Form and Content
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 filled with love for each other and themselves, happily take up the burden of helping Morgan sort out her life.
Helping Morgan, however, is not an easy task. Hilda and Rupert believe that it would be in Morgan’s best interest to return to Tallis, although they view Tallis as a rather muddled incompetent. Although Simon and Axel also think that Morgan should return to Tallis, they decide not to tell Tallis that she is back in town. Morgan finds herself still passionately in love with Julius, yet is also drawn to what she perceives as Tallis’ restful, spiritual qualities. She pursues Julius relentlessly in London, but he rejects her with such flamboyant actions that she cannot help but admire him as a “god.” As she prattles to him about love, Julius makes a bet with her that he can create a breach between any lovers, no matter how devoted.
While Julius is busy winning his wager, Morgan, who believes it is her job “to find out who I am and what life means,” finds comfort in other loves. Peter Foster falls in love with her, but she denies his sexual desires to keep their love pure. Through a malicious misunderstanding contrived by Julius, both Morgan and Rupert come to believe that they are loved by the other, and they agree to keep it a secret and work it out privately. They both love Hilda deeply and fear that their love, although innocent, would upset her if she knew about it. The relationship grows confused and overwhelming and causes great disturbance to Rupert, Morgan, and Peter, who finds out about it. Julius enjoys the muddle and makes sure that Hilda is aware of the unfolding drama. By the time Julius confesses his instigation of the whole charade, the suspicion, pain, and anger of the others have grown to such a degree that no one is able to prevent the tragic conclusion: Rupert’s death by drowning in his own swimming pool.
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...
(The entire section is 1,094 words.)