In her most recent novel, The Philosopher’s Pupil, Iris Murdoch brings together many of the philosophical, psychological, and aesthetic concerns that have dominated her fiction during her thirty years as a novelist. The futility of philosophy as a means of perceiving truth, the tendency of certain individuals to act as power figures in the lives of others, and the difficulty of understanding human behavior and motivation are all explored in a sprawling, panoramic novel narrated by a mysterious narrator who calls himself simply “N.”
The philosopher of the novel’s title is John Robert Rozanov, a world-renowned metaphysician who has returned recently to his hometown of Ennistone, England, in order to rewrite his “great book,” a work that will summarize and illuminate a lifetime of philosophical speculation. He has returned also to protect his granddaughter Hattie Meynell from the “vulgar sexuality” of the modern world, a feat that he hopes to accomplish by marrying her off to Tom McCaffrey, the younger half brother of his former student George McCaffrey. Rozanov is the latest in the long line of characters in Murdoch’s fiction who exert an unexplainable and powerful influence on those around them and set off a series of events that radically alter the lives of many individuals. Rozanov’s return gives Murdoch an opportunity to explore two central themes of the book: the bonds, real or imagined, which connect people and the impossibility of determining the actual causes of events.
In the opening pages, the narrator observes that Ennistone periodically undergoes “holidays from morality,” or “funny times.” The novel begins with George’s attempted murder of his wife, Stella, and the action concludes with George’s attempted murder of Rozanov, who may or may not have already succeeded in a suicide attempt. George’s lifelong, near-psychotic mental condition is apparently healed by Rozanov’s death, but the actual motivation for the murder is not entirely clear. The narrator notes that homicidal or suicidal acts are often the result of contingent elements which are too “tiny and sheerly accidental” to be discernible by science, and he concludes the novel with the observation that “the motivation of terrible deeds tends to be extremely complex, full of apparent contradictions, and often in fact bottomlessly mysterious. . . .” George’s need to be recognized and granted some sort of importance and validity by his former philosophy professor does not explain his obsessional relationship with him, nor does Rozanov’s vituperative letter to George about an article in the local newspaper concerning a party at Hattie Meynell’s house provide a true catalyst for violence. Like many of Murdoch’s characters, George is ultimately an opaque, mysterious individual who eludes all of the reader’s attempts to understand him—and, in a sense, eludes his creator as well: “We are in fact far more randomly made, more full of rough contingent rubble, than art or vulgar psycho-analysis leads us to imagine,” says Murdoch in The Philosopher’s Pupil, an aside that could function as an epigraph to all of her fiction.
The narrator does, however, offer one explanation for George’s violence, suggesting that it may be the motivation for most human behavior: vanity. George’s brother Brian believes that George is essentially characterized by “chronic hurt vanity, cosmic resentment, metaphysical envy,” and both George and Rozanov, who in many ways are mirror images of each other, suffer from an egotistical terror of mockery. Both men are also power figures who become the focus for the obsessional fantasies of the people around them. Many of the inhabitants of Ennistone spend an inordinate amount of time discussing and analyzing George’s behavior, just as Rozanov’s return leads several characters to believe that he has come back because of them, a misconception that creates a need for these individuals to possess the philosopher by forcing him to talk and interact with them.
Two characters particularly caught in Rozanov’s web are Tom McCaffrey and Father Bernard Jacoby; both men function as types who exemplify Murdoch’s belief in the need for fiction to reveal the truth while acknowledging its own limits of...
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