Murdoch’s primary concern in many of her novels is the problem of living a moral life, which may be seen as a progressive discarding of the false “good” in favor of truth. Eros, or sexual love, is closely connected to this idea of moral change, and the power of transformed sexual energy is used as a major motif in A Severed Head. The novel has certain echoes of Restoration comedy in being overplotted, dazzling, witty, and in the way it illustrates that love is war and power play.

The theme of severed heads is brought out in Alexander’s sculpted busts, the decapitated appearance of Honor when she leans out of Martin’s car window, and Honor’s keynote speech, which alludes to her sibling incest: “. . . because of what you saw, I am a terrible object of fascination for you. I am a severed head such as primitive tribes and old alchemists used to use. . . . And who knows but that long acquaintance with a severed head might lead to strange knowledge.” This carefully worked out theme links knowledge with a kind of power, especially the secret knowledge that comes of indulging in forbidden acts such as incest. The plot is driven by Martin’s increasing knowledge, and most of the revelations involve incestuous or symbolically incestuous relationships. Martin’s need to keep a child-mistress whom he can dominate, Palmer and Honor’s affair, and Martin and Antonia’s marriage, with its overtones of mother-son dependence, are all variations on this theme. Even the affair of Antonia and Alexander has semi-incestuous overtones, for Antonia has sex with...

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