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...

(The entire section is 877 words.)