A Fairly Honourable Defeat Themes
by Iris Murdoch

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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

On the surface, Iris Murdoch is manipulating the pretensions of middle-class life and revealing how easy it is to make a good man fool himself into disaster once his vanity is aroused. Rupert ought to know better, is certainly intelligent enough to know better, and even Morgan, who is not unintelligent, ought to have more sense than to think that everyone in the world must naturally fall in love with her. Julius King makes good his boast of being able to turn people into puppets by appealing to their inclination to think far too well of themselves, even if innocently so. Good, in a sense, is no match for evil under such circumstances. Nor is it much consolation that King believes it necessary to confess his tricks to the really good man, Tallis Browne. Browne may order him to tell Hilda the truth, but it is sadly too late, and ordering him to leave London is not much punishment. Nor does the good man possess the power to draw his wife back to him or save his father from the inexorable horror of a painful death. In a sense, Tallis Browne’s home, a squalid mess, is a symbol of the nature of things, for however hard Browne tries, the mess goes on. There is some consolation in Axel and Simon, who illustrate the proposition that honesty and courage may be some defense against malevolence; malevolence is only partly defeated, however, and in Rupert’s case, it quite wins out.

Murdoch has ambitions beyond realism for this novel, and in a mix of parable, allegory, and farce, she is, on the secondary level, exploring the continuing battle between evil and good in the contemporary world. In an unsystematic way, which is not uncommon in Murdoch’s more ambitious novels, King can be seen as a Satan figure, Tallis Browne as a rather powerless Christ figure, and Leonard Browne as the dying God of Christianity, with Morgan, Hilda, and Rupert representing feckless humanity, constantly falling out of grace, despite good intentions. Some dim echoes of William Shakespeare are also present, and one can see Julius as an Iago, a debased Prospero, or any of the several manipulators of vain mortals in Shakespeare’s work. If The Tempest, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, and Othello seem to be floating about, it is quite intentional. Murdoch likes to pile literary, biblical, philosophical, and mythological images in and on, and this novel is loaded without restraint.

The novel’s title has to be considered with some care. It is a phrase which Murdoch uses again, in passing, in a later novel, A Word Child (1975), and is central to an understanding of how Murdoch sees human beings contending with the malevolent vagaries of life. In this work, it can be applied to at least three of the major characters. King clearly thinks he has done well, has managed some king of partial victory over the forces of sentimental do-gooders, and if in the end he must retreat before Tallis Browne, it is, in his eyes, an honorable defeat.

Tallis Browne is also partially defeated, barely capable of saving part of the situation for those whom King has so coldly manipulated. He, too, wins a bit and loses a bit. In his case, however, there is no question that he is on the side of right from the beginning,...

(The entire section is 877 words.)