Study Guide

A Severed Head

by Iris Murdoch

A Severed Head Summary

Summary (Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Martin Lynch-Gibbon tells this story, he informs the reader, because it is about his loss of “great peace,” “the end of the old innocent world,” and about how he “was plunged into the nightmare” his life has become. An essential part of his peace is his relationship with Georgie Hands, his lover of two years. Even though she had become pregnant with his child and had had an abortion, this did nothing to disrupt his sense of peace and tranquillity, for—because she had dealt with the abortion alone, an illustration, he thinks, of her “toughness, and the stoical nature of her devotion” to him—the ordeal had been “painless” for him. Another essential aspect of his peace is that his affair with her has remained a secret; its “being so utterly private” is part of its “charm,” he informs her. It is appropriate, then, that Martin should begin his retrospective tale by describing himself and Georgie together in her apartment, a few days before Christmas, the two of them having just made love together, and staring into each other’s eyes. It is appropriate because this scene with her—wherein he assures her that he is certain that his wife, Antonia, does not know about their affair, and wherein he assures the reader that “there was no one in the world at whose feet I would . . . have lain in such an attitude of abandonment” as that expressed by Georgie when she prostrates herself at his feet—represents his “very last moment of peace....”

Martin rests, reading, in the wake of his peace later that same afternoon as he awaits Antonia’s return home from a session with her psychoanalyst, Palmer Anderson. Anderson has been Martin’s friend for four years and Antonia’s analyst for only a few months. According to Martin, her analysis is “all for fun,” merely something to keep her occupied. When Antonia returns home, however, she brings with her a truth that becomes for Martin a “bad dream”: She informs him that she and Anderson have been lovers for some time and that they have decided to marry. Antonia wants to remain close to Martin, even though divorced from him. Indeed, she and Anderson have decided that they “can’t do without” him. “We shall hold onto you,” Anderson later tells Martin, “we shall look after you.” Also important is what Antonia and Anderson expect of Martin in terms of a reaction to their affair: They expect him to refrain from using “bitter words” and to act “civilized and intelligent....” While the reader may find such expectations unrealistic, they are characteristic of the society portrayed in this novel—a society devoid of passion and conviction, a society wherein sensibilities are cultivated to pass for love. Martin is a product of this society, and with the help of large amounts of whiskey and wine, he is equal to the expectations of his wife and her lover—until Honor Klein arrives in London to visit Anderson, her brother.

There is “something primitive” about Honor, and she “certainly has power in her,” Georgie says to Martin in the novel’s first chapter (Honor was one of Georgie’s professors at Cambridge). When Honor arrives in London, she impresses Martin as being like a triumphant, “powerful...

(The entire section is 1317 words.)

A Severed Head Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

A Severed Head, Murdoch’s fifth published novel, is considered the best of the comedies of manners that Murdoch was writing early in her career. The cast of characters is largely restricted to the wealthy bourgeoisie; the decadent atmosphere is evoked by careful descriptions of richly decorated rooms, heavy drinking, and romantic misconceptions. The characters suffer frequently from languor and fatigue. Yet the structure of A Severed Head is Murdoch’s own: A bumbling male protagonist lives through a series of events that destroy his complacency and teach him to recognize the separate reality of other people.

The protagonist, Martin Lynch-Gibbon, tells his own story. He is happily married to Antonia, a society beauty five years his senior. Martin’s easy complacency is shattered when Antonia declares she is going to leave him for her psychiatrist, Palmer Anderson, who is Martin’s close friend. Although Martin is repelled by Antonia’s suggestion that he remain rational about the affair, he allows Antonia to live with Palmer and remains friendly with them both.

Unknown to both Antonia and Palmer, Martin has long kept a mistress, a young teacher named Georgia Hands. Although Martin professes to love Georgia, he has denied her the trip to New York on which her heart was set and encouraged her to have an abortion. After Antonia’s revelation, Martin finds that he is extremely ambivalent toward his own mistress.

Events suddenly become more complicated when Antonia asks Martin to pick up Palmer’s half sister at Liverpool Station. In a scene both comic and portentous, Martin meets the dour Honor Klein on a rainy night that smells like “sulphur and brimstone.” As they drive toward Palmer’s house in dense fog, Martin almost collides with a truck. When Honor hangs her head out the window to see, Martin first apprehends her as a...

(The entire section is 773 words.)