Critical Context

At one point in A Severed Head, Honor says to Martin that “you cannot have both truth and what you call civilization.” The civilization to which she is referring is bourgeois, perpetuated by decorous and amoral philistines who seem only concerned with appearance rather than with substance, with form rather than with content. Iris Murdoch implicitly criticizes the society she portrays in this novel, just as she has done elsewhere in such novels as The Flight from the Enchanter (1956), The Bell (1958), and The Time of the Angels (1966). Like the British society portrayed in such works as George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House (1919), E. M. Forster’s Howards End (1910), Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925), or Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart (1938), Martin and Antonia’s society is devoid of passion or conviction, neurotic insofar as the hearts of its people are separated from their heads, as their refined sensibilities preclude any genuine, deep involvement with one another or with life.

Yet rather than suggesting—as, for example, William Golding does in his Lord of the Flies (1954)—that once the genteel facade is taken away there is exposed an inherent barbarism that is always present in people just below the surface, Murdoch suggests, like D. H. Lawrence before her, that there exists in every individual a usually hidden spiritual essence whose affinities are with “the dark gods” of instinct and passion. Freudian and Jungian psychology clearly inform Murdoch’s fiction, and particularly A Severed Head, and this perhaps explains more than anything else not only her frequent use of symbols, as well as her portrayal of archetypal situations and conflicts, but also the pervasive optimism to be found in her work, an optimism that derives its validity from what this author portrays as the human capacity to slough off old selves and exhausted ways of being for greater self-knowledge, symbolic rebirths, the union of opposite polarities in the human psyche and life, and more philosophically based, psychologically sound, and spiritually propitious communions between individuals. There is a moral imperative germane to Murdoch’s fiction, and hers is the kind of praiseworthy art about which John Gardner was speaking when, in On Moral Fiction (1978), he said, “Art discovers, generation by generation, what is necessary to humanness.”