Summary (Masterplots II: British and Commonwealth Fiction Series)
Hilary Burde has buried himself in a modest civil service job in expiation for having caused a terrible tragedy some twenty years earlier, which he has kept secret ever since. He lives a life of constant bitterness and recrimination, barely relieved by the love of his sister Crystal and the attention of a few friends who are prepared to put up with his constant, vituperative pessimism. Surprisingly, although not a handsome man, he is capable of eliciting deep affection, sometimes love, from others, while refusing to give much of anything back but constant abuse.
His deep melancholy is intensified by the fact that the tragedy caused by him not only killed the woman he loved but also destroyed his academic career and his ambition to take care of his sister and himself in dignity and comfort. Their mother died while they were young children, and Burde, a troublesome boy, spent most of his early life in an orphanage, separated from his sister. In his teens, his skill for languages was discovered, and he won a scholarship to Oxford and was asked to stay on as a fellow. It was at that time that the disaster occurred.
Some twenty years later, Burde learns that Gunnar Jopling is the new head of the government department in which Burde has a very minor appointment. It was Jopling’s wife, with whom Burde was having an affair, who was killed in the car driven by Burde. Her death caused both men to leave Oxford, after which Jopling became a...
(The entire section is 591 words.)
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Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
A Word Child is a stylish novel in the gothic tradition of the nineteenth century that develops a brooding atmosphere of gloom and deals with aberrant psychological states. Murdoch’s use of gothic conventions is an exploration of the tensions between the interior world of the mind and the outer world of reality. The narrator of A Word Child, Hilary Burde, haunts himself with fantasies of power, possession, and betrayal. The narrative is divided into the days of a diary, reflecting Hilary’s rigid approach to life.
Hilary is a prostitute’s child who starts life as an illiterate orphan. After a schoolmaster discovers his linguistic gifts, he achieves a certain success at the University of Oxford under the patronage of don Gunnar Jopling and his wife, Anne, who also show unusual kindness to Hilary’s half sister, Crystal. Hilary is obsessed with Crystal and, although he loves her, wields absolute power over her life. She is indeed a Crystal Burde in a less than gilded cage.
The relationship between Hilary and Gunnar is central to the narrative. While teaching at Oxford, Hilary falls in love with Anne Jopling and tries to persuade her to leave Gunnar and her young son. Anne, panicked by her recent discovery that she is again pregnant, provokes Hilary to crash his car in an accident that proves fatal to her. The Oxford careers of both men are ruined, and after a year of debilitation Hilary goes on to a dull civil service job...
(The entire section is 559 words.)
Bibliography (Masterplots II: British and Commonwealth Fiction Series)
Alter, Robert. Partial Magic: The Novel as a Self-Conscious Genre, 1975.
Bayley, John. The Characters of Love: A Study in the Literature of Personality, 1960.
Bromwich, David. Review in The New York Times Book Review. LXXIII (August 24, 1975), p. 21.
Byatt, A. S. Degrees of Freedom: The Novels of Iris Murdoch, 1965.
Dipple, Elizabeth. Iris Murdoch: Work for the Spirit, 1982.
Newsweek. Review. LXXXVI (August 25, 1975), p. 66.