Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

A Fairly Honourable Defeat is the story of a group of people, active in the busy world of London, whose lives are anchored in the various kinds of love they have found, or lost. The two sisters at the heart of the novel, Hilda and Morgan, respectively exemplify a devoted, dedicated love for one man and the muddled explorations of love by a promiscuous woman. At the time Iris Murdoch wrote the novel, she was interested in exploring the power of evil, and her title refers to the triumph of evil over good as the theme is played out in the plot. In the context of the book, “good” might be defined as pure, disinterested love. The defeat is “fairly honourable,” however, because evil seems to have so many more tricks at its disposal that the odds are heavily in its favor. Although the story is told in an overtly realistic style, with careful descriptions of room interiors, clothes, weather, and various London locales, there are many suggestions of the supernatural that expand the novel into another dimension.

Much of the action has taken place before the novel opens; Peter, the prodigal son, has disappointed his parents by leaving the University of Cambridge and dropping out of society. Morgan, the errant sister, has abandoned her husband, Tallis, for a passionate love affair with Julius King. At the opening of the novel, Morgan and Julius have separated, and both have returned to London. Hilda and Rupert Foster, the successful, admirable couple...

(The entire section is 581 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Feminist critics have often ignored, and even disparaged, Iris Murdoch’s work, seeing it as both lightweight and old-fashioned. Her novels exhibit many of the conventions of realism, but it is a realism that is turned upside-down. While marriage is often the subject of realistic novels, Murdoch replaces a reliance on heterosexual relationships with a multiplicity of sexual and other sorts of emotional engagements. In A Fairly Honourable Defeat, Hilda and Morgan symbolize the two extremes of women’s roles: Hilda the “good” woman and Morgan the “bad,” or promiscuous, woman. Yet significantly, the preeminent relationship in Morgan’s life proves to be with Hilda, not with the several men who are involved with her. Her relationships with men change, fade, and ultimately disappoint, whereas her love for her sister remains constant. In novel after novel, Murdoch subverts traditional patriarchal ideas of love. She imagines almost as many kinds of sexuality as she does characters. Simon and Axel have a relationship that is strong enough to weather Julius’ meddling, Axel’s suspicious nature, and Simon’s giddiness.

The bureaucratic men in A Fairly Honourable Defeat (Simon, Axel, and Rupert) never know what or how much to tell one another, and a tragedy occurs. Even Simon, who is quick to help a stranger in trouble, cannot bring himself to tell Rupert that he and Morgan were set up by Julius. It is as if patriarchal power is likely to destroy freedom by secrecy and desire for power, as opposed to matriarchal power, which encourages freedom.

Murdoch’s position as one of the most successful and influential postwar British writers is important for women. Her successful academic career at the University of Oxford, where women traditionally have not played a major role, is also significant. Although Murdoch deplores the male dominance of society and strongly believes in the equality of women, she decries what she considers a “separatist feminism” and considers it a retrograde idea.


(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Dipple, Elizabeth. Iris Murdoch: Work for the Spirit. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982. Discusses the spiritual aspects of Murdoch’s novels as they relate to love, sexuality, and women. Provides insights into A Fairly Honourable Defeat.

Murdoch, Iris. Interview by Michael O. Bellamy. Contemporary Literature 18 (1977): 129-140. This interview took place in 1976 at Murdoch’s flat in London. The novelist discusses her ideas on different novelists and different novelistic forms. She explores the deeper meanings of A Fairly Honourable Defeat in some detail.

Sage, Lorna. Women in the House of Fiction: Post-War Women Novelists. New York: Routledge, 1992. This elegantly written book analyzes certain women writers and speculates on what qualities distinguish them from male fiction writers. Murdoch is discussed at length from a feminist viewpoint and compared with Doris Lessing, another realistic writer. One of the chapters, “The Middle Ground,” is devoted almost exclusively to Murdoch.

Todd, Richard. Iris Murdoch. New York: Methuen, 1984. A useful volume that provides information about Murdoch’s life as well as her work. Todd attempts to link the novels to Murdoch’s philosophical positions, particularly to the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre, which was an early influence.