Please analyze The Sandcastle by Iris Murdoch. This is a study guide question posted by eNotes Editorial. Your literary analysis may touch on a variety of topics, including (but not limited to) discussions of the author’s style, the use of symbols or motifs, or the broader historical or literary context in which the work was written.
The Sandcastle by Iris Murdoch begins by jumping straight into a dialogue between Bill Mor and his wife, Nan. This conversation sets the tone. Mor is a Latin and history teacher and is married with two children. The introductory part of the novel begins with a marital dispute, a common motif throughout the book—Mrs. Mor complains about the cost of something, and Mr. Mor believes it is a fair price. This type of disagreement can be found many times throughout Murdoch’s novel; the disagreement over money is just one example. Bill Mor, a middle-aged teacher, having political aspirations and being on the Labour ticket is another—Nan Mor disapproves. Another disagreement relates to Mr. Mor’s aspirations for his children to attend university—aspirations Mrs. Mor disagrees with. As with most spats between the two, Mrs. Mor wins and Mr. Mor backs down; however, on the issue of his children attending university, Bill Mor is adamant to have his way. The way Iris Murdoch shows much of this contention is through dialogue.
An example (not of dispute but of an affirmation of Bill Mor’s desire for his children to further their education) is when Mr. Demoyte speaks to Mor about his daughter Felicity:
Demoyte could not let this pass. “Oh, what rot, Mor!” he said. “You don’t seriously mean that you’re going to let Felicity leave school? She’s just slow at developing. After a year or two in the Sixth Form she’ll be a different person. She ought to go to a university.” (Chapter 7)
The novel was published in the 1950s, and much of what takes places in it is quite illustrative of the post–World War II era. Society was struggling with a new norm; however, Mor and his wife somehow seem torn between the old (pre-war) and new (post-war) mindsets. Nan Mor could be seen as a character who is more conservative in her approach (i.e., she believes people should know their place and stay in it). Bill Mor, on the other hand, seems to experience a growing discontent with his own life (i.e., the status quo doesn’t cut it anymore, and he wants more out of life). Mor’s attitude seems to be what sets the rest of the novel in motion.
Now enter Rain Carter. A gifted upstart, she is a central focus of Bill Mor’s discontent. He is infatuated with her and focused on what could be instead of what actually is. She is a painter commissioned to paint the portrait of the retired headmaster, Mr. Demoyte, of the school where Bill Mor worked. St. Bride’s, the school, is what connects Miss Carter and Mr. Mor; as a result, the two develop a bond and grow incredibly close.
Mr. Mor and Miss Carter develop a love affair. Though it is not tragic, Mor and Carter’s relationship possesses a bittersweet quality, and what happens is a sign of the times in which the story takes place. Nan figures everything out, but at the urging of a friend, she doesn’t throw it all away—perhaps another indication of her more conservative attitude. She works to start embracing her husband and his ambitions more. At the unveiling of Demoyte’s portrait painted by Miss Carter, Nan Mor gives a speech praising her husband’s political ambitions, something she had been unwilling to do until now. At this point it becomes clear that the person who knows Mr. Mor the best is Mrs. Mor and not Miss Carter. This is yet another way in which Bill Mor chases after something that is an illusion. Discontented with life, he chases after something to fill a void and, in the process, completely leaves his identity behind. Once Nan Mor praises her husband, Miss Carter realizes that there is much to Mr. Mor she doesn’t know, and she resolves to end things and leave.
Ironically, Murdoch’s characters seem to embody what might be considered the opposite of what is traditionally expected. After World War II, many women were not content to return to domestic life as it had been before the war, while men were seen as wanting things to go back the way they were. In The Sandcastle, Mr. Mor, not Mrs. Mor, is the character who is less than content with life. This could also be Murdoch’s way of capturing a midlife crisis.
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