Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

“Fairy tales for adults” would not be an unfair description of some Iris Murdoch novels. A Word Child demonstrates the way in which she weaves disparate ideas into a moral fable. For example, Sir James Barrie’s Peter Pan (1904) figures throughout the novel—the office is to produce a Peter Pan pantomime, and Burde and Lady Kitty meet at the Peter Pan monument in the park. As the story of a child who refuses to grow up, it can be seen as relating directly to Burde’s determination not to let bygones be bygones but rather to live a life of romantic self-abasement that, unfortunately, blights the lives of others. Arthur Fisch, a civil servant in love with Burde’s sister, puts the Peter Pan connection clearly in context when he repudiates the idea that life can be lived romantically; life is not a play, not a pantomime, and he calls Peter a spirit gone wrong.

The use of London’s subway system as a place of refuge and solace for Burde is connected to the religious themes found throughout the novel. Burde sees himself as a monster, living below the surface of life, so terrible that he cannot be forgiven—though, he believes, there is no God to forgive him, anyway. This wallowing is an act of spiritual pride, and although Burde does not believe in God, he is led to a layman’s version of the idea that forgiveness is only possible after the sinner has divested himself of the glamour of sin, of the operatic posturing and suffering in a sin too great ever to be dismissed. Burde has to go past self-pity, past romantic gestures (such as hiding in the subway world), to give himself to the possibility of forgiveness. Eventually, it seems that Burde and Jopling (who has also made a lifelong meal of the disaster) are able to forgive each other and may put it all behind them—but Iris Murdoch dislikes neat endings. Burde does it again, falling in love with Lady Kitty, and a second disaster occurs. The best intentions fall before the power of arbitrary love in a wallowing in the mud of real life, but this time, Burde is able to swim away from death and accept life as, perhaps, a mess, yet one in which people can somehow survive, and live, as Arthur would say, truthfully and simply.