Iris Murdoch

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2600

Article abstract: Schooled in philosophy, Murdoch wrote more than twenty-five novels, many of them essentially philosophical, as well as several volumes that were overtly about philosophy.

Early Life

Iris Murdoch, born Jean Iris Murdoch in Dublin, Ireland, in 1919, was the only child of John Wills Hughes Murdoch, a British civil service employee, and his wife, Irene Alice Richardson Murdoch, who abandoned her hopes of being an opera singer to marry at the age of eighteen. Although the family resettled in England during Iris’s first year and she grew up outside London, in Hammersmith and Chiswick, she maintained a strong allegiance to Ireland and considered herself Anglo-Irish.

Murdoch spent holidays in Ireland with her Gaelic relations. An only child, she fantasized about having siblings, notably about having a brother, although as she matured, she realized that had she had a brother, the family’s limited resources probably would have been spent to send him rather than her to the university.

Murdoch’s early education was in the environs of London. At the age of thirteen, she qualified for a scholarship, one of two awarded, to the Badminton School in Bristol. After finishing Badminton, she received a scholarship to Oxford University’s Somerset College, where she studied classical literature and philosophy. She also was quite involved in drama and the arts during her years at Oxford. She was granted a bachelor of arts degree with first class honors in 1942.

Only twenty years old when Britain was plunged into World War II, Murdoch completed her university studies but then worked for the British Treasury in London. She served as an assistant from 1942 until 1944, and she learned enough about the structure of Britain’s civil service to write about it convincingly in some of her subsequent novels.

Later, she became an administrator for the United Nations National Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. She served in London and, at war’s end, in Belgium, where she met Jean-Paul Sartre; she also served in Austria, where she worked at an encampment for displaced persons, an experience that helped her create the character of Nina, a displaced dressmaker facing deportation to Eastern Europe, in The Flight from the Enchanter (1956).

Upon her return to England, Murdoch spent a year doing little save for reading philosophical works and exploring London, whose byways she uses effectively in many of her novels. In 1947, she received a fellowship to study philosophy at Cambridge University’s Newnham College. After completion of her studies, she was a tutor in philosophy at St. Anne’s College, Oxford, until 1963.

In 1956, Murdoch married John Oliver Bayley, the Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature at Oxford and also a successful novelist and critic. In 1963, she became an honorary fellow of St. Anne’s College. She served as a lecturer at the Royal College of Art in London from 1963 until 1967.

By 1962, Murdoch had published six novels. Under the Net (1954) was the first of these, followed by The Flight from the Enchanter, The Sandcastle (1957), The Bell (1958), A Severed Head (1961), and An Unofficial Rose (1962). She was soon to embark on a project with J. B. Priestley, who collaborated with her on turning A Severed Head into a play that opened in London in 1963, was produced in New York City the same year, and was released as a film by Columbia Pictures in 1971.

Life’s Work

From the beginning of her professional career, Murdoch’s consuming intellectual interest was moral philosophy. Well schooled in the history of philosophy and in ethics, she was as comfortable discussing Plato and Aristotle as she was in...

(This entire section contains 2600 words.)

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writing about Jean-Paul Sartre and existentialism, which she did in her landmark studySartre: Romantic Rationalist, published by Yale University Press in 1953. Her novels consistently explore the moral questions with which she grappled as a philosopher and as a university lecturer in philosophy.

During her university days, Murdoch, who leaned to the left politically, went so far as to join the Communist Party briefly, as many intellectuals did in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s. Her past membership in the Party resulted in her being denied a visa to study in the United States when she was granted a scholarship in the late 1940’s.

Murdoch was intrigued by the theory, advanced by Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, that all people build their own nets, or structural protocols, in their lives. Murdoch had been exposed to the existentialism of Sartre and Albert Camus, with its emphasis on the meaninglessness of human existence. This approach is based on the notion that humans exercise free will and that the individual is all-important.

Although Murdoch denied that she was an existentialist, she imbibed a great deal from this school of thought, which, combined with Wittgenstein’s notion of how people seek to structure their lives, emerges as a dominant theme in many of her novels. The title of her first novel, Under the Net, refers directly to Wittgenstein’s theory that individuals create their own nets or structures. The protagonist, Jake Donaghue, seeks to find a structure for his life, but finally he rejects the net and accepts life as it is, acknowledging the significance of other people while denying the centrality of self. This first Murdoch novel, which reflected much of the hopelessness that Britain experienced following World War II, evoked considerable discussion and resulted in the author being widely recognized as a writer of note. The book was commended by most of the leading critics of the day and brought its creator considerable attention both within Britain and beyond its boundaries.

In Under the Net, which is dedicated to Raymond Queneau, Jake Donaghue displays two novels prominently on his bookshelf: Samuel Beckett’s Murphy (1938) and Queneau’s Pierrot mon ami (1943; Pierrot, 1950). Murdoch publicly acknowledged her considerable debt to both Queneau and Beckett, whose comic ironies are not unlike those in this first Murdoch novel.

Murdoch’s use of language is carefully considered and self-conscious. She tends particularly to employ Germanic irony, writing something like “a not unattractive alternative” rather than merely “an attractive alternative.” Her intimate and intelligent involvement with language began early and continued as she studied languages at the university level and later on her own. In her novels, this concern reaches its acme in A Word Child (1975).

In this novel, Hilary Burde, the protagonist, longs for the fixed routine that will bring order to his life. After becoming aware of his remarkable verbal skill during a rebellious adolescence, Hilary studied grammar extensively. He sought to find in the obdurate and absolutistic structure of grammar some refuge from the arbitrariness of life. Hilary attends Oxford on scholarship, then embarks on a university career that should prove satisfying and productive. He becomes involved, however, in a scandalous adulterous love affair that obliterates his chances of academic success. This experience leads to an increased rigidity in Hilary’s personality. He now tries to order the lives of those about him, imposing a structure comparable to that of grammar on them and on himself. Others, however, refuse to yield to this structure, completely upsetting Hilary’s carefully orchestrated plans, often with comic results. In the end, Gunnar, the husband of the woman with whom Hilary committed his earlier adultery, returns after twenty years, accompanied by his second wife. Hilary again yields to temptation and has a disastrous adulterous affair with her. Hilary finally must accept the random order of life, the chance nature of human existence. A Sartrean nihilism pervades this novel as Hilary attempts to impose a structure on life only to be forced to recognize that the chaos against which he has reacted for most of his adulthood is life’s only certainty.

As her work progressed, Murdoch explored in her novels as well as in her philosophical writing the question of Good versus God. Murdoch, who was raised in a Christian environment, viewed herself as a former Christian with strong leanings toward Zen buddhism and other Eastern religions. She broached the question of Zen Buddhism particularly in The Nice and the Good (1968) and An Accidental Man (1971). The influences of her travels in Japan, which affected her thinking dramatically, are evident in A Severed Head and in her drama The Three Arrows (pr. 1972; pb. 1973).

Murdoch considered conventional Christianity to be incompatible with the technological age in which she lived, although she was not hostile toward that faith. She broke from Sartre’s nihilism and solipsism, denying that the self is all-important. Instead, she contended, and in most of her novels demonstrates, that there can be no freedom unless one respects the sovereign being of other individuals. In A Word Child, for example, it is Hilary’s failure to do this that leads to his downfall.

Murdoch was convinced that most people live in their own fantasy worlds, in worlds of illusion that bear little resemblance to reality, to those innate models (ideas) of which Plato spoke. She grappled with the question of whether people can repent and be given another chance or whether, given such a chance, they will merely repeat their earlier transgressions, as Hilary does.

In The Message to the Planet (1989), the protagonist, Marcus Vallar, is a mathematical genius whose philosophical quest in pursuit of pure thought is his undoing. When Vallar miraculously cures a dying man, that man becomes Vallar’s follower. In the novel’s subplot, Franca overlooks her infirm husband’s adulteries and, in the name of perfect, selfless love, permits one of her husband’s lovers to come and live with them. In Murdoch’s view, love is the catalyst that enables people to overcome the obsession with self that stands in the way of goodness.


If one believes in the “great chain of being,” all things bear a relationship to everything that has passed before them. Murdoch is a striking example of this. To her writing, both in her novels and in her philosophical and literary treatises, she brought the rich fabric that constitutes her literary and philosophical framework. Her early training in classical philosophy left its indelible mark on her thinking, particularly in her questions regarding what is real. Platonic idealism provides a strong undercurrent in most of her novels. Her quest was for that which is real, authentic, and true. She sought the Good as Plato sought it.

To her rich classical background, one must add her exposure to William Shakespeare, Britain’s Victorian novelists, and much of the later philosophy that she absorbed in her extensive reading and in her personal contacts. She read extensively in the writings of Immanuel Kant, whose categorical imperative left its mark on her writing, as did Wittgenstein’s theories regarding humankind’s need to impose structure upon existence.

In A Word Child, Murdoch questions how far one can take Wittgenstein’s theory. Although she refutes the nihilism of the leading existentialists, she cannot go so far as to accept Wittgenstein’s solution to controlling the chaos in which life appears to be mired. Her solution to the conundrums that face modern humans is love; only love enables people to extend themselves outside the subjective bubbles in which they are prisoners.

If Sartre’s No Exit (1944) portrays humans trapped in their own subjectivity, Murdoch comes to the rescue with the notion that love can mitigate subjectivity and can bring one into harmony with the subjective worlds of those around them. Love that is expansive and unconditional, as Murdoch portrays it through Franca in The Message to the Planet (1989), negates the isolation and the nihilism that characterize much existential thinking. Love, however, is not without its hazards, the chief one of which is the absolute necessity for humans to compromise.

Through her well-received novels, Murdoch influenced two or three generations of readers. Through her teaching and writing about philosophical topics, she evoked considerable interest among academics and those whom they teach.

Additional Reading

Antonacchio, Maria. Picturing the Human: The Moral Thought of Iris Murdoch. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Baldanza, Frank. Iris Murdoch. New York: Twayne, 1974. Following Twayne’s prescribed format, Baldanza writes about Murdoch’s novels and about the plays made from A Severed Head (1961; drama written collaboratively with J. B. Priestley, 1963) and The Italian Girl (1964; drama written collaboratively with James Saunders, pr. 1967). Although dated, this critical biography offers significant details about Murdoch’s life and writing before 1970.

Bayley, John. Elegy for Iris. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999.

Bayley, John. Iris: A Memoir of Iris Murdoch. London: Duckworth, 1998.

Bayley, John. Iris and Her Friends. London: Duckworth, 1999.

Bayley, John. Elegy for Iris. New York: Oxford, 1999.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Iris Murdoch. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. This contribution to the Modern Critical Views Series contains thirteen challenging essays on Murdoch’s work. A number of the essays demonstrate how Murdoch’s thinking moved toward the expression it reached in Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals. This volume and Lindsey Tucker’s Critical Essays on Iris Murdoch combine to give readers solid overviews of critiques of Murdoch to the late 1980’s.

Bove, Cheryl K. Understanding Iris Murdoch. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993. A slim volume, chronologically arranged, particularly valuable for its comments on Murdoch’s aesthetics and moral philosophy as reflected in both her novels and her philosophical volumes. Bove’s comprehension of Murdoch’s complex moral aims is excellent. She communicates clearly and in appealing prose. A quintessential book for the beginner.

Conradi, Peter J. Iris Murdoch. Norton, 2001. A biography of the novelist that examines her early life as an imaginative only child, through the trauma of World War II, up to her final years. Conradi describes her life as a search for good in a particularly evil century.

Conradi, Peter J. Iris Murdoch: The Saint and the Artist. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986. Conradi offers comprehensive views of Murdoch’s novels through The Philosopher’s Pupil (1983). His writing is adroit and his reasoning apt. Conradi is uniquely sensitive to philosophical undercurrents in Murdoch’s fiction.

Hardy, Robert. Psychological and Religious Narratives in Iris Murdoch’s Fiction. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2000.

Heusel, Barbara Stevens. Iris Murdoch's Paradoxical Novels. Rochester, N.Y.: Camden House, 2001.

Mettler, Darlene D. Sound and Sense: Musical Allusion and Imagery in the Novels of Iris Murdoch. New York: Peter Lang, 1991. Although specialized, this book presents a solid understanding of how Murdoch employed musical allusion and imagery in eight of her novels. Readers interested in cross-cultural approaches to literary criticism will appreciate this book. Less appropriate for general readers.

Murdoch, Iris. Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature. Edited by Peter J. Conradi. New York: Allen Lane, 1998. Conradi’s selections provide a serviceable sampling of Murdoch’s nonfiction. His prefatory remarks reflect the progression of Murdoch’s thinking about the moral necessity of Good as a replacement for God in technological times.

Todd, Richard. Iris Murdoch. London: Methuen, 1984. Todd focuses on Murdoch’s novels from Under the Net (1954) to The Philosopher’s Pupil (1983). His readings are incisive and occasionally profound. In this 112-page book, Todd shows how Murdoch’s novels developed basic themes about which she wrote in her philosophical volumes.

Todd, Richard. Iris Murdoch: The Shakespearean Interest. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1979. Todd detects in Murdoch’s novels several themes that recurred in Shakespeare’s dramas, notably those relating to the self, to enchanters, and to the romantic matching of pairs. Todd makes sound arguments for Shakespeare’s thematic influence on Murdoch’s writing.

Tucker, Lindsey, ed. Critical Essays on Iris Murdoch. New York: G. K. Hall, 1992. Four of twelve essays in this compact volume consider Murdoch’s work generally; eight focus on individual works. A useful collection, especially valuable when used in conjunction with Bloom’s aforementioned collection.


Critical Essays