A Fairly Honourable Defeat Analysis
by Iris Murdoch

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A Fairly Honourable Defeat Analysis

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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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, since he consistently attributes human behavior, including love, to the basest of motives. His own attitude toward his work in biological warfare is revealing; he gave it up because he grew bored with it, and he looks forward to the end of the human race. Murdoch gives an easy explanation for his character at the end of the novel: Julius reveals to Tallis that he spent the war in the Belsen concentration camp, an experience that dehumanized him. The perceptive reader, however, will pick up other clues regarding Julius’ identity. Morgan, who is passionately in love with him, still recognizes a deep coldness at his center. She muses that cynicism is the extreme opposite of love: “the cynicism of a deliberate contemptuous diminution of another person.” This summarizes Julius’ interactions with others. Significantly, Julius frequently appears when he is least expected and materializes in the half-light of dusk or of shadowy interiors. The pact he makes with Morgan confirms his identity as Satan.

Murdoch has called A Fairly Honourable Defeat a “theological myth.” The gentle Tallis, who works ceaselessly for good causes and insists that Julius confess his trickery to their deceived friends, appears to be a Christ figure. Tallis’ father, Leonard, who laments continually that all has gone wrong, represents God the Father....

(The entire section is 891 words.)