Study Guide

A Severed Head

by Iris Murdoch, J. B. Priestley

A Severed Head Themes

Themes and Meanings (Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The title of this play, A Severed Head, is a key clue to the underlying themes. The “head” theme appears in the first act, when Alexander, after stopping at a gallery to pick up one of his sculptures, stops in at Martin’s house to offer condolence. Martin asks to see the sculpture, and Alexander unpacks a head of Antonia. Martin protests that it cannot be Antonia without her body, but Alexander answers that “heads are us most of all; they are the apex of our incarnation.” Further, he adds, “the head can represent the female genitals, feared not desired.”

Martin introduces the associated theme of power in his reply: “You’re a magician too, you know. You gain power over people by making images of them.” Power is an important issue in this play. Martin seems to have less power than the other men: He loses Antonia, then Georgie, and he is under Antonia and Palmer’s power through most of the play.

As the play progresses it is apparent that Honor also has a great deal of power. She is the one who discovers the affair between Martin and Georgie and tells Palmer and Antonia. She is also the one who introduces Alexander and Georgie, which leads to their affair. She is a catalyst in the affairs of the others and does not hesitate to use her power. In act 3, when Martin professes his love and apprehension of her, which he believes is deeper than ordinary knowledge, she defines herself in mythic terms.I have become a...

(The entire section is 489 words.)