A Fairly Honourable Defeat Characters
by Iris Murdoch

Start Your Free Trial

Download A Fairly Honourable Defeat Study Guide

Subscribe Now

The Characters

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

As is always the case in Murdoch’s novels, the characters carry a load of surface information with them. What everyone looks like, does, eats, thinks, and desires is laid out quickly, and Murdoch returns on several occasions throughout the novel to give more information as it is needed to support twists in the plot. Despite this determination to hide nothing, Julius King, who is the central figure in this game of deception, is curiously thin. It is made clear that he finds Rupert’s self-satisfaction and optimism offensive, but what he does to Rupert and to others goes beyond sophisticated, mischievous chastisement to vindictiveness. What makes him more puzzling is the very late revelation that he suffered as a concentration camp victim during the war. Nothing is made of this, and nothing is explained of his puzzling indifference to the disaster that he causes. He is, in the end, quite happily enjoying the sights of Paris, smug in having got away with as much as he did and in his “fairly honourable defeat.”

Murdoch has always had a tendency simply to “stop” a novel, seemingly satisfied that enough is enough, but loose-endedness is particularly obvious in the way she leaves characters in this work. It is not simply a question of why King is so mean-spirited; other characters are also abandoned quite up in the air. Tallis Browne (who must be the worst housekeeper in the history of the novel) is a thoroughly good man, but his situation is simply unresolved. It may be, however, that theme influences the fate of the characters, since life perceived as “muddle” (as Murdoch puts it) does preclude resolution; this could explain why Murdoch allows her characters to do quite incredible things, inconsistent with what is expected of them.

Murdoch is usually not strong on depth in character. She likes breadth, lots of interesting participants doing surprising things. On the surface level, she does look with considerable scarifying skill at the innocent pomposities of a good man (Rupert) and on the torments and timidities of homosexuals trying to escape a life of cheap thrills. There is an impressive example of literary economy in the way in which Tallis Browne makes his integrity and moral determination clear with one thunderous slap across the face of a racist thug. Depth of characterization and consistency, however, are not really required here; Murdoch is often manipulating characters to illustrate ideas. In fairness, however, it should be recognized that her characters of “surface” can possess astonishing body: Leonard Browne, for example, Tallis’ dying father, personifies a stunning, thick, violent flow of language, a ranter who merits a place in a Beckett novel.

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Julius (Kahn) King

Julius (Kahn) King, a Jewish American biochemist in his mid-forties. He has quit working on his biological warfare experiments and has gone to England to renew old acquaintances. Distinguished looking, with pale hair and violet-brown eyes, he is a cynical observer of the human condition and decides to exploit the weaknesses he sees in the relationships he encounters. His former lover, Morgan Browne, becomes his willing yet unwitting associate in the attempt to break up the homosexual relationship between Axel Nilsson and Simon Foster. King’s real goal is to break up the marriage between Hilda and Rupert Foster, Morgan’s sister and brother-in-law. He steals love letters written by Rupert to Hilda and by Morgan to himself, blots out certain specifics, and then sends them to Rupert and to Morgan, hoping to inspire a romance between the two. He drives a wedge between Axel and Simon; plays havoc with Hilda’s emotions and those of Peter Foster, her son; and uses Tallis Browne, Morgan’s estranged husband, as a foil. To Julius, people are puppets, life is ritual, philosophy and theology are empty exercises in futility, and it is his right to alter and interfere in others’ lives. As the Foster marriage begins to break up, Julius is persuaded...

(The entire section is 1,461 words.)