Influence (World Philosophers and Their Works)
If one believes in the “great chain of being,” all things bear a relationship to everything that has passed before them. Murdoch is a striking example of this. To her writing, both in her novels and in her philosophical and literary treatises, she brought the rich fabric that constitutes her literary and philosophical framework. Her early training in classical philosophy left its indelible mark on her thinking, particularly in her questions regarding what is real. Platonic idealism provides a strong undercurrent in most of her novels. Her quest was for that which is real, authentic, and true. She sought the Good as Plato sought it.
To her rich classical background, one must add her exposure to William Shakespeare, Britain’s Victorian novelists, and much of the later philosophy that she absorbed in her extensive reading and in her personal contacts. She read extensively in the writings of Immanuel Kant, whose categorical imperative left its mark on her writing, as did Wittgenstein’s theories regarding humankind’s need to impose structure upon existence.
In A Word Child, Murdoch questions how far one can take Wittgenstein’s theory. Although she refutes the nihilism of the leading existentialists, she cannot go so far as to accept Wittgenstein’s solution to controlling the chaos in which life appears to be mired. Her solution to the conundrums that face modern humans is love; only love enables people to extend themselves...
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Other literary forms (Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition)
Iris Murdoch (MUR-dok) produced a considerable amount of work in areas other than fiction, particularly in literary criticism, drama, and, most important, philosophy. Her first book, Sartre: Romantic Rationalist (1953), was a critique of Jean-Paul Sartre’s philosophy as it appears in his novels. She wrote three plays for the theater and adapted several of her novels for the stage. The Servants and the Snow was first performed at the Greenwich Theatre in 1970, and The Three Arrows at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge, in 1972; the two plays were published together in 1973. Another play, Art and Eros, was performed at the National Theatre in 1980. Murdoch collaborated with J. B. Priestley to adapt her novel A Severed Head for the stage (pr. 1963) and with James Saunders to adapt The Italian Girl (pr. 1967). The Black Prince was also adapted for the stage, first performed at the Aldwych Theatre in 1989.
Murdoch also produced books on the subject of philosophy: The Sovereignty of Good (1970), which consists of three essays on moral philosophy, “The Idea of Perfection,” “On ’God’ and ’Good,’” and “The Sovereignty of Good over Other Concepts”; and The Fire and the Sun: Why Plato Banished the Artists (1977), a study of Plato’s objections to art and artists. Murdoch...
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Achievements (Critical Survey of Long Fiction, Fourth Edition)
Universally acknowledged as one of the most important novelists of postwar Britain, Iris Murdoch combined a prolific output with a consistently high level of fictional achievement. From the beginning of her career as a novelist, she was a critical and popular success in both Great Britain and the United States. In general, Murdoch is thought of as a "philosophical novelist," and despite her objections to this description, she attempted a fusion of aesthetic and philosophical ideas in her fiction. Including her first novel, Under the Net, published in 1954, she published twenty-six novels and received a variety of literary awards and honors. In 1973, she was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction for The Black Prince, and in 1974 she received the Whitbread Literary Award for Fiction for The Sacred and Profane Love Machine. The Sea, the Sea won the Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 1978. Murdoch became a member of the Irish Academy in 1970 and an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1975; she was awarded the honorary title of Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1976. She was made a Dame of the Order of the British Empire in 1987, and in 1990 she received the Medal of Honor for Literature from the National Arts Club in New York.
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Sources for Further Study (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
Discussion Topics (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Why are Iris Murdoch’s novels often called realistic?
What are the various symbols the sea suggests in The Nice and the Good and The Sea, the Sea?
How does Murdoch’s training in philosophy influence her novels?
What use does Murdoch make of the subconscious in her novels?
One of Murdoch’s hallmarks is the detailed description of food, clothes, and room interiors. What function do these descriptions serve in her novels?
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
Antonacchio, Maria. Picturing the Human: The Moral Thought of Iris Murdoch. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Focuses exclusively on Murdoch’s work and thought as a philosopher.
Baldanza, Frank. Iris Murdoch. New York: Twayne, 1974. Following Twayne’s prescribed format, Baldanza writes about Murdoch’s novels and about the plays made from A Severed Head and The Italian Girl. Although dated, this critical biography offers significant details about Murdoch’s life and writing before 1970.
Bayley, John. Elegy for Iris. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999. A moving memoir by Murdoch’s husband of her final years afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease.
Bayley, John. Iris and Her Friends. London: Duckworth, 1999.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Iris Murdoch. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. Bloom’s collection of essays, a representative selection of some of the best articles and book chapters on Murdoch, includes his introductory analysis of The Good Apprentice and Murdoch’s essay “Against Dryness.”
Bove, Cheryl K. Understanding Iris Murdoch. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993. A lucid and valuable handbook for college students. Early chapters summarize Murdoch’s philosophical ideas....
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