of emotion called romantic or erotic love. In novel after novel she has mercilessly anatomized the delusions of love, returning often to familiar combinations (overly cerebral male in pursuit of ordinary female, for instance) and insights: "A human being hardly ever thinks about other people," a character says in "Bruno's Dream." "He contemplates fantasms which resemble them and which he has decked out for his own purposes." Most of the action of "The Philosopher's Pupil" consists of chasing about after these...
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[If we] long for what James called "the palpable present intimate that throbs responsive," we can turn to no more reliable purveyor of intimacy than Iris Murdoch, whose latest novel, "The Philosopher's Pupil" …, is one of her biggest and best. It opens with a whirlwind of an argument between husband and wife, and its first paragraph is the best description of driving a car in the rain—a "palpable present" sensation par excellence—that I have ever read:…
The malignant rain rattled on the car like shot. Propelled in oblique flurries, it assaulted the windscreen, obliterating in a second the frenetic strivings of the windscreen wipers. Little demonic faces composed of racing raindrops appeared and vanished. The intermittent yellow light of the street lamps, illuminating the grey atoms of the storm, fractured in sudden stars upon the rain-swarmed glass. Bumping on cobbles the car hummed and drummed.
Let this evocation stand as typical of Miss Murdoch's magic when it works: the blunt successive sentences, with scarcely a dependent clause among them, yield up the superb "little demonic faces composed of racing raindrops" to remind us that not all is as simple and declarative and breathless as it seems—that a highly symbol-prone intelligence presides behind this hurrying actuality. In twenty-one unstinting novels now, this writer has mined her imagination and the world...
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William H. Pritchard
[In The Philosopher's Pupil], as always with reading Iris Murdoch, there is much that is entertaining, things which—like the discussion of a Mallarmé poem between a homosexual priest and Rozanov's young female ward—would be beyond the abilities of most novelists. She has lost none of her ability to describe places and houses and the physics of things generally. But the human aspect of it all seems woefully absent, even as compared with A Severed Head, which in its focused concentration on the first-person narrator, Martin Lynch-Gibbon, had cumulative force even if it didn't go very deep. The Philosopher's Pupil has neither depth nor cumulative power; it diffuses itself rather, wandering among endlessly proliferating details. As just one instance of this, what does one do when, after 340 hefty pages have been traversed, we are taken on a picnic attended by the major characters at which the food and drink are described in detail—who brought what and what kind of Yugoslav Riesling or Double Gloucester cheese it was. All this information is presented in sentences which open in parallel manner: "The drinks before lunch had been as follows …" "The food at lunch had been as follows …" Why should we know these things, and why should they be enumerated to us by a faceless narrator who strives for no distinction of language in the rendering? The Murdoch operation, so hugely professional in one sense, is also (as the students now...
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