A Fairly Honourable Defeat Characters

Iris Murdoch

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...

(The entire section is 444 words.)

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 by Tallis to tell Hilda the truth about his tricks, but it is too late: Rupert dies by “misadventure” in the family swimming pool. As the novel ends, Julius, who spent part of the war in the Belsen concentration camp, is in Paris, content with the notion that life is good.

Morgan Browne

Morgan Browne, a philologist in her mid-thirties who is a disciple of Noam Chomsky. While on a brief academic expedition to America, Morgan met Julius King and had a stormy two-year love affair with him. She is married to Tallis Browne but is irritated by his inability to do anything to her satisfaction. She returns to England to be with her sister Hilda and Hilda’s husband, Rupert. Her pursuit of Julius leads to a variety of complications, including her own “innocent” affair with Rupert, her asking Tallis for a divorce, and ultimately her awareness of Julius’ unfeeling disregard for her and for everybody except himself. At the end of the novel, she and Hilda have moved to California, where she has accepted an academic appointment.

Rupert Foster

Rupert Foster, a man in his mid-forties, married to Hilda for twenty years. Rupert is a civil servant and part-time...

(The entire section is 1017 words.)