Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10340
A knowledge of Iris Murdoch’s philosophical and critical essays is invaluable for the reader wishing to understand her fiction. Her moral philosophy, which entails a rejection of existentialism, behaviorism, and linguistic empiricism, informs her fiction throughout and provides a basis for an interpretation of both the content and the form of her work. Although early influenced by Sartrean existentialism, she developed a radically different view of the human condition. The major disagreement she had with the existentialist position was its emphasis on choice, a belief Murdoch characterized as “unrealistic, over-optimistic, romantic” because it fails to consider the true nature of human consciousness and what she called “a sort of continuous background with a life of its own.” Existentialism, which she called “the last fling of liberal Romanticism in philosophy," presents humanity with “too grand” a conception of itself as isolated from its surroundings and capable of rational, free choice. She described this picture of humankind as “Kantian man-gods” who are “free, independent, lonely, powerful, rational, responsible, and brave.” Although Murdoch denied being a Freudian, Sigmund Freud’s “realistic and detailed picture of the fallen man” is much closer to her own conception of human nature, and she agreed with what she called Freud’s “thoroughly pessimistic view” in which the psyche is described as an “egocentric system of quasi-mechanical energy” determined by its individual history; the natural attachments of this psyche are “sexual, ambiguous, and hard for the subject to control.” The most important dimension of this description of the individual is his lack of rational free will, and Murdoch’s statement in “Against Dryness” that “we are not isolated free choosers, monarchs of all we survey, but benighted creatures sunk in a reality whose nature we are constantly and overwhelmingly tempted to deform by fantasy” is perhaps her tersest summary of the human condition.
Murdoch’s philosophical position was the basis for her choice of prose fiction as the most realistic literary genre. The novelist’s advantage is a “blessed freedom from rationalism,” and she saw the novel as the literary form that, because of its lack of formal restrictions, could best portray the “open world, a world of absurdity and loose ends and ignorance.” Although she had reservations about modern literature and believed that the twentieth century novel tends either to be “crystalline” (self-contained, mythic, sometimes allegorical, and frequently neurotic) or “journalistic” (semidocumentary, descriptive, and factual), the nineteenth century novel as written by Leo Tolstoy, Jane Austen, and George Eliot remains the best example of how fiction can create free, independent characters who are not “merely puppets in the exteriorization of some closely-locked psychological conflict” of the author. The nineteenth century novel, because it “throve upon a dynamic merging of the idea of person with the idea of class,” was not simply a representation of the human condition but rather contained “real various individuals struggling in society”; in other words, it presented characters and the “continuous background with a life of its own.”
Murdoch believed that the most important obligation for the novelist is the creation of particularized, unique, and ultimately indefinable human beings, characters who move outside the novelist’s consciousness into an independent ontological status. This aesthetic theory has its corollary in Murdoch’s moral philosophy, in which she stresses the need for the individual to recognize the “otherness” of other individuals. The great novelist, like the “good” person, has an “apprehension of the absurd irreducible uniqueness of people and of their relations with each other,” an apprehension she castigated Sartre for lacking. Recognition of otherness is, to a degree, dependent on the individual’s ability to “attend to” other individuals, a concept Murdoch derived from the philosophy of Simone Weil. Murdoch described attention as a “patient, loving regard, directed upon a person, a thing, a situation” and believed that we “grow by looking”; morality, both for the individual and the novelist who is attempting a realistic portrayal of human beings in the world, is an endless process of attending to a reality outside the individual consciousness. Attention is seeing, “a just and loving gaze directed upon an individual reality,” and as such is an effort to counteract “states of illusion” brought about by selfish fantasy. For Murdoch, attention is also another name for love, and “the ability to direct attention is love.” Imaginative prose literature, Murdoch believed, is the best medium in which to focus attention on the individual because it is “par excellence the form of art most concerned with the existence of other persons.”
In “The Sublime and the Good,” Murdoch defines love as “the perception of individuals. Love is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real. Love, and so art and morals, is the discovery of reality.” She has also said that the main subject of her fiction is love, and her novels usually depict the difficulties involved in recognizing the uniqueness and independence of other human beings. In The Bell, the Abbess tells Michael Meade that “all of our failures are ultimately failures in love,” a statement that neatly describes Murdoch’s fictional world. The enemy of love in her novels is the propensity of the individual to fantasize and to create false pictures of reality, particularly distorted conceptions of other people. As a result, her novels frequently present situations in which characters are forced to confront the “otherness” of those around them, situations that often involve a realization of the past or present sexual involvements of other persons. The comfort and safety of the “old world,” as it is called by many Murdoch characters, is destroyed by a discovery about the past or by characters suddenly falling passionately in love with each other. A Severed Head, in which Martin Lynch-Gibbon is shocked by a series of revelations about his wife and friends and falls precipitately and unpredictably in love with Honor Klein, is one of the best examples of this recurring pattern in Murdoch’s work.
Murdoch believed that the experience of art can serve to shock the individual into an awareness of a reality outside the personal psyche, and her novels contain several scenes in which characters who gaze upon paintings are able to escape temporarily from solipsistic fantasy. Dora Greenfield in The Bell, Harriet Gavender in The Sacred and Profane Love Machine, and Tim Reede in Nuns and Soldiers each experience what Murdoch calls “unselfing” and Harriet Gavender describes as “not being myself any more”; in fact, Dora Greenfield notes that paintings give her “something which her consciousness could not wretchedly devour.The pictures were something real outside herself.” Murdoch, in “The Sublime and the Beautiful Revisited,” calls art “spiritual experience” because it can bring out this radical change in perception, and in The Fire and the Sun: Why Plato Banished the Artists, she claims that in an unreligious age good art provides people with “their clearest experience of something grasped as separate and precious and beneficial and held quietly and unpossessively in the attention.”
Murdoch’s ambivalent attitudes about the role of art and artists are present in both her fiction and her philosophy. In an interview with Michael Bellamy, in Contemporary Literature (1977), she described art as a “temptation to impose from where perhaps it isn’t always appropriate,” and in the same discussion noted that “morality has to do with not imposing form, except appropriately and cautiously and carefully and with attention to appropriate detail.” Murdoch suggested to several interviewers that the basis of her novels is what she calls the conflict between “the saint and the artist,” or the dichotomy between the “truthful, formless figure” and the “form-maker.” She mentioned Tallis Browne and Julius King in A Fairly Honourable Defeat, Ann and Randall Peronett in An Unofficial Rose, and Hugo Belfounder and Jake Donaghue in Under the Net as examples. She believed that Plato’s life exemplifies this conflict: “We can see played out in that great spirit the peculiarly distressing struggle between the artist and the saint.” The true or “good” artist must avoid the “ruthless subjection of characters” to his will and should use symbolism judiciously in a “natural, subordinate way” that attempts to be “perfectly realistic.” In her fiction, Murdoch’s artist figures are often demonic individuals who manipulate people in real life without regard for their well-being or independence as persons. Her “saint” figures have a corresponding lack of form, or sense of self, and are frequently unable or unwilling to act in any way. Douglas Swann’s comment in An Unofficial Rose that “nothing is more fatal to love than to want everything to have form” is also true of Murdoch’s attitude toward art.
Many of Murdoch’s characters attempt to find form in their own lives in order to explain the apparent chaos that surrounds them. In her essay “Vision and Choice in Morality,” Murdoch talks about the need at times to stress “not the comprehensibility of the world but its incomprehensibility” and says that “there are even moments when understanding ought to be withheld.” In The Flight from the Enchanter, John Rainborough experiences a moment of joy when he feels “how little I know, and how little it is possible to know,” but this happiness in a lack of knowledge is rare in Murdoch’s fiction. In the same novel, Rosa Keepe, a much more representative Murdoch character, listens to the sound of the machines in the factory, hoping to hear a “harmonious and repetitive pattern,” just as Michael Meade in The Bell expects to find “the emergence in his life of patterns and signs.” At the end of the novel, he regretfully concludes that the apparent pattern he had observed in his life was merely his own “romantic imagination. At the human level there was no pattern.”
The search for rational, discernible causal relationships is the major structuring principle in An Accidental Man, a novel concerned with the discovery of, in Gracie Tisbourne’s words, “a worldquite without order.” In “The Sovereignty of Good over Other Concepts,” Murdoch says that “there are properly many patterns and purposes within life, but there is no general and as it were externally guaranteed pattern or purpose of the kind for which philosophers and theologians used to search,” and she has also stated her desire to write novels that, because they contain more of the contingent, accidental dimensions of life, are more realistic than “patterned” fiction.
Murdoch’s reservations about form in life and art are paralleled by her suspicions about language. A fervent defender of literature and language who said in “Salvation by Words” that “words constitute the ultimate texture and stuff of our moral being.The fundamental distinctions can only be made in words” and in The Fire and the Sun that “the careful responsible skillful use of words is our highest instrument of thought and one of our highest modes of being,” Murdoch also voiced suspicions about the ironic nature of language, its potential to distort the truth and to create false pictures of reality. This distrust of language is evident in her first novel, Under the Net, and continued to inform her fiction. In this respect, Murdoch was greatly influenced by Ludwig Wittgenstein; direct references and sly, sometimes ironic allusions to Wittgenstein appear repeatedly in her novels.
In spite of these reservations, however, Murdoch mounts one of the most eloquent defenses of art and literature in modern times in The Sovereignty of Good and The Fire and the Sun. She claims in “The Sovereignty of Good over Other Concepts” that art “can enlarge the sensibility of its consumer. It is a kind of goodness by proxy,” and in “On ’God’ and ’Good,’” she asserts that art, rather than being any kind of playful diversion for the human race, is “the place of its most fundamental insight.” According to Murdoch, literature is the most important art because of its unique ability to shed light on the human condition: “The most essential and fundamental aspect of culture is the study of literature, since this is an education in how to picture and understand human situations.” This statement in “The Idea of Perfection” obviously places an enormous burden on the novelist, a burden that Murdoch’s prolific output, technical virtuosity, and moral vision appear to be capable of bearing.
Under the Net
Jake Donaghue, the narrator-protagonist of Under the Net, informs the reader early in the novel that the story’s central theme is his acquaintance with Hugo Belfounder. The relationship between the two men illustrates Murdoch’s philosophical and aesthetic concerns, for the Hugo-Jake friendship represents the saint-artist dichotomy; this “philosophical novel” allows her to explore the problem of theoretical approaches to reality, the issue of contingency, the realization of the otherness of individuals, and the ambiguities of language and art.
The character of Hugo Belfounder is based in part on that of the enigmatic Elias Canetti, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1981; the Bulgarian-born Canetti, who settled in England in 1939, appears in various guises in several of Murdoch’s early novels. Hugo, some of whose precepts also suggest the influence of Wittgenstein, is Murdoch’s first “saint” figure, and he embodies many of the qualities of the “good” characters who appear later in her fiction. Hugo’s saintliness is a result of his truthfulness and his lack of desire for form or structure in life and art. Opposed to him is Jake, who, fearing that he may actually tell the truth to Mrs. Tinckham about being evicted by Madge, delays telling his story until he can present it in a “more dramatic wayas yet it lacked form.” Form, as Jake tacitly admits, is a kind of lying, an imposition of structure that distorts reality. Hugo, on the other hand, is attracted by the ephemerality and formlessness of the firework displays he has created, and he abandons them when they receive the attention of art critics who begin to classify his work into styles. Hugo is also characterized by a selflessness that Jake finds astonishing: It does not occur to him that he is responsible for the concepts discussed in Jake’s book The Silencer, or that Anna Quentin’s mime theater is based on her interpretation of his beliefs.
The difference between the two men is also evident in their attitude toward theory. After his conversations with Hugo, Jake concedes that his own approach to life is “blurred by generalities,” and he is entranced by Hugo’s refusal to classify the world around him or to adopt any kind of theory about it. Annandine, Hugo’s persona in The Silencer, says that “the movement away from theory and generality is the movement towards truth. All theorizing is flight. We must be ruled by the situation itself and this is unutterably particular.” Theories, like form, distort what they attempt to explain and understand. Hugo’s lack of a general theoretical framework for his ideas, the “net” of the novel’s title, makes everything he encounters “astonishing, delightful, complicated, and mysterious.”
Part of Jake’s education and development as a potential artist is dependent on his relinquishing the need for theories and generalizations. In his first meeting with Anna, he notices that she is in “the grip of a theory,” and one of the most important episodes in the novel is Jake’s realization that Jean-Pierre Breteuil, whose work he has previously translated into English, has finally written a good novel—a feat Jake had believed impossible. He understands that he has incorrectly “classed” Jean-Pierre and says that “It wrenched me, like the changing of a fundamental category.” Similarly, when Jake becomes aware that Hugo is in love with Sadie Quentin rather than Anna, he says that “a pattern in my mind was suddenly scattered and the pieces of it went flying about me like birds.” At the end of the novel, Jake has abandoned attempts to impose his own ideas onto his environment; rather, he decides to sit quietly and “let things take shape deeply within me,” noting that he can “sense,” beneath the level of his attention and without his conscious aid, “great forms moving in the darkness.”
Jake’s initial need to perceive form and to create theories is paralleled by his fear of contingency. One of Murdoch’s major quarrels with Sartre is his inability to deal with the contingent, or, in her words, the “messiness” and “muddle” of human existence. Rather than rejecting Sartre’s concept of viscosity, Murdoch frequently forces her characters to come to terms with the physical world and the accidental and apparently chaotic nature of reality. Early in the novel, Jake announces that “I hate contingency. I want everything in my life to have a sufficient reason,” and later, in a reference to Sartre’s La Nausée (1938; Nausea, 1949), observes that Hugo’s Bounty Belfounder film studio is situated in a part of London “where contingency reaches the point of nausea.” The novel ends with Jake laughingly admitting that he does not know why Mrs. Tinckham’s kittens look as they do. “I don’t know why it is,” he says. “It’s just one of the wonders of the world.” In this scene, Jake focuses on the particular—the kittens—and is able to accept that their appearance cannot be explained by him, two actions that show that he has moved much closer to Hugo’s position. Hugo had earlier advised Jake that “some situations can’t be unravelled” and, as a result, should be “dropped.”
This acceptance of contingency implies a realization that life cannot be completely controlled by human will. Jake also learns that other individuals exist independent of him and resist his efforts to explain and categorize their behavior. When he introduces his close friend Peter O’Finney to the reader, he claims that “Finn has very little inner life” and that, while Finn is an inhabitant of his universe, “Icannot conceive that he has one containing me.” Events in the novel force Jake to move out of his solipsistic consciousness, and at the conclusion he acknowledges that for the first time Anna exists “as a separate being and not as a part of myself,” an experience he finds “extremely painful.” She becomes “something which had to be learnt afresh,” and he then asks if it is possible ever to know another human being. He answers himself in a statement that clearly belongs to his author: “Perhaps only after one has realized the impossibility of knowledge and renounced the desire for it and finally ceased to feel even the need of it.” In the same way, Jake also grants Hugo a final mysteriousness and impenetrability, comparing him to a monolith whose purpose remains obscure.
Murdoch’s suspicions about the nature of language are also evident in Under the Net. In a conversation between Hugo and Jake, Hugo maintains that, by definition, language lies: “The whole language is a machine for making falsehoods.” Language is also vulnerable because of humanity’s tendency to distort and to exaggerate experiences when attempting to articulate them; Hugo notes that when he speaks he does not state precisely what he thinks but rather what will impress Jake and force him to respond. Only actions, says Hugo, do not lie. This is not, however, Murdoch’s final word on language and literature, for Jake’s development as a human being during the course of the novel culminates in his realization that he will be able to write creatively. The “shiver of possibility” that he feels at the novel’s conclusion is his knowledge that his earlier writing has been merely a preparation for his emergence as a novelist.
Murdoch’s first novel is clearly a Künstlerroman and her most overtly “philosophical” novel. In an interview in 1978 with Jack Biles, in Studies in the Literary Imagination, she said that she does not want to “promote” her philosophical views in her novels or to allow them to “intrude into the novel world.” This attitude certainly seems more descriptive of the novels written after Under the Net. Although she paints an ironically amusing portrait of the novel’s only professional philosopher, Dave Gellman, her major concerns in her first novel are clearly philosophical; Under the Net contains in more obvious form the philosophical issues that are transmuted into the fictional material of her subsequent work.
A Fairly Honourable Defeat
Speaking of A Fairly Honourable Defeat in her interview with Michael Bellamy, Murdoch said that the “defeat” of the novel’s title is the defeat of good by evil. She calls the novel a “theological myth” in which Julius King is Satan, Tallis Browne is a Christ figure, and Leonard Browne is God the Father. Another trichotomy, however, is suggested in A Fairly Honourable Defeat, for Julius and Tallis, like Ann and Randall Peronett in An Unofficial Rose, embody the saint-artist opposition that is so common in Murdoch’s fiction, and Rupert Foster represents the rationalist philosopher’s approach to experience, an approach that ultimately fails because it does not take into consideration the reality of evil and the formlessness of good. The relationships among these three men form one of the most important thematic concerns of the novel.
A Fairly Honourable Defeat begins with Hilda and Rupert Foster enacting a scene common in Murdoch’s fiction, that of the happily married couple whose contentment has insulated them from their less fortunate friends. Like Kate and Octavian Gray in The Nice and the Good, Rupert and Hilda feel as if their happiness has granted them a privileged and protected status. Rupert’s statement that “anything is permitted to us,” ominously similar to Friedrich Nietzsche’s “all is permitted,” signals that for the moment they live in the “old world” of pleasure and stability that is so frequently shattered in the course of a Murdoch novel. The agent of destruction in A Fairly Honourable Defeat is Julius King, a scientist who considers himself an “artist” whose artworks consist of manipulating the lives of people around him, forcing them to “act parts” and in the process become “educated” about their moral failures.
Julius King’s reaction to Rupert’s philosophy of life is the catalyst for the events of the novel. Although Rupert, like Murdoch, calls human existence “jumble” and castigates his sister-in-law Morgan Browne for her “love and do as you please” attitude toward people, Rupert believes that “complete information and straight answers and unambiguous positionsclarifications and rational policies” are possible and desirable; for Rupert, goodness is a fairly simplistic concept that can be experienced directly and articulated eloquently. His statement to Morgan after Julius has orchestrated their ostensible “love affair” that “nothing awful can happen” summarizes his inability to grasp the kind of evil that Julius represents, and the destruction of the manuscript of his book on moral philosophy symbolizes the fragility of his worldview, a fragility underscored by his death. Rupert’s major error is believing that his own rationality can prevail; he hypocritically thinks that “the top of the moral structure was no dream, and he had proved this by exercises in loving attention: loving people, loving art, loving work, loving paving stones and leaves on trees.” In reality, as Julius later observes, Rupert is in love with his own image of himself as a good, loving, and rational man who can control any urge that threatens the “moral structure” of his world; while he espouses many theories about the nature of love, he lacks the “direct language of love” that makes real action possible.
Unlike Rupert, who believes that his duty is to love others, Julius’s attitude toward human beings is one of contempt, an emotion the narrator describes as “the opposite extreme from love: the cynicism of a deliberate contemptuous diminution of another person.” One of the major reasons for his low valuation of people is the very quality that makes them vulnerable to his manipulation—their malleability, or, as he phrases it, the easiness with which they are “beguiled.” In a conversation with Tallis, Julius says that most individuals, motivated by fear and egotism, will cooperate in almost any deception. The most obvious examples of his theory in A Fairly Honourable Defeat are Morgan Browne and Simon Foster. Morgan, titillated by Julius’s boast that he can “divide anybody from anybody,” first encourages him in his plan to separate Simon and Axel and later unknowingly becomes one of his victims; Simon, afraid that Julius will destroy his relationship with Axel, unwillingly allows Julius to “arrange” a relationship between Rupert and Morgan. In fact, Julius’s claim that he is an “artist” and a “magician” depends on the moral weaknesses of the characters whose lives he carefully “plots.”
Both Leonard Browne and Julius King mount verbal assaults on the world; in some respects, their diatribes sound remarkably similar. Like Leonard, Julius believes that the human race is a “loathsome crew” who inhabit a “paltry planet”; he goes further than Leonard, however, in his statement that human beings “don’t deserve to survive” and, more important, in his desire to see the reification of his ideas. Julius’s theory that people are merely puppets who need to be educated becomes, in practice, a tragedy. Like Hugo Belfounder, he claims that philosophy is the subtlest “method of flight” from consciousness and that its attempted truths are “tissues of illusions.” In Theories, he is entranced with his own theorizing, as is Rupert. Good, he says, is dull, and what passes for human goodness is a “tiny phenomenon” that is “messy, limited, truncated.” Evil, by comparison, “reaches far far away into the depths of the human spirit and is connected with the deepest springs of human vitality.” Good, according to Julius, is not even a “coherent concept; it is unimaginable for human beings, like certain things in physics.”
One of Murdoch’s saintlike characters, James Tayper Pace in The Bell, also discusses the difficulty of comprehending goodness while he emphasizes the need for individuals to seek the good beyond the confines of their own consciousness: “And where do we look for perfection? Not in some imaginary concoction out of our own idea of our own character—but in something so external and so remote that we can get only now and then a distant hint of it.” In “The Sovereignty of Good over Other Concepts,” Murdoch writes about contemplating goodness, and, like James Tayper Pace, defines it as “an attempt to look right away from self towards a distant transcendent perfection, a source of uncontaminated energy, a source of new and quite undreamt-of virtue.” Unlike Pace and Murdoch, Julius is unwilling to waste his energies in the contemplation of a concept so “remote” and “transcendent” and is instead beguiled by the immediacy and vitality of evil.
Tallis Browne, the “saint” of A Fairly Honourable Defeat, is one of the strangest characters in Murdoch’s fiction. Early in the novel, his wife Morgan, talking about the human psyche, complains that “it stretches away and away to the ends of the world and it’s soft and sticky and warm. There’s nothing real, no hard parts, no centre.” This description of human consciousness also explains Morgan’s dissatisfaction with her husband, who is completely lacking in the qualities she so admires in Julius King: form and myth. With Tallis, says Morgan, “there were no forms and limits, things had no boundaries”; he lacks any kind of personal “myth,” while she characterizes Julius as “almost all myth.” Like Julius, Tallis does not believe in theories, and at one point he correctly accuses Morgan of being “theory-ridden” and chasing “empty abstractions”; unlike Julius, however, he has no theories about human nature or behavior, a fact that Julius acknowledges when he tells Tallis that Rupert probably feels that “theorizing would be quite out of place with you.” While Julius manipulates the relationships of those around him according to his ideas about human weakness and Rupert writes a text on morality and goodness, Tallis nurses his dying father and helps to feed and shelter the poverty-stricken immigrants in his neighborhood.
The formlessness of Tallis’s goodness causes him to have no desire to analyze the tragedy of Rupert’s death or to assign reasons or blame. He grieves “blankly” over what appears to have been a “disastrous compound” of human failure, muddle, and sheer chance, and mourns Rupert by attempting to remember him simply with a kind of mindless pain. His reaction to the loss of his wife is similar. Rather than indulging in anger, grief, or speculations about their future relationship, he simply lets her “continue to occupy his heart.” His unwillingness to impose any kind of form or to structure his surroundings in any way extends to his feelings for his father Leonard, who is dying of cancer. Tallis cannot find the appropriate moment to tell his father of his impending death because, as he tells Julius, “It seems so arbitrary, at any particular instant of time, to change the world to that degree.” Rather than seeing human beings as puppets, as does Julius, Tallis has reached a crisis state in which he fears that any action may have a deleterious effect on those around him. Significantly, however, in spite of Tallis’s passivity he is the only character in the novel who is capable of positive action. As Axel phrases it, he is “the only person about the place with really sound instincts.” In the Chinese restaurant, he strikes the young man who is abusing the Jamaican, and later he forces Julius to telephone Hilda Foster to explain that it is Julius who has created the “affair” between Morgan and Rupert.
At the end of the novel, Tallis has abandoned the idea of prayer, which the narrator notes could only be a “superstition” for him at that point, and has instead become a completely passive and receptive consciousness. He catches hold of objects “not so as to perform any act himself, but so as to immobilize himself for a moment to be, if that were possible, perhaps acted upon, perhaps touched.” The similarity of this statement to Simone Weil’s definition of “attention” in Waiting for God (1951), where she describes the act of attention as “suspending our thought, leaving it detached, empty, and ready to be penetrated by the objectour thought should be empty, waiting, not seeking anything,” is clear. Much earlier in the novel, Morgan has grabbed an object, a green paperweight belonging to Rupert, in an attempt to escape from the formlessness of the psyche. Tallis, on the other hand, uses objects as a way to attend to reality, as a means of opening himself up to the world outside himself.
A Fairly Honourable Defeat ends with Tallis weeping over his father’s approaching death and Julius, after contemplating his choices of Parisian restaurants, concluding that “life was good.” The conversation between the two men that precedes this, however, is much more ambiguous. Julius, in an apparent attempt to win Tallis’s approbation for his actions, reveals a great deal about himself personally and asks Tallis to agree that he is “an instrument of justice.” Tallis’s attitude toward Julius is one of detached tolerance, and his response to Julius’s statement is merely to smile. A parallel to his calm acceptance of Julius’s evil is his response to the “weird crawling things,” apparently rats, mice, and insects, which inhabit his house; he feels for them “pity rather than disgust” and has advanced far beyond Rupert’s claim to love “paving stones and leaves on trees.” Tallis’s acceptance of the world, which has grown to embrace even its most despicable and horrible elements, makes him the most saintlike character in Murdoch’s fiction. He is her answer to Sartre’s Roquentin in Nausea: Instead of becoming nauseated by the world’s plethora of objects and the muddle of existence, as does Roquentin, Tallis, at the end of A Fairly Honourable Defeat, is capable of feeling only pity and acceptance for everything that surrounds him.
An Accidental Man
In An Accidental Man, Murdoch presents a chaotic world of accident and unpredictability in which several of her characters search for—and fail to find—any kind of pattern or causal relationships in their lives. Perhaps Murdoch’s fear that form in fiction can hinder the characters’ development as complex and fully realized individuals and that intricately patterned fiction sometimes prevents the author from exploring “the contradictions or paradoxes or more painful aspects of the subject matter” led her to write a novel in which the narrative voice is almost completely absent: In An Accidental Man, the characters appear to have taken over the novel. In an interview with W. K. Rose, in Shenandoah (Winter, 1968), Murdoch expressed the desire to write a novel “made up entirely of peripheral characters, sort of accidental people like Dickens’s people,” and mentioned that the author “might go so far as starting to invent the novel and then abolishing the central characters.” An Accidental Man is the result of these speculations about fiction, for it contains a Dickensian sweep of characters and lacks any kind of “protagonist.” The inclusion of more “accident” in Murdoch’s work is one aspect of her wish to write realistic fiction, for she believes that the novelist should portray the world as “aimless, chancy, and huge.” An Accidental Man, a brittle comedy of manners that contains four deaths, two attempted suicides, and more than twenty characters, some of whom are suffering from mental retardation, schizophrenia, and brain damage, is Murdoch’s vision of a contingent, random, and godless world.
Many characters in the novel share this vision. At the conclusion, Matthew Gibson Grey notes that Austin’s appropriation of Mavis Argyll “has been, like so many other things in the story, accidental.” Charlotte Ledgard, contemplating suicide, sees herself as “the slave of chance” and the world as being made up of “chaos upon which everything rested and out of which it was made.” Ludwig Leferrier senses that “human life perches always on the brink of dissolution,” and Gracie Tisbourne, who is usually not given to philosophical speculations, has “a sense of the world being quite without order and of other things looking through.” The characters in An Accidental Man wander through mazes in which they lack important information about their own and others’ lives, or they become the victims of “accidents” that radically transform their existence. London’s labyrinthine streets become symbolic of their ignorance and blindness as they pass and miss one another, and, in the instance of Rosalind Monkley, symbolic of accidental death itself. Garth Gibson Grey, Matthew Gibson Grey, Ludwig Leferrier, and Mavis Argyll all hope to find some kind of logical order and rationality in the world, but are finally defeated by the “absolute contradictionat the heart of things,” and instead encounter what Garth calls “the rhetoric of the casually absent god.”
Although Murdoch is generally not interested in experimentation in form, An Accidental Man shows her moving beyond the traditionalnarrative form of her earlier work in search of new structures to embody the philosophical assumptions that underlie the novel. Conspicuously missing in this novel is an authoritative narrative voice; instead, one-tenth of the book is in epistolary form and a significant portion consists of chapters of untagged dialogue. In An Accidental Man, Murdoch, who has stated her wish to expel herself from her fiction in order to avoid imposing “the form of one’s own mind” on the characters, creates a work in which the narrator is frequently not privy to the inner thoughts or reactions of the characters and can only report their spoken and written words without comment or elucidation. The disappearance of the narrator in certain sections of the novel parallels the absence of god; Murdoch creates a novelistic world in which readers must search for their own patterns and conclusions without the guiding presence of the authorial voice that was present in her earlier fiction. In addition, the narrator’s refusal to pass judgments or give information about the thoughts of the characters, despite the fact that the narrator has been shown to be omniscient in certain situations, results in a coldly detached tone that refuses to grant a fundamental importance to any act.
Like the chapters of dialogue, the epistolary sections of the novel create a voyeuristic situation for the reader that parallels the voyeurism that takes place several times during the narrative. The reader is privileged to read correspondence and to overhear important conversations while being denied access to the characters’ thoughts, just as the characters in An Accidental Man have a noticeable penchant for eavesdropping on one another’s conversations and reading other people’s letters. The epistolary sections also create comically ironic effects because the reader knows more about the entire situation than any of the individual letter writers, and the ignorance, lies, and exaggerations of the writers are juxtaposed in ways that underscore the limited and fallacious viewpoint of each individual. These chapters also give Murdoch an opportunity to open up the novel, expanding its boundaries to encompass more and more territory—a narrative technique that corresponds to her desire to write fiction that depicts reality as “a rich receding background” with “a life of its own.”
The widening framework of the novel creates a constantly changing perspective, for when the narrator withdraws from a direct presentation of events in order to present the reactions of peripheral or uninvolved characters, the importance of these events is reduced through distancing and in the process rendered comic. The same technique is used in the chapters of pure dialogue, where events that have been treated seriously in earlier episodes become the subject of comically trivial cocktail-party conversations. The dialogic and epistolary sections are central elements in the novel, for Murdoch uses them to advance the narrative through fragmentary bits of information that are often necessary for a complete understanding of what is happening; her belief that “reality is not given whole” is expressed in her narrative technique.
The self-acknowledged “accidental man” of the novel’s title is Austin Gibson Grey. Neurotically obsessed with his older brother, Matthew, and unable to keep either his wife or his job, Austin is nevertheless a survivor who depends on his own egotism for his continued well-being. One aspect of Austin’s ability to survive is his refusal to allow the catastrophes of others to affect him. He observes that “a man can see himself becoming more callous to events because he has to survive,” and his reaction to the death of Rosalind Monkley, whom he has killed in an automobile accident, is typical. He writes to his wife, Dorina, that “I will survive and recover, I have had worse blows than this”; he does not mention any guilt he may feel about the incident or the pain Rosalind’s death may have caused her family. Similarly, after Dorina’s accidental death, Austin tells Matthew that “Poor old Dorina was just a sort of half person really, a maimed creature, she had to die, like certain kinds of cripples have to. They can’t last.” In spite of Austin’s selfishness, however, he is merely the most exaggerated example of egotism in An Accidental Man. The statement by an unnamed character at the novel’s conclusion that “Austin is like all of us only more so” is, unfortunately, correct.
Austin Gibson Grey resembles several other characters in Murdoch’s fiction, all of whom show a talent for survival and an ability to turn unfortunate incidents to their account. In the same way, Austin’s wife Dorina is representative of another character type that recurs throughout Murdoch’s novels: the individual who functions as a scapegoat or assumes the consequences of the sins of others. Frequently, through no fault of their own, such characters cannot cope with the events happening around them and either choose suicide or become the victims of an “accidental” death that appears to be inevitable. Traditionally, the scapegoat or pharmakos figure is an individual who must be expelled from society in order to maintain its continued existence and vitality. Dorina Gibson Grey is a pharmakos who manifests all of these characteristics. Early in the novel, she feels as if “something were closing in for the kill,” and after her death, her sister Mavis voices the opinion that “she has died for me,” telling Matthew that “she has somehow died for us, for you and me, taking herself away, clearing herself away, so that our world should be easier and simpler.” Dorina’s death enables Garth Gibson Grey to feel love once again for his father. Her death also rejuvenates her husband, as Matthew ironically observes: “Something or other haddone Austin good. Perhaps it was simply Dorina’s death.” Her death has an almost ritualistic dimension in An Accidental Man, and it ensures the rejuvenation of several of the characters.
The ending of An Accidental Man is one of the darkest in Murdoch’s fiction, and very few of the defeats suffered in this novel can be termed “honourable.” In fact, several characters, including Matthew Gibson Grey, Garth Gibson Grey, and Charlotte Ledgard, appear to have settled for what Julius King in A Fairly Honourable Defeat calls a “sensible acceptance of the second rate.” Matthew, en route with Ludwig Leferrier to the United States, where Ludwig will receive a prison sentence for refusing to fight in Vietnam, realizes that “he would never be a hero.He would be until the end of his life a man looking forward to his next drink”; Garth is metamorphosed into a self-satisfied, successful novelist whose former social conscience and pursuit of goodness have been abandoned in favor of marriage to Gracie Tisbourne and all that she represents; and Charlotte chooses to remain with Mitzi Ricardo in spite of her knowledge that what she feels for Mitzi is merely “a fake dream love.” These failures contrast with the fates of Austin and Clara Tisbourne, both of whom are described as looking “radiantly juvenile.” Austin, in particular, has been completely rejuvenated by the misfortunes of others and is finally able to move his fingers, which have been rigid since his childhood “accident”; his inability to do this heretofore has symbolized his problems with dealing with the world, just as his new physical flexibility reflects the rebirth of his psyche.
The darkly comic final chapter of An Accidental Man, which consists solely of untagged dialogue, furnishes important information while it trivializes the events of the entire novel. The fact that Ludwig Leferrier is now in prison in the United States after his decision to leave his idyllic and protected situation in England, the real moral dilemma of the novel, is mentioned in passing and then dropped by an unnamed character who incorrectly says that he has been imprisoned for “Drugs or something.” In this final section of the novel, unlike the earlier chapters of letters and dialogue, the reader becomes less and less certain about who is actually speaking. In fact, the dialogue appears to be spoken by a group of eerie, disembodied voices that create an ominous atmosphere from which the narrator and the main characters have departed, leaving the reader to overhear the mindless gossiping of strangers. At the conclusion of An Accidental Man, contingency and “the rhetoric of the casually absent god” have triumphed.
The Sea, the Sea
In The Sea, the Sea, Murdoch focuses on a type of character who has appeared throughout her fiction, the artist or would-be artist who confuses life and art with unfortunate (and sometimes tragic) consequences. In Murdoch’s earlier novel, The Black Prince, Bradley Pearson’s quiet life is suddenly shattered by a series of revelations and catastrophes that include an affair with the teenage daughter of his best friend. These real-life events cause Bradley to create the novel he had been unable to write previously; at the same time, Bradley is consciously aware of his movement from experience to the expression of experience in aesthetic form and realizes the difference between the two, even though he takes great pride in his “artistic” consciousness throughout the story. In The Sea, the Sea, however, Charles Arrowby, the famous and ostensibly “retired” theatrical director who is unable to leave behind the artifice and dramatic structure of the stage, begins to “direct” life offstage, ignoring the boundaries between fact and fiction. His theater becomes the small seaside village to which he has moved, and his actors are the people around him.
Published one year before The Sea, the Sea, The Fire and the Sun, Murdoch’s study of Plato’s objections to art and artists, is instructive to read in the light of her portrayal of Charles Arrowby. Although Murdoch disagrees with several of Plato’s fundamental assumptions about the nature of art, her narrator in The Sea, the Sea embodies many of Plato’s—and Murdoch’s—suspicions about the artistic sensibility. In The Fire and the Sun, Murdoch discusses the Platonic doctrine that art and the artist “exhibit the lowest and most irrational kind of awareness, eikasia, a state of vague image-ridden illusion”; in Plato’s myth of the cave, this state corresponds to the prisoners who, facing the wall, can see only the shadows cast by the fire. Charles Arrowby, called the “king of shadows” several times in the novel, exemplifies the “bad” artist, the “naive fantasist” who “sees only moving shadows and construes the world in accordance with the easy unresisted mechanical ’causality’ of his personal dream life.” Throughout the novel, James Arrowby, Charles’s cousin and the “saint” figure in The Sea, the Sea, tries to convince Charles that the woman he is pursuing is only a “dream figure,” just as Hartley Fitch, the sixty-year-old woman who was Charles’s adolescent girlfriend and is now married to another man, tells Charles that their love is a “dream” that does not belong in the real world. Near the end of the novel, Charles acknowledges the truth of their interpretations, calling his novel “my own dream text.”
Charles Arrowby’s psychological state, one that combines tremendous egotism with an obsessional need to control other people while remaining almost completely deluded about what is happening around him, closely resembles Murdoch’s description of Plato’s idea of the “bad” man. The “bad” or mediocre man is “in a state of illusion, of which egoism is the most general name.Obsession, prejudice, envy, anxiety, ignorance, greed, neurosis, and so on veil reality.” Similarly, Plato says that the human soul desires “omnipotence” and erects barriers between itself and reality so that it can remain comfortably within a “self-directed dream world.” Although on the novel’s first page Charles claims that he has come to his retirement home “to repent of egoism,” his realization that Hartley is living in the same village results in his jealously obsessional need to “capture” her from her husband. Although he views himself as a Prospero-like magician-artist who can effect any kind of magical transformation, he gradually reveals his incorrect evaluations of himself and others. Charles’s novel, the chronicle of his delusions and errors, is a portrait of the “bad” man who refuses to acknowledge the unpredictability and intransigence of reality.
Charles tells the reader that his last great role as an actor was as Prospero in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1611), and he believes he has much in common with Shakespeare’s magician. Despite his statement early in the novel that “Now I shall abjure magic and become a hermit,” he soon begins the direction of his final “drama.” His theatrical vision of the world often obscures reality; not surprisingly, he is overjoyed to discover that what he first called a “diary,” “memoir,” and “autobiography” has become a novel. The change from a journalistic mode of writing to a fictional one parallels his growing tendency to dramatize and fictionalize events, and soon after his announcement that he is indeed writing a novel, he begins to construct an elaborate “story” about Hartley and her marriage. James fails in his attempt to convince his cousin that he is fighting for a “phantom Helen” and that his wish to rescue her is “pure imagination, pure fiction.” Although Charles later admits to the reader that he has created an “image” of Hartley that does not correspond to reality, he denies that his “image” is untrue. His kidnapping of Hartley reveals his need to hold her prisoner in his imagination, to create an aesthetic image he can manipulate for his own purposes. Unlike Bradley Pearson, who finally admits that any kind of final possession of human beings is impossible, Charles continues to believe that he can force Hartley to concede to the planned denouement of his “drama.”
Charles’s attitude toward his novel is related to his dramatic theories, and both have implications for the way his story is interpreted by the reader. He defines the theater as “an attack on mankind carried on by magic,” and its function as being “to victimize an audience every night, to make them laugh and cry and suffer and miss their trains. Of course actors regard audiences as enemies, to be deceived, drugged, incarcerated, stupefied.” Although he claims to take painstaking care to relate events in his novel as truthfully as possible, at one point even reassuring the reader that he is rendering the dialogue almost verbatim, he is delighted by his sudden discovery that language, like dramatic art, can create illusion and veil truth. He says that anything written down is “true in a way” and gloats over the fact that he could write down “all sorts of fantastic nonsense” in his memoir and be believed because of “human credulity” and the power of the written word. He takes an increasing pleasure in fictionalizing his life and in transforming the people around him into “stylish sketches,” acts that reveal his desire to cast his friends and enemies into a drama he can both write and direct. Like Bradley Pearson in The Black Prince, he finds that verbalizing experience can be a way to control what is happening; he also believes that he can dramatically intensify his feelings by writing them out “as a story.” When he writes out his account of the visit of another former girlfriend, Lizzie Scherer, he observes that it would be “rewarding” to “write the whole of one’s life thus bit by bit as a novel.The pleasant parts would be doubly pleasant, the funny parts funnier, and sin and grief would be softened by a light of philosophic consolation.” Murdoch, who has said that the function of art is to reveal reality rather than to console its creator or consumer, portrays Charles as the “bad” artist who attempts to use art and the creative process for solace instead of revelation.
Just as Murdoch’s characters often misuse art and their own creative impulses, they frequently fall in love suddenly and violently, an experience that produces a state of delusion and neurotic obsession. Although she says in The Fire and the Sun that the “lover” can be shocked into an awareness of “an entirely separate reality” during the experience of love, the lover’s ego usually causes him to wish to “dominate and possess” the beloved. The lover, rather than wishing to “serve and adore,” instead wants “to de-realize the other, devour and absorb him, subject him to the mechanism offantasy.” Charles Arrowby’s “Quest of the Bearded Lady,” as one character terms his pursuit of Hartley, exemplifies this dimension of falling in love; his feelings for her are typical of the obsessive, self-centered, fantasy-ridden love that Murdoch believes is antithetical to an objective, free apprehension of others. He admits that he is “like a madman” and compares himself to a “frenzied animal.” Later, he says that “I was sane enough to know that I was in a state of total obsession and that Icould only run continually along the same rat-paths of fantasy and intent.” Unlike his cousin James, who has cultivated the intellectual and spiritual detachment of Eastern philosophy combined with a concern for the well-being and “otherness” of individuals, Charles has a passion for Hartley Fitch that is, at bottom, an obsession with his own past and loss of innocence.
In two earlier novels, An Accidental Man and The Black Prince, Murdoch uses narrative devices such as epistolary and dialogic chapters and the addition of “postscripts” by other characters to alter the reader’s perspective and interpretation of events. In The Sea, the Sea, she allows Charles Arrowby to add a “revision” to his novel that qualifies and contradicts much of his earlier narrative. At the end of the “History” section of The Sea, the Sea, he closes his story on a note of repentance and revelation, goes to sleep hearing “singing,” and awakens to see the seals he had previously been unable to sight.
Murdoch believes that fiction should reflect the “muddle” of reality, and thus she adds a postscript by the narrator appropriately titled “Life Goes On.” Charles begins by mocking his “conclusion” and observing that life, unlike art, “has an irritating way of bumping and limping on, undoing conversions, casting doubt on solutions”; he then decides to continue his story a while longer, this time in the form of a “diary” in which he alters his own version of events and reveals that he has learned very little from them. In this way, Murdoch further reduces the stature of her “failed Prospero,” and the picture of Charles that emerges in the postscript is that of a rapidly aging man with an incipient heart condition. Another addition to the group of “power figures” in Murdoch’s fiction who believe that they can “invent” reality and manipulate other people for aesthetic purposes, Charles Arrowby represents Murdoch’s belief in the final impossibility of one human being’s controlling another. In The Sea, the Sea, the would-be director who thought himself a “god” or “king” is revealed as a relatively powerless individual over whom the formlessness and unpredictability of “transcendent reality” triumphs.
The Good Apprentice
Murdoch’s most critically acclaimed novel of the 1980’s is The Good Apprentice, a novel that reflects her continuing desire to write fiction whose length and complexity embody her belief in a contingent, infinitely particularized universe in which goodness is easily discussed but achieved, if at all, with great difficulty and pain. The “good apprentice” can refer to either of two characters in the novel. Edward Baltram has recently been responsible for the death of his best friend and is attempting to deal with his resulting guilt and self-hatred; Stuart Cuno, his stepbrother, is, like many other Murdochian characters, seeking goodness and finding it a problematical goal.
Murdoch make Stuart Cuno the mouthpiece of some of her most cherished ideas about the nature of goodness. Like Murdoch, Stuart acknowledges that goodness is often an unimaginable concept that involves inaction rather than action, and several times in the story he is referred to as a “negative presence.” Stuart has rejected the entire concept of God and instead attempts to meditate blankly, to empty his mind in order to perceive clearly, what Murdoch calls “an instinctive craving for nothingness which was also a desire to be able to love and enjoy and ’touch’ everything, to help everything.” Psychoanalyst Thomas McCaskerville, who stands in direct opposition to Stuart’s nontheoretical approach to goodness, catechizes the younger man at length in an important conversation that reveals Thomas’s dependence on the cozy theories of psychoanalysis that Murdoch had mocked in her earlier novels. Thomas has a conceptual framework for almost any idea or event, and his discovery that his wife Midge has been having an affair with Stuart’s father Harry Cuno only temporarily shocks him out of his comfortable mental and emotional world. His further realization that his supposedly psychotic patient Mr. Blinnet is actually quite sane and has been faking mental illness for years is another blow at Thomas’s carefully constructed theoretical world.
It is the artist Jesse Baltram, Edward’s father, who best represents one of the most enduring and interesting figures in Murdoch’s fiction, the magician-artist power figure who mysteriously spellbinds those around him and functions as a catalyst for many important events. Edward goes to Seegard, Jesse’s home, to be “healed” and “purified” of his friend’s death. In the process he meets May Baltram, Jesse’s wife, his two half sisters, and, finally, his father, who has been reduced by an unspecified illness to childlike behavior and incoherence. Jesse’s difficulty in making rational conversation is another alternative in the novel to Stuart’s “blankness” and “whiteness” and Thomas’s frenziedly articulate philosophizing: It signifies that the logical ordering principle of language ultimately cannot describe or explain a reality that is always “boiling over” with energy and creativity. Jesse’s description of the world and the relationship between good and evil, in which syntax and logic break down, is directly opposed to the other characters’ slick facility with language. He tells Edward, “What I knew once—about good and evil and those—all those things—people don’t really have them, meet them—in their lives at all, most people don’t—only a few—want that—that fight, you know—think they want—good—have to have evil—not real, either—of course—all inside something else—it’s a dance—you see—world needs power—always round and round—it’s all power and—energy—which sometimes—rears up its beautiful head—like a dragon—that’s the meaning of it all—I think—in the shadows now—can’t remember—doesn’t matter—what I need—is a long sleep—so as to dream it all—over again.”
Jesse’s connection with the supernatural and paranormal dimension of Edward’s stay at Seegard reveals Murdoch again experimenting with the limits of realistic fiction. As in The Sea, the Sea, she is willing to force the reader to accept the unexplained and acknowledge the thin line between the natural and the supernatural, between distortion of perception and a glimpse into another world where the usual rational rules no longer apply. The Good Apprentice shows Murdoch at the height of her powers as a novelist, combining her “moral psychology” with her long-held aesthetic theories in a work that proves the undiminished fecundity of her imagination and intelligence.
The Book and the Brotherhood
In another important novel of the 1980’s, The Book and the Brotherhood, Murdoch’s power figure is as charismatic as Jesse but is neither impotent nor incoherent. David Crimond is an intellectual of the far Left (the communists kicked him out for being too radical). Years ago at Oxford, a group of Crimond’s friends pledged to support him while he wrote the volume of revolutionary economic and social philosophy they thought world needed. Years later, although Crimond’s book remains unpublished, his intellectual, personal, and even sexual power over the group remains undiminished. The novel shows how the friends try to define their moderating political views in relation to Crimond’s.
The novel also shows how the friends and their friends try to make peace with the world. Each yearns for fulfillment, though in widely different ways—some of them touching, some admirable, some reprehensible. Gerard, perhaps the novel’s central character, yearns for a vague something (his yearning began with his affection for his pet parrot, as described in one of Murdoch’s most brilliant passages). Rose, a passive woman, yearns for Gerard. Duncan yearns for his wife, who yearns for Crimond. Jenkins, a saintly schoolmaster, yearns for a perfect act. Other characters are less important but stranger. At the end of an Oxford party, Gulliver is awakened by a deer’s kiss; later he has a paranormal experience in a London railway station. Other inexplicable forces are exerted by buried Roman roads and by Church rituals performed by an unbelieving priest.
The Book and the Brotherhood offers no certainties, for neither Crimond’s ideas nor Gerard’s refutations are convincing. It shows a wide spectrum of memorable characters yearning earnestly and sometimes comically toward some things they cannot fully define.
The Green Knight
Murdoch’s last great novel, The Green Knight, is one of her most perplexing. The story is bizarre. It often resembles (but does not strictly parallel) that of the medieval narrative poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. In its central act, Murdoch once again pushes the bounds of realism. One dark night in a public park, Lucas Graffe, while attempting to kill his brother Clement with a baseball bat, hits a third man instead and kills him. Later, like the medieval Green Knight, the supposedly dead man reappears. His name is Peter Mir, and he is this novel’s powerful magician; he is alive and demands justice. His demand is worked out in a way that also recalls Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. (Mir also is said to resemble Mr. Pickwick, Prospero, the Minotaur, and Mephistopheles.)
The stories of other characters encircle the central one. Clement hopelessly loves Louise Anderson, whose magical house contains three wonderful daughters about to begin life’s journey. The most mysterious is Moy, who can move small stones at a distance. The Andersons keep a dog named Anax, one of Murdoch’s finest animal creations. His master, Bellamy, gave him away to embark on a spiritual quest for which he is ill suited. At one point Anax, who may embody the goodness of the flesh, escapes and tries to find his master in an anxious lope through the streets of London.
Murdoch’s conclusion of this novel may not satisfy everyone, but the journey through the novel is exciting and rewarding. Her last novel, Jackson’s Dilemma, has many high spots, but it is often confusing. By the time the reviews appeared, her Alzheimer’s disease had progressed so far that she could not understand them.