(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Murdoch, who was a tutor in philosophy at St. Anne’s College, Oxford, before she was a published novelist, has always been interested in ideas of ultimate good and evil. Her novels are often based on the struggle between them and thus take on overtones of moral fables. Yet it is hard to classify Murdoch; her novels have been variously called gothic, metaphysical, naturalistic, and realistic. A Fairly Honourable Defeat delights the reader with its carefully appointed settings and droll scenes and character switches, yet Rupert’s death at the end shifts the novel from the realm of romantic comedy into tragedy.

Murdoch uses the traditional device of coincidence frequently in her novels, and examples of it abound in A Fairly Honourable Defeat. It is coincidence that Julius happens to invite Simon to visit him on the same evening that Morgan shows up and is locked, naked, in the apartment. It is coincidence that Axel arrives home to find Simon playing dress-up games with Morgan, which rouses Axel to jealousy and disgust. In one sense, Rupert’s death is also caused by coincidence. If Hilda had not fallen and broken the telephone at their country cottage, she would have spoken to him in time to prevent his death. If she had been able to start the car and drive back to London, she still could have reached him in time. She had to walk six miles through the rainy countryside, however, to reach the nearest neighbor, and by that time Rupert was floating face down in their swimming pool, beyond help.

In another interpretation, it is apparent that Julius King causes Rupert’s death. His affair with Morgan launches the events of the novel and leaves her utterly ambivalent about returning to her husband. He is the one who sends the letters that bring Rupert and Morgan together in a secret, guilty love, and he is the one who makes sure that the secret is brought to Hilda’s attention. Julius also makes sure that Peter knows. Peter, in love with Morgan himself, finds out that she is involved with his father, flies into a rage, and tears up the book that Rupert has been working on for eight years. Who is Julius King?

Julius is a cynic,...

(The entire section is 891 words.)