Iris Murdoch World Literature Analysis
In her essay “Against Dryness,” Murdoch writes:The connection between art and the moral life has languished because we are losing our sense of form and structure in the moral world itself. . . . [W]hat we require is a renewed sense of the difficulty and complexity of the moral life and the opacity of persons.
In novel after novel, Murdoch addresses the problems of living a moral life, as her characters strive painfully to seek the Good. In a series of Gifford lectures delivered in 1982, Murdoch speaks about Plato’s allegory of the cave and the sun. The soul, traveling through four stages of enlightenment, continues to discover that what it considered realities are only shadows of something else. Thus moral change may be considered a progressive discarding of the false “good,” of images and shadows that are eventually recognized as false.
Central to this concept of moral change is the idea of Eros, or love. Sexual love and transformed sexual energy are a major motif in Murdoch’s novels, particularly in A Severed Head (1961), The Italian Girl (1964), The Black Prince, and The Sea, the Sea. In novel after novel, love both blinds the characters and allows them a clearer vision of reality in a typical Murdoch dichotomy. Maturity is often achieved by falling “out of love.” No other writer does a better job of evoking the changed consciousness that love brings.
Yet for all of their philosophical underpinnings, her novels provide a brilliant and satisfying entertainment. Murdoch said that she sought to write in the realistic tradition of nineteenth century English and European fiction. Prominent features of her plots include such time-honored novelistic devices as unexpected meetings, lost or found letters, forgotten keys, coincidence, and accidents. All of them testify to the role of chance in human affairs.
Although critics have carped that her novels are “over plotted” and uneven, she has a gift for intricate double plots. This dual patterning is one of the characteristics of her fiction; the characters are frequently paired with one another symmetrically, such as the pairing of Martin and Antonia with Anderson and his half sister, Honor Klein, in A Severed Head. The action itself is often repeated with slight variations, as in The Bell (1958) and A Word Child (1975).
As to the characters themselves, Murdoch tends to create upper-middle-class worlds peopled with certain types who reappear from novel to novel. Young, cunning women who are fierce in their pursuit of older men are often present. The older men are usually self-centered charmers who are weak, self-indulgent, and skeptical. They are often found out as adulterers and practice petty deceptions as long as they can. Her male characters are not of the conventionally firm, masculine kind, but they usually change during the novel.
Some of the most interesting of Murdoch’s creations are power figures, whom Murdoch once called “alien gods.” These are frequently men (although Honor Klein, in A Severed Head, falls into this category), and they are mostly Middle European refugees—rootless, suffering types. Sometimes Jewish, these figures are often demonic in their effects on others; when they do not function this way, they are simply mute, passive sufferers. Murdoch always keeps such characters at a distance, and the reader is never afforded an inner view of their nature.
The women in her novels cannot be classified as easily, although the vague, artsy “mistress” type does appear often. Murdoch’s women are difficult to discuss because of their great variety. Although critics have remarked that her characters sometimes become subordinated to the plot of the story, at her best she lavishes a kind of love on the persons she depicts.
Murdoch had an intense, visual imagination and could describe people, places, houses, clothes, and even dogs with a luminous accuracy. London is a real presence in her novels; this tendency is most apparent in her first novel, Under the Net, in
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