Iris Murdoch Iris Murdoch Long Fiction Analysis

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Iris Murdoch Long Fiction Analysis

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

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...

(The entire section is 10,340 words.)