Murdoch’s fiction has always been conscious of its artifice-above all, this is true of her intricate and deliberately improbable plots-but in some of her novels, this awareness is aggressively foregrounded. In the period in which she wrote A Fairly Honourable Defeat, Murdoch was experimenting with highly stylized dialogue such as one might expect to find in a play rather than a novel-long stichomythic exchanges which delight with their virtuoso wit yet which maintain a certain distance between the reader and the characters, as between audience and stage.
This is the kind of Murdoch novel which splits the critics severely. Those who would argue for Murdoch as a major writer of serious thematic intent find the levels of meaning proof of their claim. Skeptics see such piling up of allusions as sheer pretension. Somewhere in between, and this varies from novel to novel, lies her real strength as a novelist who can work in and out of the realist tradition, adding elements of romantic farce, metaphysical hints, and philosophical theories with such lightness that the sheer richness of her narrative line, however silly, simply overcomes legitimate incredulity.